Slanting the truth

Our reports may be factual but slanted and even misleading.

J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

It is difficult to create an environment in which individuals are expected on the one hand to obey orders unquestioningly and on the other to speak their minds freely." So wrote William J. Crowe, recently retired chair man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, near the end of his Ph.D. dissertation.

When Crowe left Princeton after completing a doctorate in politics, he determined to always speak his mind. However, he soon discovered that independent thinking wasn't always appreciated.

In 1967 Crowe headed the East Asia and Pacific Branch of O6, the U.S. Navy's politico-military division. Asked by a senior officer to prepare a memo on why a particular Air Force position was full of holes, Crowe studied the matter and wrote a paper concluding that the Air Force argument was acceptable.

Crowe's boss told him, "We didn't send you up there [to Princeton] to come back with new ideas. We sent you up there to learn how to write and represent the ideas we've got. If we want you to do original thinking, we'll let you know about it."

We like to think that what we preach, write, or publish represents the whole truth about the church. Yet, like Admiral Crowe, we feel pressure always to paint the church in the best possible light. Our reports may be factual but slanted and even misleading as far as the truth is concerned. It is not always what we say that is so important, but what we leave out!

For example, a pastor has a history of making sexual advances to the women in his congregation. He may not have acted unwisely enough to warrant dismissal from the pastorate, but he certainly has worn out his welcome in that congregation. So the conference leadership arranges with another conference for him to be transferred to another district. His wife is seeking a new job, and the ideal one opens up in that location. His wife's job need is given as the reason for moving, which is certainly true. But the real reason is omitted.

No lies have been told, yet certain facts left out distort the truth. If they were given they might prevent the planned move.

An executive committee discusses a large financial item. No money can be spent until the committee authorizes it. The comments and questions of the committee members seem to indicate that if the motion is put to a vote, it will fail. The presenter finally has to admit to the group that a subcommittee has already contracted with a certain party to do the work, and therefore they are morally if not legally bound to pay the amount.

If the members had voted in favor without any questioning, no one would have known of the unauthorized action. And in the presenting of the need for the money, no lies were told. But neither was the whole truth told. The truth was slanted. Naturally the presenter felt embarrassed to admit that a mistake had been made. But how much better to have been candid from the beginning. When we slant the truth, many people wonder whether other actions taken may not be as pure as they seem either.

Ellen White, in commenting on the words of Jesus that our yea be yea, says: "Even facts may be so stated as to convey a false impression. And 'whatsoever is more than' truth 'is of the evil one.' "

"Everything that Christians do should be as transparent as the sunlight. Truth is of God; deception, in every one of its myriad forms, is of Satan." (Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 68).

Telling the whole truth

So how should a pastor or church executive act when faced with the question of whether to slant the truth? Admiral Crowe faced that issue many times.

Crowe was asked to write a paper for the secretary of defense concerning Geneva Accord violations arising out of the Vietnam War. He wrote what he considered a balanced paper, pointing out that while North Vietnam had certainly violated some of the accords, so had the United States.

His immediate superior reacted furiously. In fact, he was so angry that he called together all his staff and lectured them on how a junior officer had written many misconceptions about Vietnam. He ordered Crowe to submit a rewrite, leaving out any culpability on the part of the United States.

This left Crowe with a moral dilemma. He had to obey his superior officer, but he also had to tell the truth. His solution was to blur his writing. After he turned it in he never heard about it again.

We may believe that slanting the truth benefits the organization, but the end never justifies the means. Credibility is also important to an organization, its leaders, and its members. Better not to speak than to slant the truth. The whole truth must always be our goal.

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J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

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