“The Human Race has a Lying Problem”
George Washington and the Cherry Tree is one of the most signature stories from America’s earliest days. It’s most familiar rendering is found in a book by Mason Locke Weems that has this title: Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes Equally Honourable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen.
Six year old George is caught red-handed which is to say axe-in-hand by his father Augustine, who has noticed that a mortal slice has been taken out of one of his prize cherry trees. Does George happen to know anything about it?
Weems writes: “Looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth” he bravely called out: “I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”
Weems book which was published in 1806, became a national bestseller, going through 20 editions. It’s one of the chief reasons that cherry concoctions became associated with February 22, Washington’s birthday. Likewise, the story became a powerful mandate for generations of children: Tell The Truth. Always Tell The Truth.
The only problem with that story is that it almost certainly did not happen. Weems appears to have made it up.
Social Historian Bill Bryson comments that Weems, who called himself Parson Weems, was “not just a fictionalizer of rare gifts but a consummate liar.” Even the page was misleading. Weems identified himself as the “Rector of Mount Vernon Parish.” But no such parish has ever existed. Weems apparently felt it would be a good idea to make up stories to teach children not to lie.
The human race has a lying problem. According to a study overseen by University of Massachusetts professor Robert Feldman, people tell 3.3 lies during an average 10 minute conversation. Some 59% of parents admit to lying to their children on a regular basis. (i.e. McDonald’s is closed today)
According to author James Bryan Smith, HR experts estimate that approximately 25% of information that appears on resumes is not just padding but gross misinformation. Investigators estimate that lies told by auto mechanics compel American consumers to cough up some $40 billion annually for unnecessary repairs.
Why do we do it? No one can claim it’s ok to shade the truth because the Bible’s ethical standards are ambiguous. Proverbs is uncompromising in its truth telling: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.” (Proverbs 12:22) “A truthful witness saves lives, but one who breathes out lies is deceitful.” (Proverbs 14:25)
Almost all lying comes down to impression management. We don’t like the way things are so we propose alternate realities.
Church people are tempted to do for Jesus what Parson Weems tried to do for George Washington. But the reputation of our first President didn’t need to be enhanced by made-up stories. And the cause of the One who called himself the Way, the Truth and the Life won’t be advanced by our dressing up our own spiritual experiences. St. Paul says in Ephesians 4:15 that we are to” speak the truth in love.” We must abandon lies.
But Love is what should lead us with wisdom and discernment to speak with caution. With humility. With grace.
And frankly-if we’re really wise-to stop speaking altogether when silence would be clearly an improvement.
Ron Naylor, Chaplain