How many white lies is too many?

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David Hines


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David Hines © 22 October 2017


I got a surprise recently to count how many white lies I had told in a single week, or deliberate evasions to keep people in the dark and my score was five. I should add a couple to that for the times when other people said things that were wrong; and I zipped my lip, and deliberately left them with a false impression, because the truth was not something I was not ready to talk about with those people.

And of course there have been dozens of these white lies in the media over the couple of months of the election campaign. I think Winston Peters probably holds the record; and people complained, but not that much’ we appreciated that everyone stretches the truth at election time.

And looking through history … there are heaps more examples. Sometimes people lie for a good reason, to spare people’s feelings. But since I’ve done so much of it lately, I thought it’s time I should do a reality check, and say …. in some of these, there was no good reason.

About your religion

One white lie I’m always telling is about my religion. I’m a Christian atheist, and that’s the truth. But I must admit sometimes, depending on the company, I say I’m a Christian, and at other times, depending on the company I say I’m an atheist. Which are both true, but it’s very misleading for me to sometimes to say one and not the other.

I got caught out doing this about a month ago. I was on this Facebook discussion and a newcomer asked if there were any religious people in our group. And I replied, yes I’m a Christian. And he donated a couple of hundred dollars. But a few days later he found I was also an atheist and he wanted his money back. I didn’t lie; I just didn’t tell the whole truth.

A little evasion like this happened right here two weeks ago.

Our speaker was a Salvation Army officer, there was a sort of cheerleader with him, who said how good it was that Jesus came to save us all. And I felt like saying: Excuse me we’re not all Christians here, but something stopped me, and maybe stopped many other people. Was it politeness that stopped us, because it’s not courteous to point out other people’s mistakes?

I think I will add this to my list of evasions to draw the line at. If we are welcoming strangers, we shouldn’t pretend to be something we aren’t. It’s a bit sensitive, but we don’t need to be rude about it.

White lies in politics

Politics is full of white lies. I voted Labour; and one of their policies I like best is they were hoping to bring in a capital gains tax. But they never actually said it. Their previous leader Andrew Little had said they were going to set up a working group to study a capital gains tax. But he didn’t say what I had hoped for: that a capital gains tax would be fairer, and it would catch income from rich people who hardly pay any tax, and would also help slow the housing crisis.

Jacinda Ardern obviously felt Andrew Little had been a bit too timid on this idea, so she inched a little closer to the truth and said if the working group favoured a capital gains tax, she might introduce it before the next election. Which shows their beliefs a bit more openly. But it was still a bit evasive wasn’t it?. They were obviously scared of losing votes from some people, but they lost those votes anyway, because people guessed what their really intentions were, and it looked like they were lying about them. They weren’t lying, but they weren’t telling the whole truth,

So they rejigged their story back to where Andrew Little had left it…. but they got hammered for it anyway.

There must be a better way: Surely, they could have said: we believe capital gains taxes are fairer, and would like to work out the best version we can; we will consult about the details.

White political lies from Jesus

As a Christian, I still read the Christian lectionary whenever I’m taking a service, and one of the readings set down for today, is about an avoidance of the truth by Jesus, and would you believe, it too was about taxes!!! It’s the reading I used at the start of this service!

Jesus was speaking in public, and was thrown a very dirty question from the audience, whether it was right for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. Some Jews thought you should; some thought you shouldn’t. So he was going to get some criticism whichever answer he gave, as you do with questions about tax. But Jesus didn’t give a straight answer.

And like a tricky debater, he threw the question back at his critics, with a sarcastic remark thrown in.

He said: “You hypocrites, Show me the coin that’s used for the tax. And they were embarrassed to admit they actually used roman coins. And he embarrassed them even more by asking whose portrait was on the coin and who’se title. And they said, the Roman emperor’s. And part of the embarrassment wss that jews did not believe in having pictures of any person in their possession, much less of the hated Roman emperor.

And then He said; give the emperor what belongs to him and give god what belongs to him.

So did Jesus believe Jews should pay tax. Well, he never answered the question.

If that doesn’t sound sneaky to you, I’d compare it with another early Christian, St Paul, who several times wrote in his letters: Be subject to the governing authorities. These authorities are instituted by God. Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due.

Now that’s the straight answer. Why couldn’t Jesus say this?

And i’d guess it was because he disagreed with Paul on this question. he could see the harm these taxes were doing, bankrupting people in occupied countries. but he was not going to say this, for fear of his life, and the lives of other people who were stirring this issue up.

But Jesus did get killed anyway. And this statement may have helped. In luke 23, Jesus was dragged before the roman governor, and the accusers said: we found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor. So people got the impression Jesus was opposed to taxes, even though he avoided actually saying it.

So you can’t blame Jesus for mincing his words.. It was a very dangerous subject.

But even avoiding the issue doesn’t work; because many people will guess the answer anyway.

Other political fears

Shifty language was all over our election campaign, not just about taxes. Another ongoing white lie was Labour, National and the Greens all afraid to criticise Winston Peters, in case they ended up needing him to bolster their own numbers in a coalition.

All very unpleasant, but also very understandable. I would not blame any of these people. I think we should go a bit easier on our politicians; they have to make compromises.

Closer to home

I can think of times when I have avoided telling people who are seriously ill that they could die, and avoiding telling their relatives, or telling young children. Or keeping it secret from other relatives, that one of their relatives is seriously ill, in case they might cause a fuss.

All of this was out of genuine sympathy. I occasionally spoke out against this, but mostly went along with it. And as I said there were five such experiences in a single week.

These white lies can cause harm. When you keep things this hidden, people cannot plan their death, they cannot plan their funeral, they cannot alter their will, and their friends cannot gather round to support them.

Buddha’s story

The biggest white lie in all the historic references I could find, was of a prince in Nepal, whose father didn’t want him to see anything harmful. There is a story, that may be a legend, that somebody predicted that the young prince would be a great leader, provided he never saw an old person, a sick person, or a dead person. But if he did see one of these things, he would cease to be prince and would become a religious leader.

So the prince’s father built the palace had high walls, so no old people, or sick people would be seen, and nobody would die there. But when the prince grew up, he had a healthy curiosity, and took a look outside, and when he saw an old person, he was shocked, so somebody explained to him; old age happens to us all.

And then he saw a sick person, and was even more shocked. And somebody explained that this too happens to all of us

And then he saw a funeral procession and I think saw the dead body in the procession, and was triply shocked.

So he gave up being a prince and set out trying to unravel the mystery of suffering and death.

And he did become a great spiritual leader, one of the greatest ever, the Buddha.

And he spent a number of years meditating about it, following other religious leaders; sometimes in forms of extreme denial that nearly starved himself to death.

When he was in this state, a woman insisted on giving him some food, and it woke him up to the need to care for himself as well as others.

Among his discoveries were the middle way in self-sacrifice, the need to face to the reality of suffering, and disease, ageing and death. This was seen by himself and others as his moment of enlightenment. And it was reversing the white lie that his parents had told him as a child.

And his final move was when he believed the gods were calling him to share this enlightenment with others.

My experience of this

My own thinking on this issue did a U-turn about 1970, when I was a Methodist minister. And even then I was a sceptic, and didn’t believe in life after death. And I was fairly straight about it.

Except during funeral services. I had two explanations for my avoidance:

  • Many of these families were not church people and I figured they didn’t want to know about my peculiar beliefs; I was just a representative Methodist, there to comfort them.
  • Other services were for loyal church members, and my explanation for not talking about my views to them was that they already knew what I thought, and didn’t want it rubbed in at a time of grieving.
  • But like Buddha hitting an exception to his childhood experience, one day I was asked to take a funeral for a child who had died soon after he was born. My dilemma, the parents were not church members; I don’t think I had seen them before. But the grandparents and many other relatives were pillars of the church that I met every Sunday.
  • So how could I avoid this painful diversity within their own family? The answer I came to was that my job was to be a bridge between these two sides of the family, interpreting the views of one group to the other group.
  • So I said something like: This is a time when some Christians would say, this child has gone to be with God. I don’t share that belief.
  • Other people would say that the child who died would still always be seen as a member of their family. The preparations they had made; the hopes that had built up; the love they had shown would still be a part of who they are.
  • So that was my moment of avoiding white lies … I have said similar things at every funeral I have led ever since.


So white lies are not a crime; they are a legitimate defence against painful events or painful differences of opinion. But there is usually a better way: to tell the truth sensitively, and share it, and learn to become a better person, and a more resilient community in the process.
And in the same way, white lies have become part of our public lives, and our politics. But it would be better to reduce the demand for them, by not demanding miracles from our politicians, and then blaming them when they cannot deliver.
One of the best reasons for not being able to deliver is when you have reach a consensus with others. And this happens all the time with MMP. It is one of the tough facts of life, that your politicians cannot give you everything you want.. Perhaps that would have made a good fourth lesson for the young Buddha – to attend political meetings with his father as he grew up, to discover that even kings and princes don’t always get what they want, let alone people who live in a democracy.