In July 1783, after the cessation of war between the American colonies and England, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, Sir Joseph Banks,
“I join with you most cordially in rejoicing at the return of peace. I hope it will be lasting, and that mankind will at length, as they call themselves reasonable creatures, have reason and sense enough to settle their differences without cutting throats: for in my opinion there never was a good war, or a bad peace.”
He continued pragmatically but added a lament for human suffering, “What vast additions to the conveniences and comforts of living might mankind have acquired, if the money spent in wars had been employed in works of public utility. What an extension of agriculture even to the tops of our mountains; what rivers rendered navigable, or joined by canals; what bridges, aqueducts, new roads and other public works, edifices and improvements, rendering England a complete paradise, might not have been obtained by spending those millions in doing good which in the last war have been spent in doing mischief! In bringing misery into thousands of families, and destroying the lives of so many thousands of working people who might have performed the useful labor.”1
Later that year, in September, after concluding a peace treaty with England in Paris, Franklin repeated himself in a letter to another old friend, Dr. Josiah Quincy, “We are now Friends with England and with all Mankind. May we never see another War! for in my Opinion there never was a good War, or a bad Peace.”
Franklin was wise and humane. But the peace treaty Franklin labored so diligently to achieve did not last, and wars have continued to plague humanity since then, growing in intensity, waste, and misery. The world is now witnessing what may be the worst possible example of a unjust, destructive, and horrifying war in Ukraine, one that threatens to draw much of the world into even more deadly conflict.
The Russian president has justified the unprovoked and bloody invasion by claiming “neo-Nazis” rule Ukraine, threatening Russia’s security, in addition to pursuing genocide against Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern provinces — charges Ukrainian and Western governments insist are baseless propaganda. It is another Great Lie used to justify violence, destruction, and death in the quest for power.
There were several “lesser” but no less consequential lies when Mr. Putin and other Russian officials repeatedly insisted as late as January 27th that there were no plans to invade or occupy Ukraine, even as tens of thousands of infantry, tanks, and missile-launchers were ringing the much smaller country. Lying is, after all, contagious. In the words of that wise poet, “Oh what a tangled web we weave When first we practice to deceive [Sir Walter Scott, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field].
Today’s readings, as we conclude the period of “ordinary time” in the Church’s calendar before undertaking the penitential season of Lent, provide a
telling commentary on the sins of speech, call them what you will – lying, prevarication, dissimulation, spin, or “alternate facts.” Even old Aristotle knew well what lying meant: saying that something is true when you know it is false. Lying, moreover is wedded to hypocrisy, doing the very things we denounce others for doing. It was the sin Jesus most frequently railed against.
The first reading, chosen no doubt for its echo in Jesus’ own words, sets the tone:
“… in his conversation is the test of a man. The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does a man’s speech disclose the bent of his mind” [Sirach 27:5-6].
The words of Jesus about honest speech with which Luke ends today’s gospel passage are preceded, fittingly and characteristically, by a long diatribe about hypocrisy – looking for and proclaiming evidence of malfeasance by others when comfortably overlooking it in our own case, which, after all, is so wonderfully excusable. Or so we wish!
“…each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks”[Luke 6:44-45].
The temptation to lie is perhaps pandemic, which is tragic. More so, the willingness of many to believe the lie. God grant that our hearts and those of all are filled with love, peace, and patience that find utterance in our actions as well as our words. The truth alone can make us free.