Leviticus and Telling the Truth

This summer, my colleagues and I at the University Church plan to work through a twelve-part series on topics from the book of Leviticus. In a college town like Walla Walla, summers often become moments to step back, take a breath, and recharge for the resumption of the academic year. As a church community on a university campus, our spiritual lives follow this ebb and flow to a degree - but we of course continue to gather together for worship, reflection, teaching, and fellowship. Our thought this summer was to dive into what is often thought of as a rather heavy book, but do so with the light-hearted spirit of summer.

One over-arching theme of Leviticus is the motif of God dwelling among his people. Much of the dialogue in the book follows instructions regarding the tabernacle, worship services, offerings, customs, and purity codes. For a community living in the desert thousands of years ago, it seeks to answer the question: how do we live in communion with a Holy God? And although it is certainly ancient, it still has something to teach us today on the same question. 

This morning as I read from Leviticus, I was struck by a passage from chapter 5. "If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible." While for many, a court room scene is the first thing that materializes in the imagination, for me the picture is different. I immediately go to tobacco companies - to sugar processing operations - to shady drug manufacturers. Organizations that publicly project a squeaky clean or even benevolent persona but in truth poison the populous for profit. Perhaps some power-brokers who get rich on the backs of the suffering of others are ignorant of their sins (a dynamic actually explicitly outlined in the previous chapter of Leviticus). But my internal video-player draws me to the conniving lawyers and financiers who seek to squeeze as many dollars out of their cash cows as possible while simultaneously averting the public's eye to the nefariousness of their product. I think of the "little guy" within their organizations - the man or woman who perhaps is well aware of the damage caused by his/her employer - and yet who is paralyzed from doing anything about it.

Perhaps she is a single mom and needs the job to keep food on the table. Perhaps he is the sole breadwinner for an entire family complete with elderly parents. Perhaps she can't weather the thought of the retaliation likely to come her way if she blows the whistle. Perhaps he is terrified that even if he sticks his neck out, no one will believe him, and it will all be for naught. Perhaps she's proudly loyal - telling the truth in such a situation would seem like the height of betrayal.

Its terrifying to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. In my life, I have certainly never been in a position to do so on the scale of someone like Jeffrey Wigand. And so it is next to impossible for me to guilt-trip or shake my head at the many who are in similar situations, and yet chicken-out. Furthermore, there is certainly a difference between telling the truth when asked, and grandstanding a message on one's own motivation. How many would-be whistleblowers are really out for personal notoriety as opposed to benevolent witnessing? 

But when I read Leviticus 5:1 this morning, the invitation to blow the whistle is never-the-less what I hear. In fact, when I read Leviticus 5:1, I hear a command obligating us to speak up with the truth if we are in the situation to do so. If, by speaking up, I could contribute to halting an injustice - and then fail to do so - the sin of that injustice is on me, Leviticus seems to imply. That's heavy. 

Where are the lines between whistleblowing and gossip? When is speaking up really just an expression of nosiness rather than benevolence? What if the whistleblower is wrong or misunderstood what was really happening within an organization? What if he/she benefits personally from bringing forth testimony? It certainly is a path fraught with danger for layers of new wrongdoing. Motivation is key. And perhaps the moral stickiness tied to this Levitical command is part of why it can seem so terrifying. Even something as simple as propping up one's ego can lead to unjust inquests and accusations that, rather than protect the weak from injustice, hold back God's work in the world. 

Perhaps these and other factors are why the best of would-be whistleblowers weight their options so carefully. If you aren't second-guessing your testimony against injustice, this alone might be a sign that your motive isn't pure or that said injustice isn't quite what you're preparing to make it out to be. And yet at the same time, it is certainly not disloyal to tell the truth. In fact, this text in Leviticus seems to free those of us who are betrayal-sensitive to verbalize what we've seen or what we know with an open heart. To throw a stick into the spokes of the powerful who roll on unconscious of or recalcitrant toward the plight of the weak is not an act of sin, terror, or dishonor. On the contrary, it is among the most loyal things one can do -- and even more so if the organization or person purports to be aligned with the Creator of the universe. 

Are you privy to the truth of organizational or leadership sin? Have you been asked or are you in a position to relay that testimony? Have you kept quiet when given the opportunity to witness to what you have seen out of a sense of loyalty? Perhaps Leviticus 5:1 has something for you today.