April 16, 2015
What About Honesty?
At tax time I think of my father, a mechanical engineer, a meticulous and excruciatingly honest person. He used to pour over his tax return, calculating and recalculating. He was not trying to save money or gain deductions; he wanted to be absolutely sure he was paying every dollar to the government that was owed. Growing up, both my parents were sticklers about honesty. Early on my brother and I learned whatever trouble we might be in, punishment would be severe, indeed, if we were dishonest. If we admitted our guilt, we might still be punished but it would be minimal compared to what would happen if we tried to lie. “Honesty was the best policy.”
It still is! I think most of us truly value honesty and practice it. I remember years ago being in Florence, Italy, with a small group; one of the women lost her wallet somewhere near the Ponte Vecchio. We feared it was the result of pickpockets. The following day the police contacted our hotel; her wallet had been found, complete with all her money and credit cards and the finder had walked several extra blocks to turn it in to the police station. This kind of thing happens with regularity. Like my father, most people make the extra effort to be honest!
We expect honesty from leaders and persons with special responsibility. Dishonesty in public life has led to a great deal of cynicism about politicians, even though some politicians have modeled honesty. The same is sadly true in the Church. Most Church leaders take personal morality very seriously. If you can’t trust your priest or bishop, who can you trust? When Heather Cook entered a plea of “not guilty” earlier this month almost no one was surprised. I heard good Church people say, “She had to plead not-guilty so she could bargain down the charges—everybody does it.” I had a lawyer friend say to me, “She couldn’t plead ‘guilty’; is she had the judge would have meted out a punishment far in excess of her crime.” Criminal justice often boils down to plea bargaining; I understand this is the way it’s done these days, but I do not believe this is justice! Justice is flawed when dishonesty is employed. Morality is threatened when we accept dishonesty as normative. I don’t know how we can get our courts back to a better standard of honesty, but I do know we are currently sending a dangerous message.
Dishonesty is a characteristic of people suffering from substance-abuse, but when they begin to recover, they re-discover the importance of honesty. Friends of mine in recovery readily talk about their substance abuse, readily admit they used to deceive themselves as well as others. Honesty for them is a lifeline on their road to recovery, a means to reestablishing credibility and trustworthiness. I really believe my father was right: “Honesty is the best policy,” almost without exception.