Mendacium Offisiosum

Today's article is a feature from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit

On April 30, 2014, the Don Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling was awarded to Edward J. Snowden and Laura Poitras at the National Press Club for their role in exposing a set of documents revealing widespread American government surveillance. The former intelligence officer who first sprang the leaks and the documentary journalist and film-maker who helped him obtain much of the information were cited for their work in exposing the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of millions of people. While admitting the Snowden decision was controversial, selection committee member Danielle Brian added that this “does not diminish the fact that his exposure of NSA domestic surveillance has had an extraordinary impact on the public policy debate — we are already seeing movement in the Congress and the White House directly because of his truth-telling.”

"Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped" -Edward Snowden

"Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped" -Edward Snowden

The purpose of the annual Ridenhour Prize is to recognize acts of truth-telling that are in the public interest, and to “promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society.” Ron Ridenhour had written a letter to Congress and the Pentagon in 1969 describing the horrors of the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, bringing the outrage to the attention of the American people.

One of the moral issues raised by the actions of Snowden and Poitras is the sanctity of truth. In the Old Testament, truth-telling is deeply connected with the concerns of justice. The ninth commandment puts it starkly: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” More than one witness was required for serious accusations (Dt. 17:6; 19:15). Bribery is roundly denounced (Ex. 18:21; Dt. 16:18-20). Premature or rash judgments are condemned (1 Cor. 4:5; Jude 9). If judges no longer have integrity, then the foundations of society are destroyed (Amos 5:7; Ps. 11:3). Whether or not they were guided by these biblical principles, Snowden and Poitras believed this kind of government deception was immoral.

However, is lying always wrong? Clearly the mendacium perniciosum, the malicious lie, is forbidden. The Hebrew word shequer in the ninth commandment includes lying, falsehood, and deception. But the context of the commandment is one of protecting one’s neighbor’s integrity. What of deception during warfare or for national security interests? Is there ever a mendacium officiosum, or lie of necessity? Many have argued that there can be no such thing. To the well-worn example of hiding Jews in the closet from the Nazis, they would answer that you should keep silent but never deceive. This is neither practical (the Nazis were many things, but not stupid) nor does it recognize specific biblical precedent. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew midwives lied to their interrogators about the rapid birth of their infant males, and were praised for fearing God. Rahab deceived the King of Jericho about the whereabouts of the spies, and was praised for her faith. The women of Bahurim camouflaged the hiding place of David’s allies.

The arguments by some claiming their faith was approved, though their words were not, is contrived. Words are the fruit of faith. God himself recommended military deception when he told Joshua to organize an ambush against Ai (Josh. 8:1-26; see 2 Sam. 5:22-25). The point is that in wartime, deception is sometimes the only possible tactic. In a military setting, the ninth commandment does not apply, at least directly. While we are not in a declared war against everyone harboring volatile information, the same security concerns are involved. Perhaps a more trivial analogy is helpful. When playing soccer, a good deal depends on the “faint.” A quick body faint to the left, then kick the ball to the right; gazing at the upper right corner of the goal, then striking the ball into the lower left…In a card game we often speak of a “poker face.” Although warfare is hardly a game, there are occasions that merit actual deception.

Were Snowden and Poitras right to blow the cover of the NSA? Is the government always wrong to keep secret information from its citizens? Or may it practice the mendacium offisiosum for the protection of its people? Clearly Snowden and Poitras could no longer live with their conscience when confronted with government deception. But were they naïve about the necessities of war? Or has the government gone too far in justifying eavesdropping? Do people always have a right to know everything? Are secrets never appropriate? The point here is not to answer the question of Snowden and Poitras precisely, but to raise the moral issues. A good deal is at stake for America or any country in applying the principles rightly. Striking the balance between cultivating the truth and the proper exercise of military stratagem requires great wisdom and a commitment to the high standards of the Word of God.

- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.