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FIRST-PERSON: Are those your words or someone else’s?

TOPEKA, Kan. (BP)–Comedian Milton Berle made a living doing it. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose had to admit he had done it. And millions and millions of people do it via e-mail every day.

Plagiarism is the literary term for it — using someone else’s material but passing it off as your own.

Berle said he never told an original joke, because he always stole them from other comedians. Most believe he was a brilliant comedian who just used “stealing jokes” as his lifelong stick.

However, Ambrose recently had to publicly admit he had used material from another historian and failed to acknowledge credit. This was only after numerous stories in newspapers and on the nightly television news.

As for those who use the Internet and communicate by e-mail, many are guilty of forwarding material they “copy,” or just right-clicking and copying that photograph or clipart from a website.

Late last year Piper High School teacher Christine Pelton gave her students an assignment on a botany project.

The researching is where the problem began. When students turned in their projects, Pelton discovered 28 of 118 students had taken large amounts of their reports verbatim from the Internet and not referenced the source.

Pelton used an online service that allows teachers to check papers for plagiarism. The Kansas teacher gave those 28 sophomores a zero for the project.

Parents and school board members became outraged, demanding the students receive a better grade. They justified that the students’ copying was innocent because they were unaware it was stealing. Other parents insisted the failing grades would diminish their children’s chances of getting into a good college.

Early in February the school board voted and directed the students’ grades be raised, despite the objections of Pelton, her principal and the school district’s superintendent.

Pelton took it one step further and chose to resign in protest.

In a somewhat related action, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to look at copyright protections to see if Congress has gone too far in preserving the rights of authors and musicians.

Societal habits tend to creep into the life of the church. Plagiarism is commonplace on Sunday mornings. Not all pastors and teachers do it, but many do.

They tell a story, sometimes making it sound like it happened to them, when it really happened to Rick Warren or Charles Stanley, never once letting on where they retrieved the touching story that brought a tear to the congregation’s eyes.

Just a reference. Just a moment telling where the illustration or statistic originated will give credence.

George Barna in a recent study he found that, “By a 3-to-1 margin (64% vs. 22%) adults said truth is always relative to the person and their situation. The perspective was even more lopsided among teenagers, 83% of whom said moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only 6% of whom said moral truth is absolute.”

Jesus made it quite clear in the Sermon on the Mount. “But let your word ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).

Is our yes, yes? If not, how will those who do not know Christ see any difference in our lives? Pledge to be faithful. Keep your word. Make them your words, not anyone else’s.
Randy Cowling is editor of The Baptist Digest, newsjournal for Kansas-Nebraska Southern Baptists.

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  • Randy Cowling