What is Truth?
T. Richard Snyder
40 Washington St. #301
Camden, ME 04843
July 15, 2018
O.T. Numbers 22: 21-35
N.T. John 18: 28-38
2000 years ago, Pilate asked a question for the ages. “What is Truth?”
In George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984 the ministry of Truth has carved over its door the following words: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.
When Orwell’s dystopian novel first came out, most of us correctly thought that it was a critique of the Soviet Union. Never in our wildest imagination did we think it might be applicable to the United States. But, tragically, it seems we were wrong. We are drowning in claims of fake news, fake facts, and fake truth. It is almost impossible to believe what we hear. We are living in a surrealistic nightmare of claims and counter-claims, hoping that when we awaken it will disappear. But each day the nightmare becomes more convoluted.
Lying has become the order of the day, the baseline of our culture. Of course, some lying has always been with us and we have grown accustomed to it. We’ve learned to take it with a grain of salt. We’ve been told that this cream will eliminate wrinkles and make us look 20 years younger. We’ve been told that the automobile with imperceptible changes is revolutionary. We’ve been promised that if we invest in this penny stock we will get rich. We have become anesthetized—knowing that we are living with lies.
It’s not only advertisers and huckster sales people. Politicians have been notorious for telling us what we want to hear, of spinning the story to serve their interests. But today things seem much worse. Lying has become a way of life. Everywhere we turn we are accosted by lies and accusations of lies.
Everyone is accusing everyone else of lying. The Washington Post is famous for its’s Pinocchios. Of the 98 claims made by President Trump at his recent rally in Montana, The Washington Post reported almost half were untrue. The President has claimed that the NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC consistently lie. Fox News has accused most main stream media of lying. We read about allegations of police brutality toward blacks, countered with denials, then refuted with cell phone photos.
The historian, Doris Kern Goodwin, not known as a radical left-winger, lamented about the lies we are living with. Speaking of the president she said, “What’s different today and what’s scarier today is these lies are pointed out, and there’s evidence that they’re wrong,” she said. “And yet because of the attacks on the media, there are a percentage of people in the country who are willing to say, ‘Maybe he is telling the truth.’”
But it’s not just the right or the president. Many on the left have derided those who voted for Trump or Scott Walker in Wisconsin or LePage as ignorant, bigoted, or racists. That may be true of some but to conclude that that is why they voted as they did is to miss an important point. The truth is that many of them are feeling marginalized, left behind, and facing an insecure future. They have good reason to want things to change. I’ve recently read The Politics of Resentment by Katherine Cramer and Arli Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land. Cramer wanted to understand why people would vote against their own self-interest, so she interviewed hundreds of people who voted for Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Her conclusion is that they are not crazy or stupid. They correctly feel that the rural communities and people are being sacrificed for the sake of the urban areas. They have experienced downward mobility and are afraid of the future. In large measure their perceptions and fears are true. Hochschild came to a similar conclusion after years of talking with Tea Party supporters in southern Louisiana. To label all those who voted for Trump as ignorant or racist is a lie. We need to face the truth about our divisions.
But discovering the truth is becoming more difficult each day. Fareed Zakaria had a sobering segment about fake videos. Actors using artificial intelligence are now able to create fake videos that are so real it is almost impossible to notice the manipulations. According to him, “We are rapidly approaching the point where a public figure could be made to say anything…It will soon become so easy to make a fake video that there may always be some doubt on all videos… Therefore, the credibility of the media source matters.” In his comments last week, Senator Angus King echoed this potential and asked, how will we know if what we see and hear is truly what was said?
So, who do we believe? Where do we turn? There are so many claims and counter claims about truth and lies that one scarcely knows where to turn.
Pilate’s question to Jesus “What is Truth?” is especially pertinent now. We will never know Pilate’s motivation behind the question. Perhaps he really wanted to know. Or, he may have asked it out of frustration— “Look these religious leaders say you claim to be a king, what do you say? Who should I believe?” Or it may have been purely cynical. “With all these counter claims flying about, how can we ever get to the truth? Maybe there is no truth. So, tell me, Jesus, what is truth?”
My own reactions to what is going on today are similar. Sometimes I wonder who to believe. Sometimes I wonder if we will ever know what’s true.
But before we give in to our cynicism or throw up our hands in despair, I invite you to look at Jesus. —not because he is the only source of truth and certainly not because he addressed all the issues with which we are struggling today—but because I believe that his life and his words offer us a picture of what it means to speak and do the truth. As he said to Pilate— “I was born to testify to the truth.” His life was dedicated to the truth. He even claimed to be the truth—“I am the way the truth and the light.”—that is, watch me if you want to know what’s true. So, even though my understanding of Jesus is unorthodox, I am compelled to look at his life and words to see what he embodied—what he testified to. What was truth for Jesus?
Is it true that war is the answer, that “shock and awe” or “fire and fury” will bring peace? When Jesus was being taken into custody, one of his disciples tried to defend him by taking out his sword and cutting off the ear of one of the men who had come to arrest him—certainly an understandable response. But Jesus rebuked him and said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
Obviously, dealing with enemies is complex and there may be times when militaristic action is called for, but that is not the leaning of the Gospel. As historic Just War theory says, war should be the very last resort. Truth for Jesus was to turn the other cheek, to reject the sword.
Too many of the words that have led us to war have been lies—the gulf of Tonkin attack; Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction; the axis of evil; the equation of Islam with terrorism. Too many of the words that have kept us at war have been lies, twisted truths, or euphemisms: during the Vietnam War, we were constantly told that we were winning, only to be driven out in defeat. Torture has been called enhanced interrogation. The killing of innocent women, children and other non-combatants has been euphemistically labeled collateral damage, etc., etc., etc. So whenever I hear words that try to make the case for war, I am suspicious that we are being fed lies that serve the interests of those in power rather than the truth. Victory at all costs is a lie. The truth is that peace should be our first and most lasting response to any enemy.
Or what about calling a spade a spade? Dare we call someone out for lying or do we simply say that they misspoke? Jesus’ words denouncing those who harmed the weak, the marginal and the oppressed were specific and unrelenting. When he entered the Temple, he found moneychangers taking advantage of the poor by selling doves at exorbitant prices to those who couldn’t afford to bring their own animal sacrifice. So, he drove them out and denounced them as having made God’s temple a den of thieves He did not equalize the blame for what was going on in the temple by saying that the poor should be smarter or better prepared. He did not say that the problem was caused by “all sides.” Nor did he wait for several days to be specific about who was to blame for the desecration of the temple. For him, truth involved confronting the evildoers there and then and calling them out for what they were doing.
And what is truth when it comes to the sick? Is healthcare a privilege to be enjoyed by those who can afford it or is it a right of every human being? Jesus constantly went out of his way to care for those who were sick. His life and ministry were characterized by his concern for the infirmed. In his day, to have an infirmity meant that one was cast to the margins of society—unwanted and even suspect. To be sick was considered to be a sign that one was to blame for their condition. We are facing the same question today with respect to opioid and heroin addiction. For years, drug addicts have been criminalized. Now, many understand drug addiction to be a disease rather than a crime. It’s too bad that this realization is late in coming—now that drugs are so much a white problem. Very few considered blacks who were crackheads to be anything but criminals.
Jesus understood the truth about sickness and disease. “Who sinned?” the disciples asked him when they came upon a man who was blind, “this man or his father?” They thought there must be a connection. The truth, Jesus said, was neither. In his day, people who were sick were forgotten and ignored. But Jesus did not forget or ignore the sick. For him everyone deserved healing care, no matter their status or their history. He reached out to the untouchables.
I ask you, how can Governor LePage’s veto of voter approved expansion of Medicaid –a veto supported by the House—the veto of an expansion that would provide coverage for 70,000 Mainers, how can it measure up to the care exhibited by Jesus? Our federal and state government are playing politics with the health of needy people. How can that be considered caring for the sick?
Efficiency and savings are worthy considerations. But for Jesus, the truth was to be found in the risk of compassion. He healed on the Sabbath, for which he was criticized. He touched the sick who were untouchable, for which he was criticized. There will always be problems with caring for the sick, always some things that can be criticized and need to be fixed. That is what being compassionate entails. Compassion runs those risks. It was compassion that compelled Jesus to reach out to the sick. The Affordable Care Act has problems that must be addressed but is based on compassion, a compassion that has added insurance coverage for many millions of formerly uninsured people. The truth is that compassion, while costly, is the way of the Gospel and it is the way to build a strong America for everyone.
And what is the truth when it comes to those who are different from us? Are they to be cast aside, ignored or excluded? Jesus did not draw a line between himself and others. When those invited to a banquet did not come, Jesus asked his disciples to go out to the highways and byways and invite whosoever will to come dine. He was accused of being indiscriminate in who he hung out with. He ate with publicans and sinners, welcomed women into his inner circle and embraced both tax collectors and those in prison. He did not build walls or ban people because of their affiliation or religion. He spent time with the Samaritan woman who was considered by the religious leaders to be a heretic. To lump all Muslims as terrorists, all Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists, all blacks as wanting a free ride, all who voted differently as ignorant or racist is a lie. Building walls does not comport with the truth that Jesus stood for.
The truth is that what unites us is our common humanity. Everyone is created in the image of God. Saying that our differences are a cause for division is a lie. Whatever our differences, the truth is that we are essentially the same and the fundamental response to our differences should be to learn from them, to celebrate and embrace them whenever possible, and to challenge them strongly but respectfully when necessary.
Lest you’re wondering if I think that Jesus had all the answers, I don’t. We can’t fall back on the facile solution that asks, “What would Jesus do?” because we don’t know how he would respond to some of the contemporary issues facing our world. We can’t know what he would do. But we can know what he did. And in discovering what was truthful for him in his time, we can find some clues, some guidance for our journey. He did not draw lines and create walls. He spoke truth to power when injustice was being done. He opted for peace rather than the sword. He reached out in compassion to the sick and the needy. These things were truth for him.
The question, of course is, even with the guidance that the life of Jesus provides, how do we know what is true and what is false today? Where do we turn to find the truth?
I love the story of Balaam and his ass. Three times the ass tries to warn Balaam of the danger ahead, finally falling down and refusing to go forward. Three times Balaam beats the ass and threatens it, even wishing its death. Finally, the ass speaks. Why are you beating me? I’ve served you faithfully for these many years and have I ever done this before? Look at the danger in the road. With that, Balaam’s eyes were opened and he saw the danger ahead and was filled with remorse for his behavior, and with gratitude for the ass. In this case, you have to ask, who was the ass?
This story unveils a truth that runs throughout scripture. If you want to know the truth, do not look to those in power, to those in high places, to the gatekeepers. Look to the margins. Look to those who march to the beat of a different drummer. Look to those who are being affected by the way things are structured.
If you want to know the truth about childbirth, ask a mother. The physician can provide all the medical and technical data, but it is the mother who can share what childbirth is. If you want to know the truth about war don’t ask the generals, ask the grunts who are killing and seeing their comrades killed; ask the civilians whose families and homes have been destroyed. If you want to know what it is like to feel bypassed and insecure, don’t go to the privileged, go to Millinocket and Aroostook County, go to the trailer parks that dot our landscape and Prebble St. in Portland or the Midcoast Hospitality House, or the jails and prison. If you want to know the truth about migrants, don’t go to the government Immigration agents, go to those living in fear of deportation or the breaking up of their families.
Of course, ferreting out the truth is not that easy. We are all capable of being conned. So, it is tempting to simply lament our current state of affairs, the lies, the betrayals, and then go about our own little lives; to stay in our comfortable cocoons of privilege. But we dare not, for to do so guarantees the end of truth and the triumph of the lie. I leave you with two words. The first from Simon Schama “Indifference about the distinction between truth and lies is the precondition of fascism. When truth perishes so does freedom.” The second from Jesus. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”