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Truth-Telling

There was a headline yesterday, the day after the big US presidential debate, that made me despair of being a human being in the twenty-first century. I guess to be precise, it was a tagline underneath a headline, but it was no less depressing for being in a smaller font. The tagline wasn’t found on some trashy tabloid website where you would expect to find a predictable parade of click-baiting garbage. No, this was a national mainstream media article. The offending sentence read thus:

Find Out Who Lied About What and Why

Perhaps you’re wondering why this sentence would provoke such a strong reaction. It was an article that was ostensibly about fact-checking, after all, and we should all be grateful that there are people out there who are able and willing to wade through the bile served up by politicians on a daily basis in the service of truth and accountability. Or, in the case of Donald Trump, that there are people willing to attempt to decode the chaotic, stream-of-consciousness assemblage of syllables and outbursts that passes for speech to find something resembling coherent truth claims to check.

What made me despair wasn’t that there were fact-checking articles appearing the day after a carefully choreographed and expensive piece of adver-tainment presidential debate, or even really that these articles were necessary. What made me angry was simply the assumed nature of it all. As if it were the most normal and natural thing in the world that the morning after two millionaires who had already spent millions of other people’s dollars and long, wearisome, repetitive months advertising their qualities to the American people had stood on a stage and rehearsed the same old lines and themes, we would all open our browsers and begin the process of trying to determine who lied about what and why. As if we all knew in advance that there would be an abundance of false claims and that the main questions would be regarding motive. As if we expected to be lied to. As if truth wasn’t even really on the table. As if we all knew that this whole show was, well, a show that was mainly about power games, spectacle, ratings, and entertainment. As if we were mainly looking for Twitter fodder. As if we knew that truthful speech was too much (or not enough?) to expect of politicians. As if we were all ok with this.

Yesterday morning, I went from shaking my head and my fist at the headlines on my laptop straight to the soup kitchen where our church was in charge of serving lunch. After the line starts to slow to a trickle, I always try to get out and share at least part of the meal with one of the clients. There’s almost always an interesting or heartbreaking or inspiring story to encounter. There is often a tall tale or two as well. Politicians certainly don’t have a monopoly on bending the truth. I’ve listened to a number of pretty incredible stories across the table at the soup kitchen. But the truth is told or ignored differently by people on the wrong end of the score. Here, the truth is told on broken abused bodies, on weary and defeated faces, on track-marked arms and bloodstained knuckles, on cheap tattoos and tattered clothing, in slurred speech and bad manners. Here, the truth isn’t an inconvenience on the super highway to super power; here, it is something to be avoided, perhaps even fled from in an attempt to preserve a slice of human dignity. It feels different to be lied to here.

Every Sunday morning before worship, I have a short prayer with those involved in the service. I will almost always include some version or other of this prayer: “I pray that we would speak truly of you today.” It is a risky prayer, I know. But it is a prayer borne out of one simple conviction: We humans don’t tell the truth naturally or easily. Even when we want to. Our telling of the truth always has the whiff of the self attached to it.  Sometimes the whiff morphs into a stench. We so often tell (or bend or ignore) the truth in order to bolster our own ideas, our own ego, our own identity, our own hope and our own fears. At our best, we want to be truth-tellers, even when the truth doesn’t flatter or defend or exalt us. But it’s hard. The truth is such a malleable object, especially when our context trains us not to expect it. And we’re so very often not at our best…

In the eighth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus said that if his disciples held to his teaching they would know the truth and that the truth would set them free. A few chapters later, he declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The Christian conviction has always been that truth, in the deepest sense of the word, is not a list of claims and counter-claims produced by the fact checkers or the “real story” behind the presenting story of a human life. Christians have always believed that somehow the truth is a person and a way. And that the truth is a source of both freedom and life.

Christians have always believed that that truest truth is not a something but a someone —a someone who stands over all of our lies and partial truths, all of our misguided attempts and best intentions, even over all of our longing to be truth-tellers, despite ourselves. A someone who shows us the truth by turning everything we assumed about power and value upside down. A someone who seeks to train and order our loves. A someone who can judge and forgive and heal and redeem all of our falsity. A someone who turned his body over to the liars and the thieves in order to tell the truth and to bear it on a blood-stained cross. And, thanks be to God, a someone who told the deepest truth of all three days later in an empty tomb to swallow up all the lies.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    It continues to perplex me that so many distort meaning. The tag line should read, ” honest or dishonest”. As for truth, who really knows the absolute truth about any one thing, much less the whole truth about everything….”we see through a mirror, darkly….we know only in part”….

    “I am the way, the life and the truth” is both an invitation and a journey.Our responses, our intentions, move us towards or away from truth.

    Truth is something we either work for or against. It can never be something we know.

    Faith in truth is our only true response. Worship, prayer and love the means by which we remain faithful.

    Truth values all creation. Selflessness, born from faith, is the first precondition. Only from this perspective can any rudimentary understanding of truth be learned.

    Self interest concludes with Pilate’s lament, “What is truth?”

    Human politics is not the path. In all things we cling to Christ. In all things we find meaning only in choosing to love as He did, to the best of our abilities and acknowledging as sin and requesting forgiveness, when we do not.

    All other identities lead away from truth.

    We may only participate in secondary identities insofar as they affirm the will of Christ. When they do not,….”Shake the dust from your feet”…

    I am a Canadian who is Christian? I am a liberal who is Christian? I am a democrat who is Christian? A homosexual who is Christian? A feminist who is Christian? A conservative who is Christian? A capitalist who is Christian?…..you can be none of these or any other coupling of identities.

    Through Him, with Him, in Him. There is only one identity that is true and it is found in the majesty and mystery of Jesus Christ.

    However imperfectly, it is experienced in this life only with and through all others committed to this belief.

    ….So the many will try to convince you….”for the gate is wide”…. that you have an electoral duty and democratic responsibility to participate in false identities and affirm false institutions.

    You do not. To do so is to sin against truth. This and every election day I do not participate. I encourage you not to as well. The fullness of your potential in Christ is being denied by your participation in false institutions. You can serve only one….”for you will love one and despise the other”….

    Let me ask this. Does our attention and commitment to political processes seem more aligned with truth or would that time be better spent, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, ministering to the sick or befriending the marginalized, the imprisoned and the lonely?

    Baptized ones, what does the Spirit of Truth within you say?

    September 28, 2016
    • I don’t think there is anything contradictory or mutually exclusive about locating one’s primary identity in Christ and being thoughtfully engaged in political realities.

      Render unto Caesar, and all that…

      September 28, 2016
      • Paul Johnston #

        Sorry Ryan but I strongly disagree. Working with committed Christians and coordinating those efforts at a local/community level with government is an acceptable and worthy undertaking. Engaging in political efforts on a broader level that are determinedly opposed to the Kingdom of God, is to “render unto Caesar what is God’s”…at its best and an idolatrous advocacy at its worst.

        Jesus’ rage and contempt was directed almost exclusively to the Jewish political institutions of the time and the men who led them. Hypocrites masquerading self interest as godliness.

        Likewise Jesus rejected any political association with the kingdoms of men. His kingdom, as yours and mine should be, is not of this world.

        Love all, serve none.

        As the Lord reminded the Pharasee’s when they accused him of demonic service, the demons do not work in ways that serve the kingdom of God. It follows then that believers should not work in ways that are anti ethical to the Kingdom of the Lord.

        September 28, 2016
      • Sorry, I’m not following, Paul. What is it about the content of the original post that you are disagreeing with or finding incongruous with committed discipleship?

        September 28, 2016
  2. Reblogged this on Generous Matters and commented:
    A month or so back, I lamented here at Generous Matters over the fate of truth in the 2016 US presidential campaign. Now one of my favorite bloggers, picks up the theme. His words convict, even as they make me sigh in resignation at what to expect from Presidential debates 2 and 3. Apologies to my Canadian friends for all the lies.

    September 28, 2016
    • Thank you kindly.

      And while the American political spectacle undoubtedly serves up everything on a different scale than up here in Canada, your politicians are hardly alone when it comes to making the truth their servant rather than vice versa :).

      September 28, 2016
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Fair comment, Ryan. 🙂 It is not the substance of your point that I am in disagreement with. I agree with almost all of it. Though I don’t hold to the “someone” vs. “something” dichotomy. I would say that this belief in “someone” leads to a certain way of living, a “something” but it isn’t clear to me that you would disagree with that conclusion.

    As is my spiritual nature here, 🙂 I often use the framework of what you say to introduce what I sincerely think are spiritual discernments that the Lord calls me to share.

    The faith is dying and along with it, salvation for the many. The reasons are many but the primary failure of the church is that it is content to worship, the “someone” but not to live out a life of true discipleship, the “something”.

    Engaging with political processes that are becoming more and more hostile to what we know to be true, we must separate ourselves from these institutions and create our own communities.

    To continue to collaborate with political and economic systems that are purposefully opposed to Kingdom living is, however well intended, a collaboration with the enemies of the Lord.

    We will love our enemies and cooperate at every turn with their laws and interests providing it does not cause us to sin against God most high. As it was the Lord’s intention through the comment, “Render unto Caesar”… we will pay taxes and live peacefully with our neighbors.

    “Rendering unto God” demands no less of us.

    “Making disciples of all nations” is not and never will be an outcome of human reason or political legislation. It will be something lived by those who claim discipleship. It will have to be such a display of love and truth that those without will hunger for it above all else.

    It can never be allowed to be absorbed and assimilated into the framework of human political institutions. By necessity those mature enough in the faith know this truth. All human political institutions must and will, fall.

    To collaborate then is to collaborate with the dead and dying.

    We must choose life. We must conform to Kingdom living. it is the only way to authenticate our discipleship. It is the only way to make disciples of others.

    I hunger for the ways of the Lord. I hunger for the Kingdom, now! Who will lead us if not those who say, “I am Priest”, “I am Pastor”.

    September 29, 2016
    • To be clear, I’m not in any way suggesting “collaboration with political and economic systems that are purposefully opposed to Kingdom living.” It puzzles me that you would think that I was. The post was, in many ways an extended lament on the way these very systems have ignored and cheapened and degraded truth.

      Similarly, I would never argue that political legislation was the way to make disciples of all nations. This is the church’s task and no one else’s. Having said that, all disciples of Jesus live in some political context or another, and I think we have an obligation to do our best to understand it, to live peacefully with our neighbours (as you say), and to contribute goodness where we are able.

      (I have to say, Paul… all this “two kingdom” language and talk about eschewing political institutions… you’re starting to sound dangerously Anabaptist! 😉 )

      September 29, 2016
  4. Paul Johnston #

    The Anabaptist tradition, like the earliest Christian communities and the Abrahamic traditions that preceded them, offer us useful example, that should be studied, adapted and implemented.

    Among the communities of man, Christians irrationally follow some kind of perverse logic and think they can and do remain a people and a true community, without living according to the principals of their supposed beliefs.

    In my faith tradition we call this element, “Cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose which Christian values they will accommodate and which they will disregard, according to their own whim and desire.

    Scripture and common sense tell us that such divisions will not stand. A community that ceases to behave according to its own self declared principals, soon ceases to exist.

    The faith is dying from within, not from without….

    I never mean to say that you affirm, “collaboration”, rather I find you often incisively profound in giving reason and voice to what afflicts us in the modern world. My challenge has always been to encourage to be less dependent on your own prodigious mental faculties and more dependent and sure in the powers of the Holy Spirit, mediated through you.

    Too much of your response, at least to my ears, offers only a resigned, “Yes we will suffer,… it is cruel and unfair…, we won’t know why…. it won’t seem just….but persist in faith if you can…I try …most of the time…..but I get your sentiment that says let it go”…in love my brother I have to tell you that to me, you often make the faith sound, weak, defensive and apologetic.

    The truth, as I believe it in my bones, is that all the above sentiments are true, apart from the power of the Spirit. True of me, true of you, true of us all.

    So let us get over our mutually shared and understood frailties and put faith and trust in the Holy Spirit.

    Given our material reality, we will never be able to fully mediate the power of the Spirit, we will always be undermined by the principalities of the material world, unless we create material environments that make every honest effort to be fully and completely, Christian.

    Where darkness is, light does not go.

    September 30, 2016
    • I have to tell you that to me, you often make the faith sound, weak, defensive and apologetic.

      I’m sorry to hear that you read me this way. I read the last paragraph of the post again and I have to say that I see the exact opposite. My hope has always been in a God who is strong and true and loving enough to conquer everything in us and in his creation that is weak, false, and fearful.

      October 3, 2016
  5. eengbrecht #

    In my opinion, the bulk of the blame rests with us the citizens. We pay our politicians dirt salaries, we humiliate them in the media when they request reimbursement for expenses that would be normal anywhere else in the private world, we dig into their private lives and try to humiliate them there as well Exactly what kind of person do we think we will attract to the job? And when an honest hard working person like Stephan Dion runs as leader, they run attack ads to destroy his character. It used to be an honor to serve our country. What happened to that?
    My father would scold us if we were ever disrespectful to a politician regardless of political stripe.
    The second thing that irritates me is when folks (like colleagues, etc) make statements like, “…well, to be honest…”. What is that supposed to mean? That you are lying to me the rest of the time?
    I liken it to why we as Anabaptists refuse to take oaths in court. Our premise is that, as Christians we always tell the truth and it is pointless and against our faith to “take the oath”.
    I have said that in court and the Judge honored my request.

    We are not guiltless either 🙂

    September 30, 2016
    • Yes, there’s certainly a sense that we get the politicians we deserve and/or demand!

      (I share your loathing of the phrase, “To be honest…”)

      October 3, 2016

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