Truth-Telling

Christians in churches around the world celebrated the last Sunday of their liturgical year today (next week begins Advent) as “The Reign of Christ” (formerly “Christ the King”).  The Gospel of John places Jesus before Pilate; their conversation ends with Pilate asking Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” After which Pilate asks, fatefully, “What is truth?”

And I thought that Jesus’ words – “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” – just might be the manifesto, the raison d’etre, not for only followers of Jesus, but the very essence of what it means to be fully human, truly human, for anyone concerned about the future of humanity, indeed, the planet itself.  And these words, not some simple platitude, but as relevant and necessary as it was when they were first spoken 2000 years ago.

“To testify to the truth.”  So much I could say, but I’ll focus on two things today.

First, from George Orwell: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”  We live in such a time, don’t we?  There may be no more important thing that we do these days than to tell the truth, live the truth.  We live in a time and in a country where anti-intellectualism and anti-science are celebrated, where opinion shared liberally on social media passes for fact, and where warped libertarianism equates ignorance with truth. 

Witness the backlash against Critical Race Theory, as an example, by those on the Right and the Left who either can’t or don’t want to admit their own privilege.  I’m prepared to say that CRT is a Gospel-mandate, a moral mandate in our day, the 1619 Project, and Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace & Justice (and Lynching Memorial), too, that all address systemic racism in our country. 

The recent poster puts it directly to us: 

We say “Black Lives Matter” because “All” didn’t cover “Black” when they said, “All men are created equal.”
We say “Black Lives Matter” because “All” didn’t cover “Black” when they said, “With liberty and justice for all.”
We say “Black Lives Matter” because they’re still struggling with the definition of “All.”

And the same for initiatives for women’s rights and indigenous people’s rights, for LGBTQ rights and immigrants’ and refugees’ rights, and full political and civil and economic and human rights for the poor and all those on the margins.  That which needs to be held up to the bright light of truth is the toxic white misogynistic masculinity resulting in a scarcity capitalist economics, and a militaristic, triumphalist, imperialist Christian nationalism.  

If hearts are to change, if we’re to redeem the world, we must become truth tellers first.  First.  The cure to the disease only comes from a proper diagnosis.  So I ask you the question I ask myself, “How shall we speak the truth, live the truth with every word, in every act? Where, to whom, must the truth be spoken? Where is my truth telling most needed?”

Second, why is it so difficult to tell the truth?  Of course, there’s a price to be paid for truth-telling; witness the prophets of every age; so we shrink in ways big and small, conscious and unconscious, from telling all the truth all the time.  But I think there’s a deeper, more subtle reason – it is difficult to be truth-tellers because it is so difficult to be truth-hearers.  The truth we want to speak is often the truth about ourselves projected outward onto others.  We recognize it in ourselves, and not able to integrate it, we proceed to see it everywhere else.  Inner darkness outwardly-projected. 

This is not to say that it’s not present in others, in societal structures and political and economic systems, in religious institutions, and it’s not to says that it shouldn’t be spoken; but it is to suggest that we are not immune from the truth we speak so boldly about others.  And maybe we need to apply that kind of honesty, the truth we have identified, maybe we need to apply it to ourselves as well, our privilege, our blind spots, the complicity we dare not admit, that keep us from completely living into our full humanity and compromising our truth-telling message.

Sriprakash (Sri) Mayasandra was the Mennonite representative to Jerusalem (he is now stationed in Chad), and he and I would connect with each other whenever I was there; we would often see each other while worshipping at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem.  I remember about fifteen years ago talking with him after church at Redeemer; we hadn’t seen each other in a year so I asked him how he was doing and, since I knew that his tour was expiring, if he was going to re-up, something that most folks do as a matter of course. 

He told me, No, he was going to find some other service for the Mennonite Central Committee; his explanation really stunned me.  He said, “Michael, I’ve been here three years now.  I wake up in the morning, I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize the person I see looking back at me.  I don’t know what to do with the anger, the hatred I feel against Israelis, against the Israeli demonizing, dehumanizing, their torture and killing of Palestinians.”

And then – remember, Sri is an Indian Mennonite, a vegetarian and Gandhian pacifist – shockingly, in a soft, almost whispered voiced, he said, “Michael, but for an accident of birth and my parent’s genes, I would have been a suicide bomber.”  I was stunned, silent.  I remember embracing him, we visited for a few more minutes, and then we parted; I haven’t seen Sri since.  But I remember thinking that it takes courage to journey into that kind of dark truth about yourself, and then to reflect on where it comes from and how to find a way to integrate it.  

How can you admit the truth to yourself about yourself that you keep secret from yourself?  You can only be honest with yourself, accept the dark with the light – where there’s light there’s always shadows, too – and fully embrace yourself, darkness and light, if you have a place that’s safe, where you know no matter what you find within yourself on your journey into the truth, you will be accepted, loved.  Where do you go, to whom do you go, where is that place where you can admit, you can see, you can be honest about the truth about yourself, and so be a witness to truth in the world?

Truth telling is difficult because truth hearing is difficult. 

Because if truth be told, without any delusions of grandeur, for me, the vicissitudes of my life, the glories and the sorrows, my sacrifices and my sins and my successes that mark my 68+ years – they all have led me to this place:  “I was born for this – this is why I came into the world, at least why I’m here now, and I embrace it – to testify to the truth.”  And you?

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