Knowing the Truth that Sets us Free
On Good Friday, we will once again hear the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, the Roman Governor, which took place in Jerusalem during the Passover celebration (John 18: 28-40). The Roman Governor’s residence was actually in Caesarea, but as a show of force he would come to Jerusalem during Passover to remind liberation minded Jews not to get any ideas. In the dialogue, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews.” If so, Jesus would be in big trouble with Rome, whose “king” is Caesar, and in trouble with Jews for being a messianic pretender. Jesus deflects this question and responds, “You say 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.” Jesus doesn’t claim to be the messianic king; he claims rather to be a witness to the truth. Pilate then famously asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus had said to “the Jews who believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’” (8: 31-32).
A transformational Lent requires knowing the truth that sets us free. T. S. Eliot famously wrote in his Four Quartets that, “Mankind cannot bear very much reality.” Sometimes the truth just seems too much for us to face. This is true on both a personal and corporate level. On a personal level, we often find it difficult to “bear” the truth about ourselves because we are afraid that our infidelities will be the last word about us. We are afraid because we don’t know the truth about the God who makes us free. If we believe that God is merciless, denial seems the safe way to go. However, if we have our eyes opened to the truth that our God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” we can afford to be honest about ourselves, leave the past behind, and begin to walk in newness of life.
What is true at a personal level is just as true at a societal level. Unless we see the truth about our society, we will not be set free from the ways that enslave us. Knowing and facing the truth has always been challenging, but even more so now when the “facts” are much in dispute. Trump administration counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, famously identified our public life as one in which there are “alternative facts.” Consequently, in this politically divisive time, each side of the political divide lives in a universe governed by a different set of facts, grounded in a different source of the truth. Even non-partisan organizations like Politifact seem to have no impact on how people see what is true. As of March 2019, Politifact found that the President makes “mostly false, false, or pants on fire” false statements 70% of the time. The comparable figures for other political leaders are the following: Nancy Pelosi 47%, Mitch McConnell 42% and Chuck Shumer 42%. You would think that if the President was not telling the truth 70% of the time that this would trouble even his most loyal followers. Yet, Trump’s favorability ratings are off the charts among his supporters. The body politic seems content to hear what it wants to hear.
What about us? How much reality are we willing to bear? What does it mean that more American die from guns every ten weeks than died in the entire Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined (Nicholas Kristof, NY Times, March 20, 2019)? What does it mean that we are the only highly developed country that doesn’t have universal healthcare? Or put another, why is it still okay that some people don’t have healthcare? What does it mean that since 1990 global rates of suicide have declined, but the rate in the United States has increased? Since 1999 the rate of suicide in the United has increased by a third.
The road to a transformational Lent begins with knowing the truth about God and about the society in which we live. If we do this, change in our society is possible. If we don’t know that our God can liberate us from what enslaves us, and if we continue to deny the troubling realities in our society, not much is going to change .