What is truth?
This is the final question posed to Jesus by Pontius Pilate during Holy Week, observed by Christians earlier this month. In the context of the trial of Jesus in John’s gospel, in which Pilate asks this question, I hear Pilate saying: “Don’t give me this truth talk. Ain’t nobody got time for that. What has truth done for me lately? Unless you can make truth work for me, I’m not interested. Truth is useless, irrelevant, quaint. If it exists at all, it has no place here, in the real world.”
Pilate’s question, with its tone of indifference to or even disdain for truth, resonates across the centuries, from former President Bill Clinton’s inane defense of his affair when he famously said: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” to one of President George W. Bush’s senior advisors (widely believed to be Karl Rove), who mocked a New York Times reporter for living in the “reality-based community.”
With President Trump, this disdain for the truth has reached a new low. President Trump began his term in office by brazenly lying about the size of the inauguration crowd. He lied about the size of the electoral college vote that elected him. He lied about millions of fraudulent votes being cast. According to trackers, President Trump has averaged just shy of 15 lies or misleading claims a day over his three years in office. His unwillingness to speak truth earlier in this coronavirus pandemic contributed to our nation’s tragic unpreparedness.
Lying is not new. In much of the recent past, however, if leaders were caught in a lie, they were at least embarrassed by it. Telling the truth was a norm, even if it was often broken. That is changing. The Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year in 2016 was telling: “Post-truth.”
The normalization of public lying, the casual Pilate-like indifference to it, presents a profound danger to the moral fabric of society. It results in moral harm to the perpetrators and arguably more important, in emotional and/or physical harm to scapegoats, as it did to Jesus. It erodes the shared trust that is necessary for a healthy society.
Truth is a core Christian value. Jesus says the devil is “the father of lies.” “He does not stand in the truth,” Jesus says, “because there is no truth in him.” The whole process by which Jesus was crucified was based on lies and half-truths or, at least like Pilate, an indifference to the truth. The only one who tells the truth is Jesus. Jesus goes further, saying: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Or, even more bluntly, Jesus said “I am the Truth.”
Maybe Jesus is so concerned with truth because love and truth are so connected to each other. Love without truth is hypocrisy. It is shallow and cheap.
If we cared more about truth, perhaps we as a society would elect politicians who more frequently speak it, even when it is inconvenient and hard to hear. Perhaps we would support journalists who, in some cases, are modern prophets. Perhaps we would push for more regulation of social media companies who, like Pilate, often want to wash their hands of any responsibility for the lies that often proliferate on their sites. Perhaps we would need to seek out other sources of information than the ones suggested for us on our newsfeeds.
Pontius Pilate went down in history in the Apostles Creed — “suffered under Pontius Pilate” — as a coward who ordered a crucifixion because of his indifference to the truth.
How will we or the church or the United States of the 21st century go down in history?
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.