Lies, Alternative Facts, and the Struggle for Truth
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Lies, demagogues, propaganda, and falsehood. . . . . no, not headlines torn from newspapers this week. Instead, fodder for a current exhibit at the Library of Congress I saw when in DC recently, featuring the editorial cartoons of Herb Block, who for more than fifty years offered political commentary at the Washington Post. Presidents from Hoover and FDR to Carter and Clinton and both Bushes were caricatured as they governed the nation through wars, McCarthyism, civil rights, economic boom and bust, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, gun violence and more. American free speech has always allowed its citizens to critique its leaders and to call out policies, laws, and practices deemed to be misguided, deceitful, or just plain wrong. Herb Block’s cartoons didn’t seem particularly partisan—both Democrats and Republicans and the policies they proposed were equally skewered. The exhibit was a good reminder that democracy depends upon the free exchange of ideas and perspectives in pursuit of truth and the common good.
But it also highlighted a change that has entered American society and especially our public discourse. The word “post-truth” was named word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary, and describes assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact. They are intended to reinforce prejudices and perspectives and an “us versus them” mentality. In a post-truth world, lies or “alternative facts” are widely shared over the Internet within a network—-whose members trust each other more than mainstream news sources—and quickly take on the appearance of truth. Research shows increasingly, when presented with evidence that contradicts a strongly-held belief, we humans tend to ignore the facts in the interest of maintaining the belief. “You’re lying!” has come to mean “You’re saying something with which I emphatically disagree!” It’s not as clear as perhaps it once was what it means to tell the truth, even to oneself, let alone to the powerful.
Honestly (!), I didn’t set out to preach on truth-telling and lying. But the gospel reading from Jesus’ extended “sermon on the mount” brought it to the forefront. Here in harsh and uncompromising language, Jesus calls out hypocrisy—when our words and actions don’t line up, when we favor “what’s legal” over “what’s right,” and when we justify our behavior through self-deception. It’s not a pleasant text and I warn you that pretty much everyone gets poked. This isn’t the only word Jesus spoke about these matters, but the force of grouping them together makes it hard to ignore how seriously Jesus regarded a life of integrity. A reading from Matthew in the fifth chapter at the 21st verse. As always, let us listen for God’s word to each of us. [Matthew 5:21-37]
Would I lie to you?
Well, according to one study the answer is yes. About three times each day. That’s how often, on average, women tell a lie; for men it was six times a day (make of that what you will). We get lots of practice—lying behavior can be seen in children as young as two years old, usually designed to conceal transgressions. We lie when our self-esteem is threatened. Many lies are told to avoid conflict or awkward situations. Does this pulpit robe make me look fat? And we’ve spoken before that the most common lie is the one spoken in response to the question How are you? I’m fine.
The ninth of the Ten Commandments says it as plainly as possible: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. In just the way it is worded we see why it is forbidden: Lying disrupts and distorts human relationships by creating an alternative picture of what is real, what is true. Lies erect a wall between people to the effect that the bonds connecting them are broken; neither one can be understood, making empathy difficult. Lies contribute to a sense of disconnection, of isolation and loneliness. We become strangers, even to our very selves.
When you consider the examples in today’s Scripture text, you notice they all concern human relationships and the way they can be compromised when truth is mishandled. I’m pretty sure Jesus was using hyperbole when he said to tear out an offending eye or cut off a hurtful hand—but he certainly got our attention to acknowledge the need for integrity between intention and action; between attitude and practice. Look, none of us can control what pops into our brains; we’re going to get angry and we’re going to have lustful thoughts. What we do with them is what counts. Anger can corrode our soul as we nurse it with self-righteous indignation. Holding a grudge can block any chance of reconciliation or hearing another’s perspective. Our fantasies objectify a person, reducing them to a sex object; they can normalize disrespectful speech and assaultive behavior and excuse it as “locker room banter.” At times we are too quick to give up on the hard work of marriage, even as we disappoint and let each other down. (Conversely, Jesus extended great mercy to people who had been married multiple times, had committed adultery, and those whose relationships had become destructive and who needed a fresh start) We have learned to walk a fine line, never actually breaking the law, but mangling its spirit through doublespeak and spin and loopholes. We socialize exclusively with people who see eye to eye with us—and forget that monovision limits our sight. Jesus calls us to a higher standard. It’s more than a commandment not to tell lies. We are to act with integrity of purpose and action; with consistency between our beliefs and our deeds; to live as if God’s truth is here. Because it is.
The truth of God’s love for humanity…that every single one of us is a child of God. The truth that God is the creator and source of life. Christian faith affirms that this truth is the dynamic that frees us to live fully and courageously, loving God and loving one another as we love ourselves. Just as each of us has personal responsibility to live with integrity, so the Church has responsibility to proclaim God’s truth, to name the places where it is ignored or distorted, and to commit ourselves to restoring it in our common life.
In recent days I’ve come across three examples of how Christians are telling the truth, and want to share them as inspiration….or maybe just to provoke further consideration. When we worshiped on January 1 this year, we were invited to write down some intentions for our lives and relationships, faith and spirituality, health and personal growth. One of you left yours behind and I was struck by its simplicity and practical guidance for telling the truth. The person had drawn a line arcing over all the categories, with an arrow at either end, suggesting continual reflection. Underneath it they had written To pause and pray. . . before acting or speaking.
One family in our church is speaking truth by installing a yard sign at home with some of their deeply-held convictions written upon it: In this house we believe Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love Is Love, Water Is Life. They believe it’s important to witness publicly to these affirmations which for them have grown out of their Christian faith.
Some time ago I read an interview with renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. The interviewer asked “How can the average American Christian speak truth to power?” His response reflected the mature wisdom of his 80 years: Begin by talking about and recognizing your own pain, and by noticing the pain of others and asking “Why is that?” And then setting about to change it and make it right. After the election, the same interviewer asked him how his answer might have changed now. I can imagine a smile playing at Brueggemann’s mouth as he responded ….exactly as he had earlier: notice your own and others’ pain and consider how to address it.
Friends, God’s truth is marching on, calling out lies and alternative facts and a post-truth sensibility. God’s truth is marching on, inviting us to live in love and to love with honesty. May it be so.
Charge and blessing: On the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, words from his second inaugural address resonate deeply for today: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in: to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for ones who have borne the battle and the widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations. And may the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of God’s spirit accompany you on this day’s journey, and forever. Alleluia! Amen.