Editors note: This is part three of an eight-part series exploring the eight Jesus questions all of us must face, highlighted in Jim Wallis's new book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus (HarperOne), available now. These next eight weeks will help us go deeper than the headlines, to find our way back to Jesus in the midst of this intensive and exhausting news cycle.
Want to hear this in an audio format instead? We just launched an eight-episode podcast series called Reclaiming Jesus Now that features Allison Trowbridge and William Matthews speaking with Jim Wallis about these questions and their relevance today.
Jesus directly links “truth” with “freedom.” And Jesus’ commentary on truth and freedom is the most important one for this moment’s and this week’s crisis for democracy in the United States of America.
“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” says Jesus (John 8:32).
The impeachment inquiry happening now is not really about different interpretations of what are “high crimes and misdemeanors” or interpretations of facts; but the denial and cover up of the truth itself —what happened on Trump’s phone calls to foreign leaders to ask for help with his reelection and the attempt to hide those appalling and unprecedented facts.
As I wrote in Christ in Crisis: Why We Need To Reclaim Jesus, what’s going on with this administration’s assault on the truth is far deeper than simply all the presidential lies — which have accumulated at an unprecedented pace, with the Washington Post estimating that Trump has lied more than 13,000 times in just under 1,000 days as president — more than 13 lies every single day. Trump’s practice and pattern of constant lies is, I believe, a systematic strategy to undermine the idea of there even being such a thing as objective truth. Trump insists that every fact and piece of careful reporting that undermines his pathological lying is just “fake news” from the media who are “the enemy of the people.”No, the press is not the enemy of the people. Rather, Donald Trump is the enemy of the truth. The president of the United States has become the enemy of freedom.
In John 18:38, Pontius Pilate famously asks Jesus, “What is truth?” just before he washes his hands of any responsibility for what he is about to do to him. Pilate may have meant the question rhetorically, to imply that there is no such thing as objective truth, but we need to ask the question earnestly and literally.
There is something called the truth. There are choices we have to make about the truth and those choices will determine whether we are truly free. How do we answer Pilate’s question today?
The question feels especially important today as we are mourning Rep. Elijah Cummings, a true public servant who combined love, justice, and an unflinching pursuit of the truth as well or better than anyone else in Congress.
Without the truth we are easily held captive to claims and assertions that are indeed untrue and can eventually enslave us into false ideologies or narcissistic lies that demand belief. These untruths depend on not being exposed to what is genuinely true. Truth sets us and keeps us free, but lies will finally enslave us. If you care about freedom, you had better care about the truth.
This connection between truth and freedom captures the danger and the call for followers of Jesus in the Trump era. Most presidents either spin the truth or even lie, that's not new, but this isn’t just about Trump’s legion of lies themselves: It’s about his constant normalizing of lying. We now expect to hear lies every day that are perpetual, pathological, and political.
Autocrats and strongmen all over the world attack the free press and the idea of objective truth because they want you only to be able to listen to their truth. As Trump always puts it, “Believe me.” It's a way of governing that holds people captive because they depend on the strongman to tell them what the truth is. So when you take away the truth, you are purposely trying to take away people’s freedom.
For this week’s episode of the Reclaiming Jesus Now podcast, I chatted about this “Truth Question” with my co-hosts William Matthews and Allison Trowbridge. One of the major themes that came up in our conversation is the way in which Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on the truth have been greatly helped by forces in our culture and technology that make objective facts harder to find than ever before. As William put it:
“… it feels like our culture has a hard time discerning truth ... we are so in tuned to salacious rumor as truth that when truth actually shows up, we’re lost and we demonize it and we [say], ‘How dare you tell us that!’ It almost feels biblical ... like the children of Israel and the prophets.”
This is true, and it’s only in a culture like ours that too often values sensationalism over facts that a reality TV star could become president.
Of course, as William indicated, the deeper problem of a society full of people who reject unpleasant or inconvenient facts, of course, isn’t new — it’s as old as scripture. In Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy, he writes, “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (4:3-4). Paul could have been writing his letter in 2019 — the language seems to so perfectly capture one of our society’s major ailments.
Allison pointed to the particular challenges of finding truth in our digital age, and how technology has made it easier for people to soothe their itching ears with voices who tell them what they want to hear.
In our conversation, she pointed out, “... you have a digital culture where we have all become publishers and we’re all able to create and share content in a rapid way, which is, on one hand, a beautiful thing, and, on the other hand, can be a completely destructive thing, because then we lose this sense of ... what is credible, what is researched …”
The dynamic Allison is pointing to has, among other things, led to social media being weaponized, sometimes directly by governments, to spread propaganda and disinformation for the purpose of affecting the results of elections, as all the bipartisan investigations and intelligence agency findings have shown happened in the 2016 U.S. election, when Russia worked to boost Trump’s candidacy. A recent in-depth study by More in Common also shows the effect of Americans’ itching ears, in that those who follow the news most closely are the most prone to have a distorted perception of Americans who belong to a different political party than they do, because people who consume the most news tend to get their news from outlets that share their ideological leanings.
The dilemma we face regarding the truth in the United States today is that it has both never been more important to know, seek, speak, and live the truth, and the truth has never been more difficult to find and share.
What then should followers of Jesus do in this moment to respond to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”
I’m afraid there’s no simple answer.
The fundamental truth of Jesus Christ as both savior and Lord is eternal and unchanging, and forms the foundation upon which Christians must base their search for objective truths in this world. Some of the deep gospel truths that spring from the Jesus questions we’ve been discussing these past few weeks can serve as our guide to seeking truth in our polarized and siloed media environment.
If we believe in seeking and being a neighbor to those who are different from us and outside our regular social paths, this should also lead us to actively seek out and listen to different perspectives in our news consumption, as well as our daily conversations.
White Christians who seek to live out their belief that all people bear the image of God must make an active effort to hear the truths that people of color are speaking in this time of crisis. We must listen widely, listen deeply, and listen to those who are the most different from us in what we already think.
Most of all, at this crucial moment in American history, followers of Jesus need to take Jesus seriously. As the impeachment hearings continue, we all should listen carefully to the media coverage and seek to understand what really happened. But it is also time to go deeper, to go back to Jesus, and understand how important to everything the truth really is — from democracy itself to our history, to our church and even family life. Truth-telling is central to this moment. Let’s turn back to Jesus.