The church vilifies Judas Iscariot as the betrayer of Jesus, as told by the canonical Gospels. Believers have accepted this as truth. Now a Gnostic scroll suggests that maybe Judas was not Jesus’ traitor but actually his closest confidant. This may not be theologically important, but it is a reminder that the immutable word of God is also the product of the very mutable Council of Laodicea, in 363 CE.
The president of the United States stands before the world to declare that Iraq poses a mortal danger, and therefore must be invaded. He declassifies intelligence data to back up his claim. Now it appears that he chose the data selectively, omitting the caveats indicating the dubious nature of the intelligence he declassified.
A 16-year-old boy in Falmouth suffers esteem issues like so many teenagers do. A pretty, blonde senior in his school befriends him. Smitten, he complies with her request to supply her with marijuana. It turns out the girl is really a baby-faced police officer. Cops come to the boy’s house early one morning and take him away in handcuffs.
These three seemingly unrelated true scenarios each demonstrate the folly of accepting anything without question. There is no bastion of truth that is invulnerable to human corruption. If history teaches us one truth about truth, a kind of meta-truth if you will, it is that we are always well-advised to test every axiom thrust upon us.
Asking questions is our responsibility. It may be our duty. It may be our patriotic and even our sacred duty. Think of the tragedies and catastrophes that could have been avoided if enough people had persisted in asking enough of the right questions.
I love the questions teenagers ask. They reflect an optimistic cynicism about the world. They have as their end an assessment of things before taking the reins. Recently one of my children asked me why, since the White House is so big, and is surrounded by homeless people, can’t the first floor include a homeless shelter? I said it was a good idea.
What is truth? How do we recognize truth? Is truth immutable? These are difficult questions. As adults, as patriots, as Christians or adherents to any other faith, we bear the responsibility of judging the truth of what we see, hear and read. To this end we are each endowed with a moral sense. It is our compass. If we ignore it, we are sailing blind.
We must be ever on our guard. But this is not cynicism. We all need to put our trust in something, and a world emptied of faith would be a terrible world. Yet we should always keep in mind the easy corruptibility of truth when the medium is human agency.
If it is our burden to discern the truth, how much more important is it to tell the truth? All of us lie, in one way or another, to varying degrees. There are blatant lies, lies of distortion and of omission, and lies borne of ignorance. There are lies of body language. Sometimes a lie is just a look. Advertisers and politicians lie professionally, but none of us are innocent.
Lies are particularly pernicious in that a lie remains a lie. We can hurt others in many ways, and most of the injuries we do will heal. But a lie cannot heal. Even if someone else explodes our lie, and the one we deceived forgives us, our lie lives on, as a lie. There is only one way to efface a lie.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a book they call “The Big Book.” It describes AA’s Twelve Steps. It is no accident or coincidence that steps eight and nine entail making an inventory of wrongs committed against others and making amends. How do we make amends for a lie? Take a page from “The Big Book.” We must confess that we have lied and tell the truth.
Have I lied to my wife or child? To a friend or associate? To an antagonist or even an enemy? I must confess it, and quickly. I may die at any moment, and then it will be too late. My lie will live forever. It will join that unholy legacy that includes the lies of omission by the Council of Laodicea, the lies of seduction by the girl-faced cop, and the lies of distortion by President Bush.
If we tell the truth, then we may count ourselves among the most formidable of women and men. Jesus told the truth. Mahatma Ghandi told the truth. Martin Luther King told the truth. None of these men had any advantage over us. We don’t have to be in Nazareth or Calcutta or Montgomery to do what they did. We can stand on Main Street and proclaim the radical truth, and we will be just like them.
But we must be willing to do it at any hazard, and there is the challenge. Are we willing to speak the truth under any circumstance, however threatening? We admire Jesus and Ghandi and King. We honor their sacrifices. But do we relish their reward for ourselves? Do we dare to follow their radical example?
God knows America needs truth tellers, radical truth tellers, and now more than ever. Lerone Bennett, senior editor for Ebony magazine, wrote in 1964 that “cursed is the nation, cursed is the people, who can no longer breed indigenous radicals when it needs them.”
We can be indigenous radicals. We can be truth tellers. We can start a revolution, at least in our own hearts. We need only say something radically true. We can say something startling, even if we begin only by startling ourselves. It is a sufficient first step. For once we begin to speak a truth so radical that we ourselves are startled, there is no telling where it will end.
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife and three teenage children. Chris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org