One thing I miss during these Covid days are the pageants and plays so common this time of year, most of them involving fidgety children in bathrobes. It brings to mind my first church play when St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Catholic Church had an interim priest, fresh out of seminary, who was brimming with ideas for our little congregation, one of which was an Easter pageant, including not only the resurrection of Jesus, but also his trial before Pontius Pilate, a role assigned to me. I had one line, which I committed to memory, but nevertheless forgot when it came time to say it in front of the congregation and had to be helped by Mike Goldman, who elbowed me in the ribs and whispered in my ear, “What is truth?” Ah, what is truth? That question has plagued me ever since. What is truth?
We’ve been thinking about things we’re supposed to believe, but maybe shouldn’t, so this week I invite us to consider something most of us learned at an early age. Never tell a lie. Always tell the truth. Sound advice, in most instances. But there are times…
One of my childhood friends had a father who was short-tempered and impetuous. One day we were playing in his backyard, and his dad came charging out of the house, pulling off his belt with one hand, and with the other waving an empty bag of Oreo cookies and yelling,
“Who ate the cookies?”
“Not us,” we yelled, wiping the Oreo crumbs from our faces.
Always tell the truth, no matter what? I don’t think so. The Great Orator Robert Ingersoll once said, “When your little child tells a lie, do not rush at him as though the world were about to go into bankruptcy. Be honest with him. A tyrant father will have liars for his children; do you know that? A lie is born of tyranny upon the one hand and weakness upon the other, and when you rush at a poor little boy with a club in your hand, of course he lies.”
The Washington Post fact checker has kept a regular tally of Donald Trump’s public lies since he took office. As his term near its end, the tally of lies stands at over 23,000, or roughly 17 lies per day. My first thought is one of dismay. How can anyone, let alone the President of the United States, be so flagrantly dishonest? That is my first thought. My second thought is to wonder how often his father rushed at him with a club in his hand. Sometimes, of course, a club is not a club. Sometimes a club is a hurtful insult, a shunning, a cutting off, a sneer of contempt, a blow to a child’s spirit as painful as any blow to a child’s body. There are, unfortunately, all kinds of clubs.
We contrast Donald Trump’s dishonesty with George Washington’s honesty, who was purported never to lie, even admitting to his father that he had indeed cut down the cherry tree. Except, ironically, that was a made-up story, a lie told by a clergyman, Parson Weems, to convince children never to lie.
If we are committed to truth, we must ask ourselves whether or not our actions encourage the telling of truth. Do we make it easy for others to be truthful, or do we rush at people with a club, striking such fear in their hearts they have little recourse but to lie. Are we careful, especially when we have power over someone, never to use our power to intimidate, coerce, or harm? Are we careful never to wield our power so harshly we would cause another to instinctively lie in order to protect themselves?
In our relationships and marriages, do we make it so difficult and painful for our partners and spouses to be honest, that we cause them to be less than truthful, less than forthright, less than transparent? Or are we constantly on the lookout for the slightest wrong, the smallest imperfection, the tiniest fault? And do we make their lives a fresh and living hell when we discover it?
In our churches, are we so devoted to orthodoxy we cannot tolerate an original idea or an alternative point of view? Are we quick to humiliate, punish, or exclude those whose life experiences have led them to different conclusions? I remember when an effort was being made in our yearly meeting to rescind my pastoral credentials for the grave sin of believing God was revealed not only through Jesus, but also through others. I was astounded by the number of Quaker pastors who privately confessed to me that they believed the same, but could not say so publicly for fear of retribution. Just as a tyrant father will have liars for his children, so too will a tyrant church have liars for its pastors. Friends, we must always give others the safety and room to tell the truth.
In our national life, do we punish those leaders who tell us hard truths, who remind us that nice things cost money, that national and global excellence demands sacrifice? Do we punish those leaders who speak the truth about our historic failings, who challenge us to rise above our past and right our wrongs? Or do we reward with our votes and support those who spare us the difficult truth, who tell us up is down and down is up, who perpetuate our gloried myths to spare us discomfort?
The pursuit of truth is always a two-way street, and is only realized when the teller is willing to speak it, and the listener is willing to hear it. Are you willing not only to speak truth, but also to hear it, no matter its source?