Reflection by Bob Tocha, who is FAN member and parishioner of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, MD
Photo courtesy of Simple Reminders.com
Quid est Veritas?
(What is Truth?)
In His trial before Pilate, Jesus claimed, “…for this I came into this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice…” to which Pilate asked, “What is Truth?” (Jn 18:38).
Not only was “truth” a question in the mind of Pontius Pilate in First Century Palestine, but it remains an issue to this day. Concern with truth has recently taken center stage because of the cascade of untruthful statements made by President Donald Trump. His barrage of lies has caused many to question his fitness for office while even his supporters are troubled and uneasy because of his disregard for facts and his seeming willingness to make sweeping claims without foundation.
Telling the truth is so central to us as human beings, that it is difficult to overstate its importance. Scripture tells us that “the Truth will set you Free” (Jn. 8:32), something that we readily grasp. No less obvious is the fact that lies will ensnare and enslave us. They will entrap us. Here the image of the spider web comes to mind. The liar is caught in a web of lies with each lie the occasion for yet another untruth. The centrality of telling the truth can be seen in the challenge that all parents face in raising their children. They seek, almost instinctively, to instill in their children patterns of behavior and moral standards that will help the children live upright and fulfilling lives.
For centuries, parents and priests, preachers and teachers have employed parables and myths, fables and fairy tales to drive home to children, and adults alike, critical religious and moral messages. All of these narrative forms have a primordial character that transports the listener to a time and place where ethical choices lack ambiguity. Stories capture the imagination while presenting a message in broad-brush strokes and bold colors. The values they teach come without “exceptions.” Not surprisingly, many of these stories stress the importance of telling the truth; they celebrate truthfulness and condemn lying. Aesop’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” makes its point in compelling detail. That lying carries consequences is driven home by Carlo Collachi’s character Pinocchio whose nose grows when he strays from the truth. As Americans, we have our own lore that celebrates integrity and truthfulness. We remember “Honest” Abe and draw inspiration from the mythical words of Washington who admits felling a cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie.” While a figment of Washington’s biographer Mason Locke Weems’ imagination, the sentiment is no less defining or instructive.
We live in an image-conscious society, where politicians, celebrities and corporations seek to project self-serving image for public consumption. They are eager to appear as they are not, as long as it enhances their brand and wins them positive press. Early in the presidential campaign, Donald Trump was asked his favorite Scriptural verse. Looking like a deer caught in the headlights, he hemmed and hawed, reminiscent of Sarah Palin when asked what newspapers she read, “All of them” she stammered after a damning silence. Trump was no more forthcoming or convincing. The issue was simple: how committed are you as a Christian? While no one can read the heart of another, and no one should, it is possible to gain insights by examining what a person does – the message communicated in public acts. People often say one thing and do another. They talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. They speak a “truth” but live a lie. Christianity is not a religion restricted to “internal” belief but a faith that one manifests in concrete action. Jesus spoke of many things, but none more than caring for the poor, the marginalized and the outcast. Many wealthy people are extremely generous in their charitable works; Donald Trump does not number among them. If one examines the Sermon on the Mount and uses it as a measure of one’s Christianity, Donald Trump would be found sorely lacking. After carefully examining, Donald Trump’s Faith-motivated actions, a religious leader concluded, “I do not know whose Gospel Mr. Trump is following, but it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” It is, of course, politically advantageous to pass oneself off as a practicing Christian, but failing to act as one, reveals one as a liar.
Drawing on the Hebrew Scriptures, Judaism and Christianity explicitly condemn bearing false witness and by extension the practice of lying. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex 20:16) and “Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor” (Deut 5:20. Islam condemns lying but acknowledges some exceptions. The importance of Truth in the New Testament can be seen in the fact that Jesus identifies himself with “the Truth.” “I am the way, the truth and the life…” (Jn 14: 6). In addition to a religious prohibition to lying, there are philosophical arguments that condemn lying as a perversion of the faculty of speech, reasoning that the purpose of speech is to communicate the truth. Were we only to speak lies, there would be no reason to speak. Codes of honor and military codes of conduct place a premium on the fact that a man’s word is his “sacred bond.” Together these arguments underscore the foundational value society places on telling the truth and the harsh rejection it levels against lying.
Kelly Anne Conway, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and current White House Counselor recently coined the telling phrase “alternate facts” employing it to counter a news item that she sought to deflect. When Church Todd challenged her, she persisted in her effort to use a falsehood to question the reported fact. When asked a question, Ms. Conway rarely answers the question posed and more often than not, says something untrue, all in an effort to turn attention from the question. Prevaricate, equivocate and denigrate seems to be the modus operandi of political spokespersons or company representatives when asked embarrassing questions. That such behavior jettisons the truth seems of little or no concern. Never admit wrongdoing; never acknowledge moral lapses; never answer the question.
While a society’s institutions seem permanent, they are not. It remains for each generation to reaffirm the values and practices that undergird society. In democracies, even long established institutions depend on each generation’s “buying into” defining and motivating values. Western culture has long espoused the value of Truth and spurned its corruption. Yet, in today’s culture, where advertisers and politicians employ words to communicate half-truths to sell toothpaste or advance a political agenda, truth seems to have become the primary casualty. All too often words are used to generate fear, to create a sense of false need or to evoke hatred. Truth finds itself endangered. Modern marketing tells politicians and advertisers that a lie repeated often enough will be mistaken for true. Some have even suggested that we are living in a post-truth era, while charges of false news abound.
In describing Donald Trump, negative descriptors abound: ignorant, dishonest, vengeful, boastful, ruthless, undisciplined, thin-skinned, arrogant and narcissistic, to mention only the most obvious. He has been described as a bully and an abuser of women. But, above all else he is a consummate liar, our own Liar-in-Chief. As such he has scant regard for the truth and is not restrained from lying by personal values or moral tenet. In many ways, he is the modern incarnation to a Greek tragic figure. He is a deeply flawed individual, which all can see. It is only a matter of time before these flaws consume him. As bystanders, we watch as things unravel and the flaws bring down the protagonist. In this Trump should be pitied, not hated. He is a pathetic figure, trapped by his hubris, his arrogance and his ignorance.
In closing, we return to Pilate’s musing, Quid est Veritas? to which we must answer: Truth is the moral glue that binds society and only with which genuine human relationships, discourse, and democracy are possible.
“And then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Jn. 8:32