“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.” — Isaiah 59:14-15
I said in my last post that truth is interpersonal and covenantal. This applies in public life and not just in private life. The fact that many seem to have forgotten this helps explain what has gone wrong in the politics not only of the United States but of many other nations as well. When “truth stumbles in the public square,” it is almost always correlated with grave losses for justice and advances for evil.
I remember thinking about this on Jan. 20, 2017, when Donald Trump raised his right hand, put his left hand on a Bible, and swore his presidential oath of office. I did not have high confidence that a man with his track record could be trusted to keep his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Little did I know how bad it would finally get.
Trump was making a covenant with God and the American people, as all presidents before him had done. Covenants are freely given verbal declarations or oaths that articulate sacred commitments being made. Covenant declarations are speech-acts that verbally perform those commitments into existence.
In the Bible, and today, covenants can be between people only, or between people and God. But even covenants between people often call upon God as witness, guarantor or avenger if the covenant is broken.
Covenant promises bind the behavior of those making them. Having made sacred vows, the covenant partners are obligated to act accordingly. If God is invoked, sacred covenant promises ultimately are made to God and accountable before God.
The theological imagination that lies behind covenant traditions like the presidential oath, or the oath to tell the truth in court, or even wedding vows, is profound but today largely vestigial. This imagination includes the idea that the most important human relationships are covenantal, that God is the ultimate witness and judge of our covenant making, and that covenant promises preserve community and define the range of acceptable behavior within community.
“Vows mean nothing if words mean nothing and truth does not matter.”
Undergirding any public covenant making is the largely implicit covenant to speak truthfully, including when making promises. Vows mean nothing if words mean nothing and truth does not matter. This must mean that the prerequisite of any covenant is the implicit covenant to speak truthfully. People who do not speak truthfully cannot make reliable covenant promises.
Every nation needs government leaders who contemplate deeply the nature of their covenant obligations. When nations pick leaders, they should carefully consider whether candidates have an expansive vision of the covenantal role of the office — and whether they have a track record of truth telling and covenant keeping in earlier roles and relationships. This is one way in which private conduct and public responsibility are profoundly linked. Christians used to know this.
So, in retrospect, here is a pivotal failure of the United States and its Christians in 2016. The U.S. elected a person with a long and well-established record of breaking his personal, financial and professional covenants as well as a demonstrably casual (if not pathological) relationship with the truth that is the prerequisite for all covenants.
We had no reason to believe such a person would prove seriously interested in the covenantal responsibilities of the presidency. And he did not. Anyone who had studied the history of 20th century politics could anticipate that a person with such a casual relationship with the truth, and such a track record of breaking his covenants, would not uphold his covenant with the American people (and God), would act in manifestly unjust ways, and would bathe his tenure in lies.
Václav Havel, the Czech dissident and finally president, who spent years in prison for truth-speaking under communism, documented with great profundity how truth is among the first casualties of political malfeasance and repression. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Elie Wiesel and many other literary and political heroes of the 20th century also focused attention on the relationship between tyranny, injustice and the death of truth in public life. If their work (and subject) had been taken more seriously, perhaps fewer philosophers and regular people might have succumbed to the fashionable idea that truth is merely relative or a matter of perspective. Fewer might also vote for candidates with a record of making lying habitual.
“Fundamental to tyranny is the manipulation of truth, even the creation of an enforced empire of lies.”
Under tyrannical regimes, truth is concealed, redefined, controlled and suppressed by the leader, party or state. Fundamental to tyranny is the manipulation of truth, even the creation of an enforced empire of lies. “You will agree that 2 + 2 = 5, because we say so, and we will enforce our redefinition of truth until we break you.”
Yet no state has proved capable of destroying the human will to know and speak the truth. No matter how intense the repression, there always will be stalwart souls who commit themselves to tell the truth about what is really going on. Such loyalty to the truth amid regimes built on lies may be the ultimate revolutionary act in conditions of oppression. That commitment to know and speak the truth can be costly. Many millions died in the 20th century simply for telling the truth.
Reflecting on the dramatic scene of Jesus before Pilate, Croatian expat theologian Miroslav Volf sees a clash between “the truth of power” and “the power of truth.” This is a great insight.
One way to interpret Pilate’s famous “What is truth?” question is to view it as a taunt. “You speak to me of truth, Jesus of Nazareth. But I am the one who defines truth in this place and time. I will show you who defines truth by nailing you to one of our crosses.” Although Christ does end up hanging on the cross, his death ultimately marks the victory both of truth and of life. He could not be intimidated by Power into denying Truth.
In U.S. public life over these last four years, we witnessed a reign of lies. Roughly one-third of the public believed the lies. Many others did not believe the lies but they accommodated the liar out of fear and expedience. This was especially true in the Republican political class.
The most interesting people to watch during this awful time were not those whose party affiliation and ideology made it easy for them (us) to know Trump was a liar and wannabe tyrant. Instead, it was the population of Republicans who had to decide whether they would submit to “the truth of power” or “the power of truth.” The most impressive in this group are those who suffered real costs for choosing bedrock truth over Trumpian power. But there were not enough of them. Not only has our democracy suffered great damage but quite literally, many people are dead today because of the predictable yet craven choices of those who chose power over truth.
David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the past-president of both the American Academy of Religion and Society of Christian Ethics. He is an author or editor of 25 books. His most recognized works include “Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust,” “Kingdom Ethics,” “The Sacredness of Human Life,” and “Changing Our Mind.” He earned the Ph.D. from Union Seminary. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta.
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