At the annual gathering of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship last week, I heard at least one speaker repeat the words of John 8:32: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In fact, as I recall, the presenter said the first phrase, pausing to gesture, so that the audience responded with conviction, “and the truth will set you free.”
But call me cynical. Or perhaps I am simply realistic. Will knowing the truth always set us free?
We know the truth about the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and Donald Trump’s masterminding of it. We know he and some of his advisers and supporters refused to believe Joe Biden had legally and fairly won the presidential election.
We know that for the first time in our nation’s history a former president would not participate in a peaceful transfer of power.
We know he rallied his armed and angry crowd of misinformed and blind believers to march on the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying the states’ electoral votes and declaring Biden the winner and Trump the loser.
We know he stirred up a mob to violence, encouraging them to “fight like hell” to keep him in power.
We know he watched the unfolding insurrection on his White House television, refusing to order his followers to stop their attack on Capitol police or the building that had not been breached since the British set it on fire in 1814.
We know when he became aware that his vice president was in imminent physical danger, he put reclaiming his own lost power above saving his running mate’s life. We know that upon hearing the chilling call to “hang Mike Pence,” the president said, “He deserves it.”
We know Trump and his enablers in Congress opposed the investigation by the January 6 Select Committee and that he has denied any complicity in what happened, despite damning evidence of his guilt. We know he claims presidential immunity for his actions, believing he is above the law.
We know this truth.
We know the truth about the Supreme Court’s majority decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. We know the majority of Americans support a woman’s right, in consultation with her doctor, to make her own decisions concerning pregnancy and her physical and psychological health.
We know that because of certain unavoidable physical complications, the lives of some women are severely threatened if they continue a pregnancy.
We know women who are pregnant because of rape or incest bear an especially heavy burden when told they must carry an unwanted baby to full term.
We know states whose trigger laws enable them to make all abortions illegal are disproportionally penalizing poor women who cannot afford to travel to other states for the medical procedures they desire or require.
We know decisions about abortion often are made by groups of men, with very little input by women whose very bodies are the subject of deliberation.
We know one particular view of Scripture often is used to label the act of abortion and those who facilitate or undergo it as criminal or sinful.
We know Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh voted to overturn Roe v. Wade despite having given assurances in their confirmation hearings and related interviews that they were committed to upholding 50 years of precedent concerning abortion rights.
We know this truth.
We know the truth about gun violence and mass shootings in the United States. We know that statistics related to death and injuries caused by guns bring collective shame to our country in the world community of nations.
We know gun violence is the leading cause of death for American children.
We know the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle is the most popular gun sold in this country. We know it is a military-style weapon designed to kill the greatest number of human beings in the shortest amount of time. We know this weapon has been used in many of our most horrific mass killings in recent history.
We know the AR-15 mutilated almost beyond recognition and even decapitated some of the school children in Uvalde.
We know a majority of Americans support banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
We know almost 90% of Americans favor preventing those with mental illnesses from purchasing guns. We know many people believe the age limit for purchasing AR-15s should be raised to 21, the age at which one can buy a handgun or even a legal alcoholic drink.
We know the National Rifle Association and other entities with vested interests spend millions of dollars lobbying for Second Amendment rights and combatting sensible gun regulations that could save American lives. We know legislators at both the federal and state levels refuse to pass laws to stop or even significantly curb our national epidemic of gun-related injury and death.
We know this truth.
We know the truth about our economic caste system and the wealth inequality gap that keeps the few rich and the many poor. We know the United States has the richest economy in the world.
We know a majority of the nation’s wealth is owned by a small percentage of American families. We know the wealth gap is growing increasingly large with each passing year.
We know the super-wealthy, like Jeff Bezos, earn millions of dollars per day, and that he is on track to become the world’s first trillionaire.
We know our nation’s poverty rate is one of the highest in the developed world. We know approximately one in six Americans lives below the poverty level, sadly most of them women and children.
We know the wealthy receive physical, educational, social, legal and professional benefits that are unattainable for the poor.
We know social media of all kinds idolizes the rich and famous and holds them up as role models for our children and youth. We know that when asked, many children will say they “want to be millionaires when they grow up,” which is a subtle indictment of our cultural value system.
We know our social hierarchy is rigid, in many real ways just as personally limiting as India’s caste system. We know consumerism is a systemic evil that affects even the best of us if we are not careful.
We know this truth.
We know the truth about climate change and its threat to the earth and its inhabitants. We know scientists and environmentalists have been warning Americans for years about what we are doing to our natural home.
We know high temperatures so early in the summer are breaking records across the nation and threatening the lives of vulnerable young and elderly citizens.
We know fires in California, Colorado, Texas and other states are being caused by dangerously dry conditions, high winds and other weather irregularities that can be traced to climate change.
We know drought and desertification are changing the landscape of our country, killing crops and livestock and destroying the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers.
We know massive hurricanes will be experienced during this coming season, even as destructive tornados have caused billions of dollars of property damage and cost hundreds of lives.
We know with the drying of rivers, melting of glaciers and clearing of rainforests multiple species of living creatures are disappearing from the earth forever.
We know that by stopping the EPA’s policy of limiting emissions from power plants the Supreme Court has impeded efforts to save the environment. We know that only the narrowest window of time remains before the climate changes are irreversible and the lives of our children and their children will be irreparably altered.
We know many Americans believe defending the environment is simply the liberal scheme of “tree huggers” or “greenies” and has no relevance for human beings who are entitled to enjoy and use the earth and its resources.
We know Christian conservatives who focus on preparing for heaven and saving as many people as possible for the next life either deny climate change altogether or fail to understand the urgency of its implications for preventing abundant life now.
We know this truth.
We know these truths. But will simply repeating a platitude, however biblical and comforting it may be — even if it was said by Jesus 2,000 years ago — set us free?
We know the truth about the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and Donald Trump’s masterminding of it. But the cynical (or realistic) opinion I keep hearing is that he never will be indicted, or if he is, never convicted or sent to prison for sedition or treason.
We know the truth about the Supreme Court’s majority decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. But the cynical (or realistic) view of what likely comes next is the failed and hopeless attempts by the Biden administration to safeguard women’s health rights that counter the groundswell of simplistic and unnuanced calls to stop “baby murders.”
We know the truth about gun violence and mass shootings in the United States. But the cynical (and realistic) fear is that the hue and cry of gun owners, gun sellers and gun advocates like the NRA will continue to make it impossible to pass sensible gun laws in this country where the myth that more and more guns are the greatest defense against gun violence is believed.
We know the truth about our economic caste system and the wealth inequality gap that keeps the few rich and the many poor. But the cynical (and realistic) conclusion is that most of us will continue to chase a pleasant, if not pampered, lifestyle that has become synonymous with the American Dream.
We know the truth about climate change and its threat to the earth and its inhabitants. But the cynical (and realistic) concern is that self-interested politicians will bow to the wishes of greedy corporations and other-worldly Christians will forsake their responsibility to be faithful stewards of God’s creation.
“Knowing the truth will not set us free from the political subterfuge and criminal machinations that have characterized our country for a long time.”
Knowing these truths may still not set us free. Not unless by “free” we mean free in some spiritualized way — free from personal sin, free from worry about our individual eternal destiny, free from doubt or angst concerning God’s acceptance of us.
But knowing the truth will not set us free from the political subterfuge and criminal machinations that have characterized our country for a long time. It will not set us free from the gender bias or anti-woman patriarchy that has become a part of our collective experience.
Knowing the truth will not set us free from gun violence that is ever more prevalent in a Wild West setting where it is so easy to obtain and use a weapon and where everyone seems to be packing heat.
Knowing the truth will not set us free from the rat race or ladder-climbing or from the tendency of Americans to judge another’s value based upon his or her bank account.
Knowing the truth will not set us free from the devastation of climate change tragedies that are inevitable because of our failure to deny our wants for the sake of the earth’s needs.
It will take more than knowing the truth to set us free. Rather than merely responding to Scripture’s promise by quoting a platitudinous but largely empty phrase, let us pledge to do something. May we act. May we organize. May we join the effort. May we march. May we speak up. May we commit to the fight. May we sacrifice. May we donate. May we work.
Because, whether it is cynical or just realistic, knowing the truth may still not set us free.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is a past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.
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