The most important truth-telling
By Corey Fields
“Post-truth” was named by Oxford Dictionaries as 2016’s International Word of the Year. The first known use of the word is in a 1992 article by Steve Tesich in The Nation. He argued that Watergate and Vietnam left people with a sort of corruption fatigue.
“We came to equate truth with bad news and we didn’t want bad news anymore, no matter how true or vital to our health as a nation,” Tesich wrote.
He made a startling declaration: “We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams.”
People are referring to our current state of public discourse as “post-truth.” Tesich’s article points out one of the main features of post-truth: the refusal to hear things that we don’t want to hear. This is a real, although not new, problem — one that has arguably gotten worse with the advent of cable news, propaganda websites and social media filter bubbles. But I’m not sure it’s our biggest challenge.
There is, of course, the other (and also not new) problem of the gullible belief of lies. “Fake news” was a term first used by journalists and social media experts regarding the growth of satirical or deliberately misleading websites whose stories people keep sharing as real. The term is now being used by our president and others as an insult to discredit professional journalists, which is a whole other issue. The gullible belief of lies is a real problem — one that has arguably become worse with how quickly they can spread through digital media and the rebranding of falsehoods as “alternative facts.” But I’m not sure it’s our biggest challenge.
When it comes to truth telling, there’s an even more serious factor. It is something that shapes the most public policy and causes more death and destruction than anything else. I’m referring to something that Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Adichie calls the “danger of a single story.”
In an acclaimed 2009 TED Talk, Adichie discusses the human tendency to adopt a singular narrative about a certain group of people. When Adichie came to the United States for undergraduate school, for example, she remembers her roommate’s shock that she could speak English so well (it’s the official language of Nigeria), that she knew how to use a stove and that she didn’t listen to “tribal music.” Her roommate had been operating with a single story of Africans.
After having been in the United States for some time, Adichie visited Mexico, where she saw scenes of healthy family and social life that she didn’t expect to see. It was then she realized that she had bought into the U.S. media’s singular story of Mexicans as abject immigrants.
“Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become,” Adichie says in her TED Talk, which is worth the time to watch.
Nothing can disenfranchise, marginalize and get people killed like the single story can, especially when it is paired with fear and propaganda.
Nothing can disenfranchise, marginalize and get people killed like the single story can, especially when it is paired with fear and propaganda. It was the single story that put Japanese Americans in internment camps and German Jews in the gas chambers. It is the single story that leads us to fear and loathe immigrants so much that we’re willing to separate hard-working, loving families or return them to a “home” country that they do not know. It is the single story that can make us believe we have something to fear from refugees who are desperate to escape violence and have completed a grueling 18–24 month vetting process.
Adichie also makes a poignant observation about power.
“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” she says.
It is tragically easy and common for those in power to impart the story of the worst of a people group onto the whole group. In biblical terms, this is called “bearing false witness” against one’s neighbor, and it is the worst kind of untruthfulness because, for those without the power or the voice to tell their story, it can literally be a matter of life and death.
In John’s account of Jesus’ arrest and questioning, Jesus tells Pontias Pilate that he had come into the world to “testify to the truth.” Pilate asked a characteristically Greco-Roman question: “What is truth?” John’s gospel had begun with the affirmation that the Word of God had become flesh and made His dwelling among us. In the midst of the many singular stories, the incarnation is a call to understand both God and humans more clearly.
Jesus routinely shocked and confused because he rejected single stories of the poor, of tax collectors and of God’s character.
Jesus routinely shocked and confused because he rejected single stories of the poor, of tax collectors and of God’s character. In taking on human life, with all its nuance, God showed us that truth is most powerfully expressed through lived experience and love given. The more true stories we hear, the more we encounter God’s children, the more we are able to fulfill the greatest commandments of loving God and neighbor.
We tell many stories about each other. Followers of Christ are tasked not just with bearing witness to true stories but also with telling the most important one: that all people are created in the image of God.
Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.
The latest Tweets from Corey Fields (@coreyf_4). @AmericanBaptist pastor, @baptist_news columnist. Husband and daddy…twitter.com
The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.