Truth: the soul work our country needs
By Amy Butler
Even the most talented fiction writer might have had a difficult time coming up with the scenario Americans faced in the days following the inauguration of Donald Trump in January 2017. It seemed that no one could agree on the size of the crowd in attendance at the inauguration. The president, himself, insisted actual photographs were misleading, pundits stated factually false information and journalists found that average people insisted that objectively smaller crowds were larger.
It seems that, in America these days, we’re having a little trouble remembering the definition of a fact.
This political climate raises some fundamental questions for people of faith who wonder about effective witness in these times. As Christians, how do we to respond when facts are in dispute? Is it the role of the Church to join the fray, shouting louder and louder and hoping a certain version of the facts gets heard?
I think not. Instead, in this era of disputed facts, the Christian voice has a different role to play in the national discourse. Rather than curating facts, people of faith are called to proclaim truth.
This bifurcation of facts and truth would be a new emphasis for the Church. Historically speaking, 500 years ago at the start of the Protestant Reformation, the Church was the receptacle for both facts and truth. Monasteries were libraries, and we were champions of science — not its chief opponents. We laud the invention of the printing press, as it introduced the democratization of information, transforming the Church and empowering people to think for themselves. But now the pendulum has swung its full arch, and not only can people access facts, but they can also access their own personal version of facts. And the Church, it seems, now holds the important responsibility of raising deep and fundamental values and calling us back again and again not just to the facts, but to the truth.
Consider the difference:
It is a fact that in more than 30 years, not one refugee to the United States has committed a terrorist attack against us, and no one from the seven countries named in Trump’s recent Muslim ban attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Instead of reciting this fact, people of faith are called to tell the truth: We welcome the immigrant and the stranger.
It is a fact that our world is getting warmer, our climate is changing, and the effects of that change are hurting some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Instead of reciting this fact, people of faith are called to tell the truth: We care for creation and the marginalized.
It is a fact that more guns in society make all of us less safe. Instead of reciting this fact, people of faith are called to tell the truth: Human life is valuable, and losing 30,000 lives a year to gun violence is unacceptable.
It is a fact that the American economy is stronger than it was eight years ago. Instead of reciting this fact, people of faith are called to tell the truth: Too many still struggle to put food on the table, and no child in America should ever go hungry.
See the difference? Facts define and distinguish one position from another. Truth draws us into relationship based on our shared humanity.
Facts define and distinguish one position from another. Truth draws us into relationship based on our shared humanity.
There is a deep longing in our world for the truth, and this is nothing new. Jesus talked about truth a lot — how its proclamation is a path to freedom and a fundamental part of his work and witness in the world. It’s no coincidence that at a critical moment in the clash between good and evil, a conflicted Pilate asked Jesus the question, “What is truth?”
We are followers of this Jesus, and we know what truth is. Truth exists deeper than our minds, on the level of our hearts, in those places where we find ourselves caring for each other with the recognition of our shared identity as God’s beloved creations. Perhaps knowing that truth — that each of us is created in the image of God — is more important than any fact we could recite.
Don’t mistake what I’m saying. Facts are important. It matters that we are aware of our enemies, who real victims are, what actual prejudice looks like. And, in America in these days, we have to keep working to understand facts because they point us to the places where our work needs to intensify. But it’s the truth that we were created for relationship, reconciliation and flourishing that must be the fundamental motivation for people of faith. Learning and declaring that truth is the soul work that our country needs so desperately, especially now.
Once the Church releases our frantic effort to fact check in a world where facts are negotiable, we will find ourselves freed not just to proclaim the truth but to live it in ways that will, as Jesus said, set us free.
Amy Butler is senior minister of The Riverside Church, New York City.
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The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.