What constitutes a lie? Okay, so it is not telling the truth. But how do we understand truth? Can something be true for you but not for me? Is there an absolute truth? (Go ahead, read millions of pages of philosophy from the past three millennia for the answer. I’ll wait…) How does lying relate to trust? Whose lies are we willing to overlook and whose lies will we condemn? How does lying impact learning? What makes data, information, knowledge, and wisdom trustworthy? What role does common sense play? What about education? Critical thinking?
I could end here because I don’t really have the answer to any of these questions, and my own personal bias could cause me to transgress and unintentionally (or intentionally) lie to you. And this is actually the basis upon which I write: intentionality. It is one thing to express an opinion as fact that is false, but it is quite another to do so intentionally with the express purpose of manipulating, deceiving, or duping. This, it seems, has become our cultural default setting, corrupting the very definition of good leadership and personal integrity.
Political leaders are easy targets, as our the heads of corporations, banks, brokerages, real estate, and car dealerships. Their reputations have long been cast in the shadow of deception. But religious leaders, academics, health care professionals, scientists? The sell-out of the religious right to politicians who are womanizers, racists, thieves, and hate-mongers is deeply disturbing. University presidents and health care professionals who are revealed to be in the pockets of large donors remake facts to fit fantasies in pursuit of personal gain and the almighty dollar. Climate scientists, biologists, and geneticists confess to being paid to falsify information about the global climate crisis, abortion, human sexuality to support a biased and false political agenda. Social media picks up the lies, deceptions, and misinformation and spreads it. Corporate media chooses to focus on the most outrageous and spectacular examples of idiocy and hate, reinforcing rather than refuting false claims.
I remember a time I was asked to read a manuscript for a church leadership resource. The premise was based on a first century church and how it could be a model for effective ministry today. I noted to the author that the church chosen was torn apart by conflict in the next generation and that within a few decades was no more. The response from the author was, “That’s okay. Nobody reading this book will know that, and I doubt anyone will check. It’s a good example as long as people don’t know the whole story.” Such a cavalier attitude toward truth is a huge problem. When teachers intentionally teach wrong information is it any wonder that we are in such a mess as a culture today?
Most parents I know, even to this day, try to teach their children that lying is wrong? Why? If lying is becoming the cultural norm, and if saying something loudly and long enough makes it true, why bother trying to get the next generation to tell the truth? And at what point in life do we discover that lying is preferable to telling the truth? When do the benefits of not being trustworthy outweigh the costs? It used to be that getting caught in a lie was cause for shame and remorse. Today we have people caught lying on recorded media who still deny they said it or that someone doctored the recording. We don’t even have the courage to own our lies.
So what does this have to do with The United Methodist Church, or any church for that matter? I would hope I really don’t have to answer this question. The Christian religion in this country is suffering a huge credibility crisis. Conservative evangelicals claim that this is due to a fundamental disobedience and sinfulness (not theirs, but everyone else’s) and liberal progressives claim it is due to judgmentalism, exclusion, and superstition. I have a different answer. The church has lost credibility because it has lost its counter-cultural imperative to speak (a) truth to power. When people attack the poor as lazy, the church needs to speak up in their defense. When political systems are established to institutionalize poverty, economic injustice, and racism, the church needs to challenge and confront them. When we demonize immigrants and refugees, the church must rise with gospel truth and remind the world that Christ’s gospel and God’s instruction command that we welcome the stranger. There is a biblical basis to challenge almost every lie being told in our world today, and we are the stewards and caretakers of this alternative narrative. Our Bible is a tool, not a weapon, and we need to rebuild an option for veracity, fidelity, and integrity that stops the flow of intolerance, hate, and aggression.
In just a couple weeks we will be confronted again with Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” At heart, we know the difference between truth and lies. Why we choose lies is just one more piece of damning evidence that we are a weak and broken people. But our faith offers us a truth that we must no longer deny, and we must stop using scripture as a medium from which we craft messages of division, deception, violence, and hate. Lying is a choice. A choice that disciples of Christ need to reject outright.
Thank you. You speak the pain of my heart.