Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School spoke out in the midst of their grief and pain. They were very eloquent in demanding change to make our schools and communities safer. The response of these students was very powerful. But within an hour or so, the story was out over the internet that these were not real students but “crisis actors” paid by anti-gun lobbyists.
It was particularly offensive to attack and try to discredit high school students in the midst of loss, but that has almost become par for the course. We live in a time of wild conspiracy theories, alternative facts, and fake news. And a lot of folks are only too eager to believe it.
The way that news spreads via social networking makes it possible for false stuff to get out there in a very short amount of time. And indeed, a recent study showed that lies travel much faster via Twitter than true stories. A paper released a couple of weeks ago by scholars at the MIT Media Lab analyzed 126,000 rumors that were spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017. They looked at claims that were evaluated by major fact-checking organizations and found that false rumors traveled “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” and especially politics.
It wasn’t that those who were spreading the lies had more followers on Twitter – in fact, the opposite was true. But it does seem to be the case that the novelty of made-up news is just too good not to pass on. And we all tend to be taken in by things that we want to be true.
We can all participate in this phenomenon to some extent. It is easy to live in an echo chamber, only listening to views that match our own opinions and preconceived ideas. And we are all likely to shade the truth, at least a little, to favor our own position.
Not only do we have those out there purveying lies, there is also a growing hostility to the media and to those seeking to do investigative reporting – attempting to uncover and report on the facts. It can be difficult to even agree on what the facts are. It is not an easy time for the truth.
Just this week, the Wall Street Journal had an article titled “Truth Isn’t the Problem – We Are.” The author noted that while the term “post-truth” has been around for decades, its use skyrocketed in 2016 and is now pretty much an everyday term. Among other things, truth has become a matter of tribal identity, and that believing the opposite of what so-called experts claim can be a pledge of allegiance to one’s political or opinion group. So to disagree with 97% of climate scientists that human actions have an impact on climate change, or to insist the genetically modified crops are unsafe, despite an exhaustive study by the National Academy of Sciences concluding there is no such evidence, is at the heart of it not so much an assertion of what is true but a claim of group identity. But man, it really messes with the truth.
All of this is to say that the question of what is truth is about as contemporary an issue as we can find. And so our scripture for today seems to be, as they say, ripped from the headlines.
Jesus has been arrested. Peter has denied him three times. After appearing before the Jewish High Priest, Jesus has been taken to the Roman governor Pilate. And what does Pilate ask? “What is truth?”
Before we look more closely at that question, let’s go back to set the stage for this conversation.
After the meal on Thursday night, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested. He was taken to the priest Annas and then Annas’ father, the high priest Caiaphas. The Jewish authorities were given a certain amount of freedom in regards to legal matters, but they could not mete out capital punishment. And it was the conviction of the powers that be that for the good of the nation, Jesus must die. Only Rome could pronounce that sentence, so Jesus was taken to the Roman governor Pilate.
Now, Pilate did not live in Jerusalem. His full-time residence was in Caesarea Maritima, along the coast. What was he doing in Jerusalem? Well, it was Passover. A celebration of the Israelites gaining freedom from a foreign power. This would understandably make the Roman authorities a bit nervous. So to keep the peace and in a display of power, Roman soldiers were present in numbers during Passover, and Pilate the governor was in town as well.
From what we know of Pilate, he was a brutal and repressive official. Writing in the first century, Philo said that Pilate “had vindictiveness and a furious temper.” He went on to describe Pilate’s “corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending and gratuitous inhumanity.”
Bottom line: Pilate is not a nice guy. He is sometimes portrayed as a weak and indecisive ruler, but that certainly was not the case. Pilate was actually governor on two different occasions. In repressing a potential revolt in Samaria, Pilate was so heavy-handed and brutal, he had so many people killed, that he was recalled to Rome for a time, but later returned to serve again as governor.
Now, don’t think of governor here as we have governors today. Pilate was essentially a mini-king, answering to nobody but the emperor. He didn’t have to get the legislature to go along with the budget. If he wanted someone condemned to death, he could make it happen – he wasn’t constricted by the judicial system.
The Jewish leaders and temple police, along with Roman soldiers, bring Jesus to Pilate. What takes place is very interesting. If they were to enter Pilate’s headquarters in Jerusalem, this would make them ritually unclean for Passover. So Pilate agrees to come outside to talk to them. After a brief conversation, after hearing their accusations and concerns, Pilate goes back into his headquarters with Jesus in tow, while Jesus’ accusers remain outside.
So you have the most powerful person in that part of the world, a notably brutal ruler, speaking with an accused, marginal religious leader from an insignificant part of an insignificant country. This is what you call a definite power imbalance.
And yet, Jesus seems to be the one in control of the situation. He comes across as cool, calm and collected. Pilate asks if he is a king, and Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Pilate responds by saying, “Oh, so you are a king.” And Jesus says, “Those are your words, not mine. I came into this world to testify to the truth.” And Pilate asks that question, “What is truth?”
You may have noticed that Jesus does not reply. There is no answer. There is only silence. Pilate’s words hang in the air.
I don’t think Pilate is asking about scientific truth or fact-checking. He is asking a bigger, deeper question.
Pilate has only known expediency. Doing what is safe, what makes sense, what will protect his position and power. Jesus represents something entirely different. In the face of an existential threat, with his life literally on the line, here is someone who is true – true to himself, true to his calling, true to his God.
What is truth? What is the truth about us, and about God, and about life?
In a sense, Pilate did not ask the right question. The question is not “What is truth?”, but “Who is truth?” A few chapters before, Jesus had said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Truth, capital T truth, involves relationship. It involves community. It involves not just a set of beliefs, not just a group of facts, but it involves our actions, our living.
If you ride a bicycle, eventually your tires can get a little wobbly, a little out of balance. A tire may rub on the brake pad at a certain place with each revolution of the wheel. Maybe you have hit a few too many curbs or potholes, or maybe over time things have just gotten a bit out of kilter. So what you have to do is to true the wheels. You adjust the tension on the spokes in order to get the wheel to where it is true.
A bicycle wheel is a good metaphor for our lives. Are our lives true? Or have we become out of balance, not really our true selves?
I think of those leaders who brought Jesus before Pilate. It is an absurd scene. They do not want to make themselves ritually unclean, and so they do not enter Pilate’s residence. Now, condemning an innocent man to death, perjury, conspiracy to commit murder – these don’t seem to be big issues, but entering a Gentile’s home right before Passover would be a real problem. Things were definitely out of kilter here. It seems to me that they were not being true to the faith that they professed. And we can be the same way as we worry about small matters and ignore the larger claims of love and justice. Living a true life means living a whole life, a life of integrity.
Some of us are reading a devotional book by Walter Brueggemann during Lent. In the last week’s readings, Brueggemann said a couple of things that resonated for me in relation to this question of truth.
Ours is a time like the flood, like the exile, when the certitudes abandon us, the old reliabilities have become unsure, and “things fall apart.” The falling part is happening for conservatives, and it is happening for liberals. It is happening all around us and to all of us. In such a context of enormous fearfulness, our propensity is to enormous destruction. We grow more strident, more fearful, more anxious, more greedy for our own way, more despairing, and, consequently, more brutal. That propensity to destructiveness is all around us. On many days we succumb to its power; we succumb to the need to look only after ourselves and our kind, only selfishly, only ideologically, only “realistically.” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 54)That was the position of those who brought Jesus to Pilate. They were being “realistic,” they told themselves, and were willing to sacrifice this man for what they considered to be the good of the nation.
Brueggemann writes that we have bought into a story of scarcity – that there is only so much to go around, only so many resources, only so much power, only so much capacity for joy and fulfillment and contentment, and that we better do what we can to take care of ourselves and our own. This narrative of scarcity says that it is a win-lose world, and we need to do whatever it takes to insure that we are on the winning side. We have bought into the anxiety and fearfulness of our time. But then he writes:
The story we tell about scarcity is a fantasy. It is not a true story. It is a story invented by those who have too much to justify getting more. It is a story accepted by those who have nothing in order to explain why they have nothing. That story is not true, because the world belongs to God and God is the creator of the abundant life. (p. 51)
In Oklahoma last Sunday, we went to the Bacone College Baptist Church, which meets in the chapel at the college. It was a very small group, as the students were on spring break. We met a young couple named Eric and Yuree. They had met at school there and got married. Eric is from Wisconsin and Yuree came to the U.S. as a refugee from Burma – her ethnicity is Karen. Her younger brothers live with them. Eric has graduated and is the Assistant Pastor at the church; Yuree is still a student and she is a Christian Ministry intern at the college chapel. They hope to go as missionaries to work in refugee camps in Thailand.
Until coming to the U.S. a few years ago, Yuree and her family had lived in the refugee camps. The camps have been there for 50 years – there are people who have lived their entire lives in those camps because of a fearful and brutal government in their own country.
That narrative of scarcity that fears the other, that tries to take advantage of and subjugate and abuse the other, has been around a long, long, time. We can get sucked into that story. But it is not a true story.
Pilate went back out and addressed those who brought Jesus before him. “I find no case against him,” he said. But the crowd would have none of it. When he offers to release Jesus, the crowd says, “We want Barabbas.”
What is truth? Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Truth is found in a life of integrity, a whole life, a life of care and compassion and generosity that rejects the false story of scarcity and fear and lives in the truth of God’s abundance. Amen.