The Vulnerability of Truth

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, January 14, 2021

Truthfulness matters.

One of the Great Ends of the Church is “Preservation of the Truth.” (Book of Order F-1.0304) In one sense this refers to protecting a body of knowledge, but even more significantly it is about truthfulness as a way of life. Why, as people of faith, have we diligently guarded a commitment to truthfulness as a priority for the Church? Because it is pricelessly precious, and because it is so easily abandoned for the sake of gaining advantage over others.

It is human nature to prefer believing a lie that confirms our world view to believing a truth that challenges it. This is rooted in what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” Many of us struggle to recognize and make course corrections due to our own bias, something seized upon by people in power who exploit this human tendency for their personal gain.

The perpetration of falsehoods about the integrity of the voting process in the recent national election, both by government leaders and media commentators who know they are hawking untruths, is indefensible. By repeating or tolerating lies, opinion influencers have led many to believe demonstrably false claims. In so doing, they have fueled a significant swath of our population already inclined to bolster white supremacy, ignore the stranger, turn away the refugee, isolate the orphan, scorn those unlike them, pillage the environment, and reward the wealthy. This all came home to roost with the deadly mob uprising in the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Threats of still further armed protests over the next several days are being ominously sounded across the nation.

The voting systems in the recent national election have been thoroughly investigated and resoundingly vindicated by our justice system as scrupulously fair. Multiple inquiries have produced no evidence to support the false assertion that the election was stolen; yet government officials, their lawyers, and media outlets continue to press that claim. And many people believe them. The idea that the election was fraudulent has real power because (1) some people want to believe it, (2) powerful people with a megaphone have relentlessly repeated it, and (3) partisan allies lend it credence by refusing to oppose it though they know it is false.

The violent attack on the Capitol happened not only due to direct incitement from the White House, but as a result of unremitting assertions of baseless election-fraud claims over previous months. It is crucial for the health of our nation that no further warrantless provocation of violence be tolerated. Lies can and do kill.

Failure to name a lie for what it is aids and abets its proliferation. As people of the truth, the church must expose and oppose the deceits that swirl about in the world around us, as well as among us.

There is no path to God apart from acknowledging the truth. (John 14:6) For God’s people, commitment to the truth requires that we disavow all lies. (1 John 2:21)

Our finger of judgment must point first at ourselves, if we profess to be the household of God. (1 Peter 4:17) Are we vigilantly truthful with each other? Or have we been more concerned to preserve our places of comfort and privilege than to be transparent about all we do? We have no right to rail against those who practice deceit in politics and media if we indulge in untruthfulness to preserve our own interests.

If the church is truly “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), it must practice honesty always in its own affairs. Only then does it have credibility in calling out deceit in the larger society. The church must vigilantly guard the truth, because truthfulness is so easily disdained and dismissed.

Truth is more often a friend to the lowly than to the mighty. Thus it is most often squelched by those who have abundant means to do so.

The Barmen Declaration (Book of Confessions 8.01-28) was adopted in Germany in 1934 to warn the church against the proliferation of untruths by the shrill voices of National Socialism, which the church tolerated and even echoed as it sought to curry political favor. Barmen reminded the church then, and reminds us today, that the only word we can follow if we are doing God’s work is the Word of God. We dare not grant absolute allegiance to any worldly figure or power.

In a few days we will celebrate the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his sermon “Our God is Able,” Dr. King contended, “The force of evil may temporarily conquer truth, but truth has a way of ultimately conquering its conqueror. Our God is able. James Lowell (1844) was right:

Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown
Stands the God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.”

Vulnerable as truth may be, God’s truth is marching on!

Yours in seeking truthfulness,

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