BELIEVING THE LIE
Address to St Olave’s School, Kent
Every year, the Oxford English Dictionary decides on a ‘word of the year’. A word that suddenly becomes popular and gets used time and again. In 2016, the OED made ‘post-truth’ their word of the year. What does that mean? The use of the prefix ‘post’ often says a lot about someone’s wish to look deep and clever, even when they’re not. Try saying you’re post-broccoli next time someone tries to make you eat your greens and you’ll soon see the prefix isn’t always respected.
It’s a funny thing, really – post-truth. Why not just say someone is lying? Perhaps because we’ve come to realise it’s saying something more complicated. It’s the kind of lie that gets a foothold in public debate; the place that can do the most damage. We sometimes want to believe the lie because it suits us. This is partly why experts are looked down on so much today. They get in the way.
I sometimes wonder if students can believe their ears. On one hand you are being told by adults to get as educated as possible. On the other hand, you see adults attacking experts as out of touch know-it-alls. To which I would say, it probably isn’t the same adults saying both things. To be educated is one of the most liberating things that can happen to us. Only fools despise people who know stuff.
But how easy is it to stand up for truth? In the Book of Acts, Peter and John, on a rush proclaiming Jesus, are arrested, locked up overnight to try and unsettle them and brought before the religious rulers in Jerusalem to explain themselves in the morning. The power seemed to be all on one side. The rulers had been highly trained in religious thinking. Peter was a fisherman with a northern accent who had had a few months of following a preacher around who had got himself killed. But he was unafraid to say what he had seen. To do what we often call speaking truth to power. To witness to the resurrection from the dead.
It also shows that experts can sometimes be wrong and that it may suit them for nothing to change. It is easier to continue believing something, despite new evidence, if your career depends on it. This was the position of the religious rulers. But to be a true expert is to remain open to new evidence and to change what you know in the light of it. Reading the story from Acts, it is hard to get a sense of how intimidating it was for Peter and John to stand up for truth. It can be really costly. Peter and John got away with it that day, after a threat or two, but it would not be long before those who followed the risen Jesus were being murdered for doing so.
The thing is, you never know when you might have to stand up for the truth. Tim Snyder, professor of history at Yale University has spent a lifetime studying this kind of question and he has written a book about it. It’s unexpectedly simple and punchy. Each chapter has a key message, like: Be kind to language. Believe in truth. Keep an independent conscience.
But how exactly do we keep an independent conscience? Tim Snyder gives us a reading list to help on the way. And one of the things he suggests is that Christians should go back to their Bibles to be enriched by its thinking. When the Bible is put to one side, so is proper care for the most vulnerable people in our society. Not knowing our Bibles also allows some people to hijack it and hold it hostage, making it say what it does not mean to people who don’t know enough about it in the first place.
One of the biggest thinkers about Nazi Germany and how a population was duped into following Hitler is a thinker called Victor Klemperer. Klemperer said that truth dies when:
Lies are presented as facts.
Phrases are endlessly repeated until they become believable.
Contradiction is openly embraced. If you’re wondering what that means, think of the slogans from Orwell’s 1984: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.
Self-deifying claims are made. That is, leaders make out they have all the answers and that the people and institutions around them are a waste of space.
Does any of that sound familiar?
It makes us a little on edge, because we can see the evidence of this today, and in the places we least expected.
The worst thing about believing a lie is that it makes everyone vulnerable to the most powerful or the most shameless. Those who can bully their way through opposition and use their wealth to silence others; and those who no longer blush when they tell a total lie. We like to think that truth is really powerful, but we have to stand up for it to know its real power. If we don’t, it can be re-packaged as something entirely different. And this can be done very quickly. The seventeenth century author Jonathan Swift said: ‘if a lie be believed only for an hour, it has done its work’. He said that a long time before social media made it possible for lies to cross the world in a split second.
We’ve all got stuff to work out. We all tell lies from time to time. In fact, the evidence is we do it a lot, but don’t admit it to ourselves. But this does not mean we can’t stand up for truth, especially when it’s under threat around us. We just need more honesty with ourselves to begin with.
The American author David Foster Wallace once said, ‘the truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you’. The first bit belongs to Jesus: the truth will set you free. But the last bit kind of does too, even though he didn’t say it: the truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you. We need to let God do his work in our hearts to root out dishonesty like weeds and replace it with a love of truth. Because when we do so, we’ll be ready for that moment in life when we have to stand up for the truth in front of others. If Peter and James had bottled it, and not stood up for the truth that day, the building we are in today wouldn’t have been built and our world would look horribly different. The legacy of doing the right thing can last a very long time.
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