Byron C. Bangert
June 29, 2003
First United Church, Bloomington, IN
Jeremiah 5:1-3; Zechariah 8:14-17; John 8:31-36
Noted Methodist scholar and preacher, George Buttrick, told the following story about a grandmother from Czechoslovakia. One day she tried to cross Third Avenue in New York City against the traffic light. "We pulled her almost from the wheels of the oncoming bus, dusted her clothes, picked up her groceries, and said gently: "Mother, not against the lights." She said, "Free country!" (Sermons Preached in a University Church, 58)
Buttrick explains that she had been reared in a land where "Verboten" met her at every turn and now, as her remark implied, she was living west of the Statue of liberty. So there was a kind of perverse reasonableness to her reckless assertion of freedom. She was relatively free!
I trust it is obvious however, that freedom is not absolute. No one can do merely as she pleases, at least not for very long! Yet there are times when one gets the impression that the typical American conceives of freedom in this way. We claim, in any event, that freedom is our birthright. We just naturally assume that we are, and are meant to be, free. We resist having government, or anybody else, tell us what to do. We would probably be puzzled, if not offended by the suggestion that we are needing to be set free. So perhaps we can begin to appreciate the response of the Jews to Jesus in our text.
Jesus says, "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They say, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to any one. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free?'"
The people addressed here by Jesus include some of the religious and political leaders of the day. These words are said to have been spoken to those who had believed in him. The way the story reads, Jesus said some things they liked--or at least, some things that elicited a positive response from them. Next thing you know, he's telling them something they don't like, and apparently are not ready to hear. What's this about freedom? They do not need it, or anybody telling them they do. They are already free. It is their heritage as Israelites to be free--just as it is our heritage as Americans to be free. Who needs this truth to make them free?
I am framing the question in this way to help us "get inside" this text, to try to understand what is really being said. We move in circles where this text has lost its bite. We live in a society that sees freedom largely as an absence of external restraint. But where we claim freedom, the text points to bondage. Where we assert our heritage, the text asserts our need to know the truth.
Part of the problem with this text is that it is so familiar. We treat it as a truism, and miss the force of what it has to say. Of course we need to know the truth, but who says we don't? Hasn't our entire Western culture blossomed and flourished because it knows the truth, and that truth has set us free? There are probably no words of scripture more frequently engraved upon our buildings, the monuments of our civilization. Over the entryways to hundreds and thousands of libraries, college and university halls, and churches, we can find these words. They are over the entryway to the offices of the First Baptist Church in Kalamazoo, where I was a pastor before coming to Bloomington. And these words are true: knowledge of the truth does make us free.
We could hardly understand the place of liberal education in Western society apart from the experience and conviction that the truth sets us free. Knowledge of the truth is a liberating element of our human life. Knowledge of the truth frees us in many ways. It frees us from ignorance and superstition and the unnecessary fears of wrong belief.
Knowledge of the truth also frees us from the other errors of the past. It may free us from authoritarian dogmas that cannot bear the scrutiny of critical inquiry. It may free us from oppressive ideologies of race, gender, sexuality, and cultural superiority. The advance and enlargement of knowledge may serve as a corrective and a check upon every social and political system, every prejudice, every doctrine of science, every dogma of religion.
I remember my experience as a seminarian being introduced for the first time to a critical study of the scriptures. It was a somewhat frightening experience, but it was ultimately a very liberating one. The Bible opened up to me in a way it could never have opened up before. I began to see its truth and wisdom and richness of human experience in an altogether new light. It was no longer necessary to believe things I could no longer believe in any case, dogmas that were refuted already by my knowledge of science and my experience of history. The Bible, it soon became clear, was not a collection of incredible stories and oppressive legalisms and unbelievable propositions but an incomparably rich and lively witness of faith to a God who is ultimately greater than all we can say and think and know. Here was a truth that began to set me free.
Theologian Joseph Sittler identified two other ways in which a knowledge of the truth is liberating. Such knowledge liberates us from the tyranny of loneliness and the tyranny of egocentricity. Liberal learning has way of expanding our world, putting us in touch with the experiences of others, with their hearts and minds and spirits. What a tremendous relief and joy it can be to discover in reading history or literature or poetry that one is not alone in one's feelings or thoughts or ideas! In their writings about the natural world Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Annie Dillard and various others have helped us to experience the joys of our communion with the rest of creation. The creation is not all about us. The humanities and the sciences introduce us to worlds of experience and event and meaning, bridging time and place and circumstance, both to conquer our loneliness and to multiply our perspectives so that our interest and energies need not be focused back in upon ourselves. (cf. Sittler, The Care of the Earth, 141-145).
However, it is not simply knowledge, knowledge as knowledge, that sets us free. Knowledge that can help to cure our diseases can also help to devise instruments of torture. Knowledge that can harness the energy of the atom can also be used to build atomic bombs. When our text speaks of a knowledge of the truth, it means a fullness of knowledge, a depth of knowledge, that is more than an accumulation of facts and experiences. It is personal knowledge. It is the difference between knowing about another person, for example, and knowing that other person. Knowledge of the truth is knowledge about which we cannot be indifferent, for it is knowledge that claims us, that involves us, and that speaks to us about the way things really are.
For the past several months I've been reading more of the newspaper, and watching more of the news, than I usually do. In fact, I suspect that ever since "Nine-Eleven" most of us have been paying a bit more attention than usual. Have you noticed how often the question of truth comes up? And have you noticed how distorted the conversation about it has become? I'm told that after Martha Stewart was indicted for lying in connection with the Imclone scandal, that's all some of the media news programs could talk about. Then Sammy Sosa broke a bat, and I gather that his corked bat became the hottest topic for discussion for several days. I really don't know about this--I don't watch those TV channels or listen to those radio stations that thrive on sensationalism and hysteria. I'll grant you, either Martha Stewart is lying, or she is not. We know she has denied the charges against her. And Sammy Sosa is either lying or he made a mistake. I suppose it would be nice to know.
But the truth about Martha and Sammy is not nearly so important as the truth about our President and his advisors and all that we were told to justify the war against Iraq. It can't possibly all be true. On the same day that the Secretary of Defense was insisting that we knew that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction a report from his own department's Defense Information Agency was released clearly stating that there was not sufficient intelligence to know whether such weapons still existed or not. Somebody was not telling the truth.
Of course, people can have different perspectives; they can make different interpretations of the facts. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton had a very thoughtful essay in last Sunday's Hoosier Times pointing out how honest, fair-minded, and knowledgeable legislators and politicians can still see and judge matters in very different ways. Hamilton was responding to a recent survey in which some 86% of the American people indicated that they believe that their political leaders will lie to them if it is politically expedient for them to do so. Hamilton does not agree that lying is so widespread, or to be taken so for-granted. I believe Hamilton is an honest man. But I also believe that honest people often have a hard time believing how dishonest other people can be.
The real problem in our public life, as in all our personal relations with one another, of course, goes well beyond questions of fact. We want the facts to be right. But there is something much more important, and that is what we do with the facts. How we use our knowledge. How we construe what is really going on. I can deceive you without ever telling you anything that is not true. All I have to do is keep some of the truth from you. All I have to do is present my version of the truth without letting on that it isn't the whole story. Being truthful requires a whole lot more than just being sure no one can catch you in a lie. There's an old saying that figures never lie, but liars figure. Well, that gets close to the problem we face in so much of life, and so obviously these days in our public life. Information is so often used, not to inform but to bias. Knowledge is used, not to make knowledgeable, but to create an impression. The goal is to influence, to shape perceptions, to exercise power and control, and if necessary (and it usually is necessary to achieve the desire effect), to deceive.
Truth, especially in the political realm, is an elusive possession. It is no accident that the Gospel of John has Pilate, a politician, an official of the Empire, raise the question, "What is truth?" But he raises that question in response to Jesus' assertion that there is a truth, and he has come to bear witness to that truth. (John 18:37,38)
A knowledge of the truth involves us personally. Truth does not manipulate or deceive, it makes authentic encounter possible. It speaks to us of what actually is and exercises its claim upon us, and it is impossible to be indifferent about such truth. Jesus says, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." If you will not be truthful, then you cannot be free.
There is no escaping the implication there is truth we need to know--and that this is a liberating truth, a truth that frees us to be what we were meant to be. The text here speaks about the bondage of sin. Sin, which is in-authentic life, which is violation of community, which is abuse of power and misuse of creation, which is tragic rejection of promise and possibility. "He came to his own home," says John of Christ, "and his own people received him not." (1:11). "Human existence denies its own deepest and most essential nature," wrote theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. "But when (people) cease to make the standards of a sinful existence the norms of life but accept this true norm, even though they fail to obey it, their very contrition opens the eyes of faith" (Beyond Tragedy,19).
Knowing truth means knowing ourselves for what we are. This requires, first of all, facing, recognizing, and accepting our capacity for inauthentic existence, our propensity for sin, our desire to deceive, and even to be deceived. Some of the most un-free people are those who are always trying to present themselves as something other than what they are. Have you heard the story about Air Force major who was promoted to colonel and received a brand new office? His first morning behind his desk, an airman knocked on the door and asked to speak to him. The colonel, feeling the urge to impress the young man, picked up his phone, and said, "Yes, general, thank you, yes. I will pass that along to the President this afternoon. Goodby, sir." Then he turned to the airman and barked, "And what do you want?" "Nothing sir, I just came to hook up your phone."
A slightly different tale is told by a nurse in a Catholic hospital several years ago. A lady who had been in an accident was brought into the emergency room. The lady was almost paralyzed with fright and the nurse, seeing her terror, pressed a rosary into her hand to hold. As the nurse stepped away from the trolley on which the lady lay, she heard the patient say softly but urgently: "Lord, don't let this thing I'm holding fool you--I'm still a good Baptist."
We needn't worry: God is not fooled. But if Freud has taught us anything, it is our seemingly limitless capacity to fool ourselves. If we say we have no sin, we only delude ourselves and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8). We are in the bondage of pride, of false piety, of hatred and envy and lust. We are captive of our own efforts at self promotion. We are imprisoned by our refusals to forgive and be forgiven. The philosopher Francis Bacon judged that if we ever had to face up to the real truth about ourselves a great many of us would be appalled: "Doth any [one] doubt, that if there were taken out of [human] minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of [people] poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?" (Bacon, Of Truth) We squander enormous energy in keeping up appearances and denying the truth about ourselves.
In the heat of the Presidential campaign of 1984 Jesse Jackson publicly asked for forgiveness if, during the rhetoric of the campaign, he had injured any one. Afterward Dan Rather asked Bill Moyers, "When was the last time you heard that done in public life?" Moyers answered, "Never, it just isn't done." Too bad, too bad. Too bad we all are not better able to face the truth and to be honest with one another. In the Bible the false prophets are always those who tell the people what they want to hear. We pay a tremendous price in human bondage, a great toll of resources and talent, when we as individuals or as a people are not able or willing to know the truth that sets us free.
For if we know ourselves for what we are, we also know our capacity for authentic existence. We know the peril, but we also know the promise. Here we encounter the marvelous disclosure that the truth is not a doctrine, not a theory, not a collection of facts, not a formulation of any kind. Truth is a way of life, a power of being, a vital presence in the world. Truth is a unifying spirit, a resource of grace, an incarnation of love, known to us in relationship. Truth is personal and involving. For us the truth has been revealed, made manifest, made present and active in the person of Jesus the Christ. Indeed, it is easier to know the truth by pointing to Christ than it is to try to define the truth. For we best know the truth, not as idea, not as fact, but as living embodiment of the ultimate nature of being, the real character of our existence and of all things.
It is fundamentally to ourselves that we are in bondage. It is fundamentally to ourselves that we practice our deceit. Every day we see it in the ads; every evening in the commercials, the political speeches, the official news releases. We are habitually captive of our own limited aims and possibilities. Luther declared that we seek ourselves "in everything, even in God" (cited by Sittler, op.cit.,146). In this tragic context that we need to hear the word of our text. God is not mocked. The truth remains. We need liberation from our own oppressions. We really do need the truth that will make us free.
The fundamental bondage of our human existence is the bondage of the self, of our prides and passions, of our distrust of every power except our own, even the very power of our being. Only as we are drawn to the truth can this bondage be overcome. The words of theologian Paul Tillich may help us to recognize this truth. He wrote: "The truth which liberates is the power of love, for God is love...Therefore, distrust every claim for truth where you do not see truth united with love; and be certain that you are of the truth and that the truth has taken hold of you only when love has taken hold of you and has started to make you free from yourselves" ["What is Truth?", The New Being, p. 74]. Amen.
Copyright 2003 by Byron C. Bangert