by Pastor Doug Kings
Then Pilate … summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”.… Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world….” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (John 18)
I came across a recent article about Hanna Arendt’s (1906-1975) writings on the relationship between politics and truth. Arendt is best known for chronicling the 1961 Adolph Eichmann war crimes trial in Jerusalem and for her phrase explaining Eichmann’s crimes as “the banality of evil.” In this powerful essay, Samantha Rose Hill, the assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and The Humanities, says that throughout her career, Arendt was concerned about the erosion of truth in the modern world because truth is essential for the basic functioning of social life.
[P]art of Arendt’s point in writing her essays on “Lying in Politics” and “Truth and Politics” which are cited so widely today was that we’ve never really been able to expect truth from politicians. Truth-tellers exist outside the realm of politics. They are outsiders, pariahs, and like Socrates subject to exile and death. The lie has always been instrumental to gaining political advantage and favor.
Why now then, all of sudden, do we decry the emergence of fake news? Why are fact-checkers and fact-checking streams such a common feature of political debates? Why do we care about truth so much in this particular moment?
It isn’t because lying in politics has suddenly become a source of moral outrage – it has always been that. We care about truth because we’ve lost everything else. We’ve lost the ability to speak with ease; we’ve lost the ability to take opinions for granted; we’ve lost faith in science and experts; we’ve lost faith in our political institutions; we’ve lost faith in the American dream; and we’ve lost faith in our democracy itself….
This is the point of lying in politics – the political lie has always been used to make it difficult for people to trust themselves or make informed opinions based on fact. In weakening our ability to rely on our own mental faculties we are forced to rely on the judgments of others….
What most worried [Arendt] was a form of political propaganda that uses lies to erode reality. Political power, she warned, will always sacrifice factual truth for political gain. But the side effect of the lies and the propaganda is the destruction of the sense by which we can orient ourselves in the world; it is the loss of both the commons and of common sense.
As I listen to people on both sides of our political divide, I often hear a sense of desperation. Trump or Biden are evil personified. Electing Trump or Biden will be our salvation. None of this is true but we want or even need them to be because the world today seems so frighteningly out-of-kilter. Our dualistic, black-and-white politics is an attempt to find a secure place on which to stand in a flood.
Arendt’s point is that this sense of instability is intentionally created by political propaganda—by lying—which paradoxically throws us into the arms of the liars themselves in search of safety and security. As Hill summarizes Arendt above, “the political lie has always been used to make it difficult for people to trust themselves … [so] we are forced to rely on the judgments of others.”
Truth is a major theme of the gospel of John. This is where Jesus says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” And as he tells Pilate, his life’s purpose has been “to testify to the truth,” to which Pilate cynically retorts, “What is truth?” In Arendt’s view, this is the classic politician’s perspective: “truth” is whatever I need it to be, at any given moment, to further my ends.
One of Arendt’s essays was written in response to the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers, which documented over three decades (1945-1967) of lies about the Vietnam War, by four administrations representing both political parties. Countless other examples can be found going back to the beginnings of democracy and especially since the advent of public media. And even further back, scholars have found examples of ancient kings ordering that histories be rewritten, and defeats be proclaimed as victories.
As people of faith, we are committed to care for our neighbor and the communities in which we live. For that reason we engage in the political process, seeking to bring about fairness and justice for everyone but especially the weakest and most vulnerable. But our ultimate loyalty is not to the state or any of its would-be leaders but to Christ and Christ’s kingdom.
Jesus tells his disciples, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” It is not cynical to distrust politicians. Rather, it is wisdom born from spiritual enlightenment about human behavior and the temptation of power. What is cynical is the manipulation of truth inherent in the exercise of power. As Arendt warns, “Political power will always sacrifice factual truth for political gain.” And that is a bipartisan reality.
To combat our own cynicism we must stop putting our hope where it doesn’t belong. The danger of that misdirected hope is that it causes us to lie, to others and to ourselves, about the true nature of our leaders. In our time it is simply true that under presidents and congressional leaders of both parties the environmental crisis has grown steadily worse, health care has grown increasingly unaffordable, the economic divide has grown wider, and our military involvement continues around the world, usually for reasons we cannot explain and in places we can’t identify, causing literally millions to be killed or injured, to lose their homes or their livelihoods.
Our political leaders are not demons, but neither are they saviors. Much of the mayhem they cause or abet is the result of our unwillingness to recognize this. We need to resist the temptation to join in their political games and instead with clear eyes and right judgment hold them accountable for their actions and inactions.
Our hope is not in this government or any government but in the Christ present throughout creation, moving the Spirit in places and people we will mostly never know. Most importantly, we must remember that Christ is in us and moving us. The lure of getting on the “Washington merry-go-round” (as it has been called) is that it gives us the illusion of action. We mistake having passion and strong opinions for the true action whose origin is always the Spirit of love.
It is said that as he was dying, Francis of Assisi told his brothers, “I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you are to do.” That is God’s gift and our opportunity to participate in the Spirit’s work of making Christ’s kingdom present: doing what is ours to do, now, at this time, here, wherever we might be. That, more than anything, will give us genuine hope and open our eyes to the truth that sets us free: God’s transforming love for you and me and all the world.
Blessings in your life and ministry, Pastor Doug