The truth that sets us free

January 20th, 2021

“Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable.” This is Richard Rohr’s amplification of Jesus’ famous teaching: the truth will set you free. (Falling Upward, p. 74; John 8:32)

What I take Rohr — and more basically Jesus — to be saying is something like this. Truth liberates us from the confines of a narrow heart and a misguided mind. And before we are able to feel the relief of new-found freedom, we will experience the disorientation and anxiety of letting go of our habitual way of making sense of things.

As it turns out, our liberation by the truth is not just an individual assignment. It’s a group project. We have to go looking for the truth together. Each of us will be genuinely free only when all of us are free. And before truth sets us free, it’s going to leave some marks.

As individuals, our souls crave meaning. We need to make sense of things to feel safe and to give us a sense of purpose. So we put our faith in something that — or someone who — promises to connect all the dots of this chaotic world and to give us some measure of control over our destiny.

The problem is that we can, and sometimes do, put our faith in the wrong thing. We believe what is not true. Our actions flow from our beliefs. And false beliefs do more than just diminish our individual lives. They harm the bodies and souls of the people around us.

These days we’re especially aware of the destructive power of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. Just look at the chaos at the U. S. Capitol on January 6.

Even now the threat of violence continues to hover over the inauguration of President-elect Biden and over our state capitols.

Beneath our current crisis linger untruths that have been with us and have diminished us as a nation for ages.

Here are just a few. Whites are superior to dark skinned people. Women should be subservient to men. Greater material wealth and higher social status suggest moral and spiritual superiority.

We don’t all subscribe to these views. But because they motivate the actions of some within our society, we all need to come to terms with them. To name them as untrue. And as followers of Jesus, we confront falsehoods without doing violence to those who espouse them.

There is no question that for America to move forward from this moment and to heal, we have to learn to speak to one another again, respect one another again, find common ground, and achieve workable compromises.

However, we cannot have healthy, productive conversations with each other if we continue to give credence to and grant an equal voice to clearly harmful, distorted ideas. A stark if perhaps overused example is fascism.

The Nazis of Hitler’s Germany sincerely believed a racist ideology. The Holocaust resulted from it. We defeated them in a devastating war, and yet we did not eradicate their governing idea from all human hearts.

Most of us have seen pictures of last week’s rioter Robert Keith Packer proudly sporting his Camp Auschwitz shirt. The spirit of truth urges us to bar this kind of hateful thinking — in whatever guise it may take — from our national discourse.

Some ideas are false. The individual choices arising from those ideas are wrong. Sometimes they are even wicked. And believers in such ideas envision and pursue a society that in no way resembles the Kingdom Jesus came to establish.

Jesus himself set us on the path of truth. He called his first followers by saying, “Come and see.” His followers like Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis have been saying the same ever since. Come and see. Let’s find the truth together. (John 1:39, 46)

And here’s the deep and abiding truth. You and I are the beloved children of God. Just like everybody else. As my friend retired Bishop of Alabama Kee Sloan likes to say, “Ain’t nobody better than anybody else.”

Pursuing truth — and setting aside destructive falsehoods once and for all — takes courage. We should anticipate conflict and probably some misery. But this is the only pursuit that will set us free at last.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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