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June 17, 2018

Quid est veritas?

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Put a hand on our shoulder and point us in the right direction.  Put our hand on someone’s shoulder, and let it matter.  Amen.<<

In the text we heard a moment ago from Gospel of John, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate asks the philosopher’s question during the trial of Jesus:  quid est veritas?  What is truth?  Pilate seems to sneer when asking the question, as if to say – to borrow words from Voldemort in the first Harry Potter book – “there is no good or evil [there is no truth].  There is only power.”  The film Passion of the Christ depicts Pilate’s question differently.  In that film, Pilate labors over the “quid est veritas” question.  Not sneering but barely whispering, as if he were a tortured soul.  Whether sneering like Voldemort, or tortured in soul, the irony of Pilate’s question – What is truth? – is that he asks it before Jesus, who is, according to John, what truth looks like in flesh and blood.  Pilate asks, “What is truth?” as “truth” stands right in front of him.  I am the Truth, says John’s Jesus in another place in the gospel.  And yet, in the text we heard a moment ago, Jesus says to Pilate:  I came into the world to testify to the truth, as if truth existed outside of him.  I am truth, says John’s Jesus; and I testify to a truth that is beyond even me.

But what is truth?  Quid est veritas?  That great 20th century philosopher of truth, Michel Foucault, questioned whether there is a thing called truth – a stable thing out there somewhere in the world.[1]  He questioned whether truth could ever be grasped; whether “truth” was better called “truths” (plural) – truths that take shape in different places and over time; whether truth is relative to a particular age or a particular period, arguing that one historical period’s truth is another’s heresy.

In his book on creativity titled How to Fly a Horse, Kevin Ashton illustrates Foucault’s point by telling a story about an English explorer named Francis Galton.[2]  Galton traveled to a desert on Africa’s Atlantic coast called Namib.  The Namib desert is a sea of sand that extends for a thousand miles.  Gusting winds create dunes twenty miles long and a thousand feet high.  The Namib is home to the Himba people.  “In 1850,” writes Ashton, “the Himba saw something odd in the dunes:  men with white skin, covered in clothing, coming toward them through the sand.”  Francis Galton was among them.  The Himba, writes Ashton, “had learned to live well in one of the world’s most desolate places.  [But they] did not impress [Galton, who] wrote later that they were ‘savages’ who needed to be ‘managed,’ whose food and possessions could be ‘seized,’ and who could not ‘endure the steady labor that … Anglo-Saxons have been bred to support.’  Galton was one of the first Europeans to visit th[is region of Africa].  He took his prejudices about the Himba … back with him to England.  After his half cousin Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, in 1859, Galton became obsessed with it, and started a career measuring and classifying humanity to promote selective breeding, an idea he eventually called ‘eugenics.’”  In his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, Galton wrote, “‘there is nothing either in the history of domestic animals or in that of evolution to make us doubt that a race of men [“always men, of course,” inserts Kevin Ashton] may be formed who shall be … superior mentally and morally [than even we] modern European[s].’”

Galton developed a system of classification of human races that mirrored the classification of cows:  this race, like this cow, gets this rating; this other race, like this other cow, gets a different rating.  And without evidence, he asserted that men who looked like him topped the chart.  “Galton was taken seriously [in the nineteenth century,]” writes Kevin Ashton, “[because] he gave … prejudice a facade of reason and science.”  Galton turned his racialized eugenics into a “truth” that was accepted by many in his day.  A “truth” that selective breeding could perfect human beings.  A “truth” that almost no one takes seriously today, because, as Ashton points out:  a “straight line” can be traced in history from Galton’s eugenics to the Nazi “belief in ‘racial hygiene’,” and the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  One period’s truth is another’s heresy.

Many say we live in a time now when “truth” has become a battleground, when truth is under assault – an age of “truthiness,” to borrow a word from comedian Stephen Colbert.  Of half-truths, and outright lies that mask as truth.  A time when “truths” are openly questioned – truths like climate change, for example.  In response to this sense that truth has become slippery, The New York Times published a litany, of sorts, about “truth.”  “The truth is hard,” says The Times.  “The truth is hidden.  The truth must be pursued.  The truth is hard to hear.  The truth is rarely simple.  The truth isn’t so obvious.  The truth is necessary.  The truth can’t be glossed over.  The truth has no agenda.  The truth can’t be manufactured.  The truth doesn’t take sides.  The truth isn’t red or blue.  The truth is hard to accept.  The truth pulls no punches.  The truth is powerful.  The truth is under attack.  The truth is worth defending.  The truth requires taking a stand.  The truth is more important now than ever.”

The Times says truth is hard, and hard to hear.  Which reminds me of a funny story about a minister’s five-year-old daughter.  She noticed that her dad always paused, and bowed his head for a moment before preaching his sermon.  One day she asked him why he did this.  “Well,” he said, proud that his daughter was so observant in church, “I’m asking for God’s help to preach a good sermon.”  Without pausing, his daughter replied, “So, how come God doesn’t do it?”

Yes, truth can be hard to hear.  But, our Christian tradition makes a very simple, yet bold claim about truth:  truth is revealed.  Revealed in flesh and blood – in a flesh and blood way embodied and then mapped out by Christ himself:  embodied by him and testified to in his words and deeds.  Testified to when he healed a leper by touching his broken flesh; testified to when he cleansed the conscience of a woman who washed his feet with her tears; testified to when ate with tax collectors and sinners; testified to when he prayed for those who hammered nails into his hands and feet, “father, forgive them.”  And this truth that he embodied and testified to is stated plainly by St. Paul in today’s reading from Romans 13:  it’s the law of love – loving lepers, and people with checkered pasts, and greedy tax collectors, and Roman soldiers following orders; loving all neighbors.  Love “fulfills” the law, writes Paul.  “Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” writes Paul.  Every commandment in scripture, writes Paul, is summed up in – and is weighed against – this, one command:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  A “truth” enfleshed in Christ, testified to by Christ, an anchor, a foundation upon which the entire edifice of Christian ethics is built.  Pilate’s sneering or tortured question – Quid est veritas? – is answered with a single word:  love.  And Pilate’s sneering or tortured question – Quid est veritas? – is theologized in a single phrase found in the New Testament:  God is love.

This week St. Paul’s letter to the Romans has been in the news, inserted into our nation’s ongoing battle over truth.  On Thursday, our nation’s top law enforcement official referred to Romans 13 – that text we heard a moment ago, which begins with the words, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities … [who] have been instituted by God.”  This passage was quoted to justify the policy of separating children from parents on our southern border, thrusting St. Paul into our nation’s debate over what is right and true, and launching a public Bible Study.  People from across the political and religious worlds joined this public Bible Study:  conservatives like William Kristol and Erick Erickson; opinion writers in the Washington Post and The Atlantic; ministers of all stripes; even comedians like Stephen Colbert.  They all opened their Bibles to see what it says about immigration.  Some found Leviticus 19:33-34, which says:  “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  Others opened their Bibles to the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40, “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”  And still others pointed to St. Paul’s own words about love in Romans 13 that follow his words about obeying the government.

This is not the first time St. Paul has been drawn into a public debate.  Loyalists to the British crown quoted Romans 13 to our revolutionary forebears in the late 1700s, arguing that revolting against Britain would anger God, because, they pointed out, St. Paul says we should obey the governing authorities.  In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act required U.S. citizens to return runaway slaves.  Supporters of the legislation quoted Romans 13 to those who helped runaways slaves in the Underground Railroad, because they argued, St. Paul said that governing authorities and their laws – even the Fugitive Slave Act – are ordained by God.  In the 1980s, some American Christians quoted Romans 13 in support of Apartheid in South Africa, again, because governments they said – even ones built on Apartheid – are instituted by God.  In the 1930s, Hitler himself quoted Romans 13 to quell resistors led by Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, because, as St. Paul says, every government – even the Third Reich – is blessed by God.[3]  In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. responded to clergy who criticized him for breaking segregation laws – laws, they said, that were unfortunate, but which came from the governing authorities, who are instituted by God.  (There’s a pattern here.  St. Paul gets dragged into our debates over what is right and true; gets used by those in power to support injustice.)

The Bible is a big book, filled with discordant voices.  It can justify slavery, but also liberation; it can justify war, but also envisions a world at peace; it can justify gender and racial inequality, but also full equality; it preserves the voices of the oppressor, and the voices of the oppressed; the empires and the resistors.  Which is why, it seems to me, the first question to be asked when dealing with any policy debate is not the surface question – What does the Bible say about it? – but the more probing question.  The question that hunts for the spirit within the text – the spirit embodied by and testified to by Christ; the moral question:  is the policy loving?  If not, then it’s not from God.

…On Tuesday, George Packer wrote a piece for The New Yorker that puts this is it loving? question into story form.[4]   Packer wrote:  “Jose, a five-year-old Honduran boy, was taken away from his father by immigration officials last month, after the two of them had crossed the border at El Paso.  The father was transferred to a detention camp.  Jose, all alone, was put on a plane to Michigan and placed under the care of a family of kind but anguished strangers.  In his bedroom at night, he clings to pictures that he’s drawn of his family – his mother and siblings in Honduras, with its epidemic of gang violence, and his father in a U.S. prison.  He won’t stop asking, ‘When will I see my [dad]?’  Jose’s torment,” writes Packer, “[and the] policy to separate children from parents who enter the United States without papers – reminded me of a conversation I heard a few years ago, between Henry Kissinger and Ruth K. Westheimer.  We were guests at a dinner in New York for Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor … .  Around the table were American and German foreign-policy types, and I could imagine why Dr. K [Kissinger] was there, but Dr. Ruth was a mystery – I only knew her as the … TV sex therapist.  It was the fall of 2015, the height of the migrant crisis in Europe.  Germany had announced that it would admit a million refugees, most of them fleeing the civil war in Syria.  Merkel had come under heavy criticism for the decision, and, during the soup course, Kissinger – ninety-two years old, eight decades removed from his own experience as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany – let the Chancellor have it.  Of course, he said, he could admire the humanitarian impulse to save one person, but a million?  That would change ‘German civilization.’  It would be, Kissinger said, like the Romans allowing the barbarians inside the city gates.  Merkel listened, in her focused way, and didn’t argue, except to say, ‘What choice do we have?’ … [Then Dr. Ruth spoke up.]  She told us the story of the Evian Conference, held on Lake Geneva, in July, 1938, where countries from around the world gathered to debate the plight of Germany’s Jews.  In the end, only one country – the Dominican Republic – agreed to take in a substantial number of Jewish refugees.  All the others, including the United States, made excuses.  Four months after the failure of Evian, in November, came Kristallnacht.  At the time, [Dr. Ruth] was a ten-year-old Jewish girl living with her parents in Frankfurt.  Nazis showed up at their apartment to arrest her father … .  As they marched him off into a covered truck, he turned around and looked at Ruth, who was watching from the window.  She waved, and he waved back.  Then he smiled, so that she wouldn’t cry.  She never saw him again.  Two months later, in January, 1939, Ruth’s mother placed her on a train with other German Jewish children bound for Switzerland … .  Her mother hugged her on the platform, … and, to keep herself from crying, [Ruth] began to sing songs during the train ride that would bring her back to the happy time when their family was together.  Dr. Ruth survived the war … .  Her parents perished in the Nazi death camps. … The room,” concludes Packer, was “silent.”

…We’re talking about this topic today, because separating children from parents is in the news.  Because St. Paul is being used yet again in a public debate over what is right and true.  Because today we are celebrating fathers and their families.  Because today we honor our directors of children’s and youth ministries, spiritual caretakers of our precious children.  Because today we are testifying to a truth – the same truth Jesus testified to:  that the law of love, is the only law.  God’s law.  A law that takes concrete form in families – families bonded by love and commitment and sacrifice and the willingness of parents to lay down their lives – like Christ did for all of us – for their children.  The law of love.  The only answer to Pilate’s quid est veritas? question.  Amen.


[1] See for example, Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality:  An Introduction (vol. 1; trans. Robert Hurley; New York:  Vintage, 1990 [1976]).

2 Kevin Ashton, How to Fly a Horse:  The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery (New York:  Anchor Books, 2015), 232ff.

3 This history has been traced this week here:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/06/15/what-jeff-sessions-got-wrong-when-quoting-the-bible/?utm_term=.a72cabb0a0bc; and here:  https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/06/romans-13/562916/.  The Hitler reference comes from here:  http://theopoet4camp.blogspot.com/2010/03/hitler-and-nazis-use-of-romans-13_12.html

4 https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/dr-ruth-dr-kissinger-and-trumps-cruelty-to-families