Truth and Politics
I’ve been listening to a fascinating audio book on the nature of warfare in World War II. Giles Milton’s book, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare details the unconventional and sometimes brutal methods employed to defeat the Nazis. Churchill’s belief was that the Nazis were inflicting total warfare on the British. Thus, the only response was to defeat them by any means. The idea of a genteel and gentlemanly war was discarded in favor of espionage, deception, and sabotage. This was a zero-sum game. It was either won or lost, and losing was not an option. It seems that many today are approaching modern American politics with the same zero-sum game attitude. And in this type of battle, the end justifies the means.
The truth is, I planned on writing this reflection weeks ago. When it was scheduled, I didn’t have any idea that the nation would be embroiled in a hyper-politicized “he said/she said.” But here we are; a nation that feels, in many ways, to be ripping at the seams. What is a Christian to make of it? How should believers in Jesus Christ evaluate their political opinions? How should Christians express their opinions (even political ones)? The Scriptures point us to the sanctity of truth, the necessity of honesty, and the maintaining of our own and our neighbor’s good name.
Truth is to be regarded as sacred because it is an attribute of God. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). God’s word is truth (Jn 17:17). God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his truth (WSC 4). But untruth and falsehood is rampant in this fallen world because of sin. Satan is the deceiver (Rev. 12:9). He is the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). Because of this, Christians are to cherish and uphold truth while rejecting what is false.
The ninth commandment instructs us, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exo. 20:16). The Larger Catechism 144 & 145 explains this generally by forbidding whatever is contrary to the truth and to the good name of any person. Honesty is necessary in all aspects of life. Honesty requires a defense of truth and the good name of ourselves and our neighbor. The Larger Catechism 145 forbids opposing this, especially in “public judicature.” Public judicature is the administration of justice in courts of the state or church. False testimony or accusations must be opposed. Likewise, “undue silence in a just cause” is wrong. Justice is perverted if those abused or those who witness abuse remain silent. Their silence only results in the innocent suffering and the guilty escaping. In this respect, the #MeToo movement has been tremendously helpful in encouraging the abused to speak up. Every accuser should have a right to be fairly heard. But every accuser does not have a right to be believed. Only what is true should be believed.
Modern politics excels at what the WLC calls “speaking the truth maliciously.” Though what is said may be technically true, it is wielded solely in an attempt to injure someone’s reputation. Half-truths and innuendo dominate modern political discourse. Social media is filled with memes and articles that purposely distort the truth for political purposes. And we in the church are often complicit in their propagation. Before posting or sharing something we should ask, “Does this fairly characterize or summarize the other person’s point of view? Am I addressing the issue or attacking their person? Are terms clearly defined? Does this statement address the topic at hand?” If we cannot appropriately answer these questions, then posting the meme or article probably violates the ninth commandment. Careless posting on social media without a concern for the whole truth is bearing false witness. It damages others and it damages the ability of the church to speak into important matters in this culture. Honesty is necessary.
Life works best when in line with God’s law. This means that even in political discourse we need to maintain the good of our neighbor’s name. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37) instructs us that our “neighbor” may include someone we’ve considered our enemy. The Larger Catechism warns against either “scornful contempt” or “fond admiration.” We must not treat others in our thought, word, or deed in a way that demeans or ignores their inherent human dignity. We must also not have a blind, foolish devotion to some person because they are part of our tribe. It is far too easy to overlook the faults and foibles of those with whom we agree and to target the very same faults and foibles of our enemies. This is sin.
The health of our political and social discourse is reaching a critical point. The words and actions of those in the church should be different. Our words should be true. Our actions should seek and promote the truth. We must strive to preserve our own good name and reputation and that of our enemies. We should debate and disagree with ideas. There is a right and wrong way to lead the nation. There are better and worse philosophies. These things need to be discussed vocally and passionately. But we must not stoop to deceitful or dehumanizing ways. For Christians, our current political discourse is not a zero-sum game. The end does not justify the means. We cannot violate the ninth commandment because doing so brings dishonor upon our Savior.