painting of Thirty Years War sack of a town

Truth or Consequences

I am old.

Old enough to know that there are a lot of things I don’t know.

But I have learned one thing by now: nothing good ever comes from lying.

Nothing good comes in churches from lying about sexual misconduct. The people who think “the reputation of the church” – that is, the approval of other people – is more important than the commitment to truth called for by the Head of the Church invariably end up destroying the community from the inside out. Because the real commitment, to something other than Christ, has already been made in the very act of lying.

Nothing good comes in families from lying about abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, violence, whatever. The bad stuff that’s happening is bad enough. But the demand that every member of the family deny the reality that’s right in front of their eyes, or that they are experiencing in their bodies, or the demand that they call damage “love” and deviance “normal” is the poison that keeps on poisoning, every other area of life, every other relationship, every other perception. The real commitment, to something other than the welfare of the others, is embedded in the very act of lying.

Nothing good comes in anyone’s life from being closeted. Every relationship becomes a performance of cynical prejudice and imposture, an embodiment of the conviction “If you knew who I really am, you’d [fill in the blank: fire me from my job, kick me out of the house, reject me],” and a heart-breaking revelation of mistrust and betrayal waiting to happen. Living a lie is not living.

Nothing good comes in a political community from lying. Communities aren’t held together by force. There’s never enough coercion for that. Ask any sociology major: society works because people go along with it. And they go along with it because they think going along with it is the right thing to do. The glue that actually holds real-life communities together is trust, legitimacy, and compliance.

Lies, and the expectation of lies, and the routine acceptance of lies, and the minimization of the importance of lies, erode all those things – until you wake up one day to find that all that lying has dissolved your community into warring factions.

Lies are at the root of what happened at the United States capitol yesterday.
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I think truth is complicated, but in the end, not all that complicated.

Reality never lies.

If reality isn’t on your side, you should switch sides.
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By “reality,” I’m usually willing to mean “the data.” Sure, even when it comes to data, things like procedures, honesty and integrity, trust, and interpretation come into play. But on the whole, the data do not lie, and never for very long.

Unfortunately, I understand that we – by which I mean, my contemporaries and I, all of us – live in a time and place of ubiquitous “alternative facts” and “fake news” and “deep fakes,” so that the data are hard to come by.

As a consequence, reality itself seems to resemble a duck-rabbit. Look at it one way, see one thing; look at it a different way, see something diametrically opposed. Ask people on opposite sides of the fault line running through our political life these days to pick the criminals and traitors and the public servants and heroes out of a line-up, and you’ll get opposite answers.

The “crisis of legitimacy” runs deep.

It’s not as if nothing like this has ever happened before.

So we could know what needs to be done. Ask any history major: agree on the indispensable public standards for truth; and agree on where to draw the line between public and private.

This is as true today as it was in 1648.

Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.

Let’s pray it doesn’t take us 30 years of hell to make it happen.
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Image: Sebastiaen Vrancx, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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