The Truth About Our Lies
The great privilege of our time is that we can tear up the script we’ve been handed and write a story of freedom deeper than anything we have yet imagined. In fact, because of how dysfunctional our current political climate is, and because of the impact truth and beauty would have on our politics if we pursue them, I believe this is our calling as a nation.
Today we are going to take a look at what it means to tear up the old script. It’s going to be hard, because we’re going to have to own up to the lines—and the lies—we’ve been reciting. But I am confident it will be life-giving, more than we could know.
It needs to be said, though, that I couldn’t have written this three years ago. Over the course of my time working in politics since college, my own thinking has been challenged and pushed—perhaps radically. This change has largely been driven by faith in Jesus and hearing the gospel more clearly than ever before. And before we all groan over another bombastic claim to Christianity in the political sphere, I need to add two disclaimers. One, I have had more doubts than ever over the past year as my own faith has been tested and so I don’t mean for my thoughts today to add to the religious shouting; these are real ideas I’m personally being challenged by. And two, even in the midst of our doubts we need to realize that the promise of the gospel is life, and so hearing it more clearly—hearing that we are helpless on our own but because of Jesus we can live—should lead us to make our work in politics significantly more life-giving. If we think we have fully achieved a life-giving culture even individually, we are deceiving ourselves.
When our faith is tested, we realize that there is a cost to discipleship, and that that cost includes doing away with the mindsets and actions and language that aren’t life-giving. I’m currently reading The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in Chapter 18 he talks about the gospel vs an ideology. I think what he says perfectly fits into the political narrative we are living today—if we are willing to tear up the current script and find new life.
“A strict limit is placed upon the activities of the disciples, just as in Matt 10 they are told to shake the dust off their feet where the word of peace is refused a healing. Their restless energy which refuses to recognize any limit to their activity, the zeal which refuses to take note of resistance, springs from a confusion of the gospel with a victorious ideology. An ideology requires fanatics, who neither know nor notice opposition, and it is certainly a potent force. But the Word of God in its weakness takes the risk of meeting the scorn of men and being rejected. There are hearts which are hardened and doors which are closed to the Word. The Word recognizes opposition when it meets it, and is prepared to suffer it. It is a hard lesson, but a true one, that the gospel, unlike an ideology, reckons with impossibilities. The Word is weaker than any ideology, and this means that with only the gospel at their command the witnesses are weaker than the propagandists of an opinion. But although they are weak, they are ready to suffer with the Word and so are free from that morbid restlessness which is so characteristic of fanaticism.” (p. 186).
The application of this idea for today’s culture to me seems clear.
The truth is, we lie when we turn Christianity into a political ideology and attach to it our hope. Even for those who aren’t followers of Jesus, it’s worth thinking on this idea for a moment. What I am not saying is that the gospel shouldn’t guide our political decisions. That would be nonsense, because all humans are led by something, by a guiding principle, even if it’s unstable and shifting. What I am saying is that it’s time for us to live and talk and govern “free from that morbid restlessness which is so characteristic of fanaticism.” We have been set free from worrying about the advance of an ideology that’s entirely inadequate for solving the root of our problems. And since we have been set free from that restlessness, we can engage with even our political enemies to pursue truth and understand the human experience more fully. To those who are not followers of Jesus, I am sorry we too often fail at this.
These ideas became real for me after the Newtown shooting. Regardless of how strongly one might believe in the Second Amendment, as followers of Jesus we cannot afford to argue or imply that the right to bear arms is an obligation we are commanded by the one we follow to live out and fight for with moral urgency. Until the end of time, followers of Jesus will likely disagree on specifics of gun policy. We need to recognize that our gun policies will never heal human brokenness—if we do, we will be free from the restlessness that focuses our attention on trumping the other side and keeps us from having factual debates about gun violence, freedom, and the role of government in protecting its citizens.
But what if they take advantage of our olive branch, of our compassion?
The truth is, we lie when we say that it is possible to take advantage of true compassion, because the message of the gospel is that true compassion will triumph in the end—the promise of the gospel is abundant life. That is the only conclusion we can come to if we truly see the cross and the resurrection—even though I think at least half of me doesn’t want to believe this myself. But that’s why we need to hear the gospel more frequently, because it changes our perspective.
The idea that our compassion could be taken advantage of culminates in the fear of losing our life in an act of compassion. We could refuse compassion for the sake of safety, but we desire a safety we cannot maintain on our own. Remember the number of times George Washington should have been killed during the Revolution? Our safety is not exclusively up to us, and furthermore every activity we choose to engage in as free people—compassionate or otherwise—carries with it risk we are willing to accept. Why not, therefore, risk compassion, considering we’ve been promised it will overcome evil?
In mentioning the Revolutionary War, the temptation here is to examine the role of compassion in a time of war, quickly disowning compassion as foolishness. I don’t think though that a hypothetical compassion vs war scenario is the most pressing consideration we should make from the inside of political culture, although I will acknowledge that it is complicated: Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of both overcoming evil by letting it run its course and was also a martyr for his role in resisting Nazi Germany. But I think the better focus today is to see the lies we tell in current times through the lens of history.
Andy Andrews wrote a book titled How Do You Kill 11 Million People? Why the Truth Matters More Than You Think. He examines how Nazi Germany was able to kill 11 million people. His conclusion matters for us today, and is simple. (pp. 20-21).
So why, for month after month and year after year, did millions of intelligent human beings—guarded by a relatively few Nazi soldiers—willingly load their families into tens of thousands of cattle cars to be transported by rail to one of many death camps scattered across Europe? How can a condemned group of people headed for a gas chamber be compelled to act in a docile manner?
The answer is breathtakingly simple. And it is a method still being used by some elected leaders to achieve various goals today.
How do you kill eleven million people?
Lie to them.
We are not—55 million babies aside—physically killing our own people today.* But we have to ask the question: are we dead set on telling the truth, always, or are our talking points and our spin slowly keeping the American people from human flourishing? Are we killing their spirits, turning them against each other and against other people groups, or are we demonstrating what it looks like to love our neighbors as ourselves?
It’s time for us to own up to the lies.
We lie when we operate as if the other party is a great evil to be resisted and refuse to see the evil in ourselves.
We lie when we motivate out of fear and argue it’s necessary to drive voter turnout.
We lie when we pit ideals against each other, like compassion and national security, like energy production and environmental care, like gun safety and gun freedom.
We lie when we live under the pressure of returning America to “greatness”, or to her “Christian roots”, and place our hope in America instead of the Kingdom of Heaven.
We lie when we say we need to uphold the Constitution, but fail to uphold the ideals upholding it.
Having lived our political culture for about a decade, I know these ideas conflict with our day to day. We could go into greater depth on each of these points, but our goal isn’t to offer another moralistic code by which to make our politics “good”. The truth is, we don’t have to grope about in the dark anymore, speaking in riddles, ruled by a restless, nameless fear, trying to find the America we think we’ve lost, the America that’s become so precious to us. Light is breaking through the sad story we’ve been living.
My hope is that our affections begin to change, and that a change there affects our words and actions. My hope is that we trade in the lies for a deeper pursuit of truth, recognizing that none of us is exempt, that even in our best efforts we have all failed to speak the truth. My hope is that as we engage in politics our restlessness can be stilled, and that human flourishing can be renewed by a quiet, inner peace, “LIBERATUS—we are set free.”
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
Examine the talking points you’ve been using on a particular issue. If you’re on the Hill, what are you saying in your mail, your Dear Colleagues, your letters to the Administration, your news releases, your 499s, and your talking points for the House Floor? If you’re part of the grassroots, what are you saying on Facebook? If you’re active in campaigns, nonprofits, academia, or lobbying, are you telling the truth or are you spinning the truth? Find language that’s inflammatory and replace it with words of healing.
Want to take this a step further? Write someone a note and apologize for what you’ve written or said in the past. I know I’m going to be reaching out to some former colleagues; there are some lines I wish I had never put on paper.
*Since Roe v Wade, estimates point to 55 million abortions in the United States. If bringing abortion into this conversation seems too harsh or unsettling to you, hang with me. Scientifically and objectively, life begins at a certain point. Once we start factually talking about science, it’s logical to say life begins at conception, and that abortion has claimed the lives of 55 million people in the United States.