Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

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  1. Nancy Beebe
    Posted December 16, 2017 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Good morning John. I agree with you on this article. I am upset about the current state of our country. I have been around for awhile now so believe I can speak to this. Everyone wants to say there is free speech, but in reality it is “only if you agree with me.” We are at a dangerous point. Debating is no longer in our vocabulary. I did vote for Trump. Am I happy with everything he has done? No. But most would not have read past I voted for Trump. I have voted for several presidents at this point. Like some of the stuff they did, didn’t agree with all of it. I knew we were in trouble when before the election, I posted on FB that I had attended a Trump rally. I didn’t say anything about him, just that I was there. I was attacked by a lot of people that it would surprise even you. I was called a Nazi, bigot on and on. America is very sick and maybe dying. I am happy to be older and hopefully won’t have to see it.

    • Posted December 16, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Nancy, I am so glad you contributed this comment, because it confirms something I’ve suspected for a while: that people all over the political spectrum are experiencing this fear, upset, and disorientation. In an odd way, this gives us all common ground: we may have drastically different perspectives on issues, but we CAN agree that, whatever the causes and contributors, we’ve entered a very, very difficult time. I’m sorry you had to put up with all the slamming. Thank you for writing this. (Oh, you might be interested in another article of mine, about a similar subject, which was just published:

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