From the Letter to the Galatians:
Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Galatians 4:16 (NRSV) – June 9, 2014)
“What is truth?” asked Pilate. (Jn 18:38)
“The truth will set you free,” said Jesus. (Jn 8:32)
“You can’t handle the truth,” shouted Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men).
“Partial truths or half-truths are often more insidious than total falsehoods,” wrote political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (Reconsidering Immigration, November 2000).
Poor Paul! He’s just telling the Galatians the truth and they hate him for it. Thank heaven he didn’t say some post-modern nonsense about “what is true for you isn’t necessarily true for me!” But in his correspondence with these Gentile Christians, is the good apostle communicating the whole truth, or a partial truth? I’m not asking if Paul is being dishonest; I’m asking if, as a rhetorician making a point, is he constructing a narrative with some, but not all, of the pertinent facts. It’s hard to tell from his letter and it’s even harder to determine because we have only his side of the correspondence. But, I suggest, it’s a very valid inquiry because partial truths can create (or exacerbate) discord and enmity.
Recently on our local NPR station, a panel of journalists were discussing a bill recently passed by the Ohio legislature. One insightfully noted that each side of the debate over the bill presented facts in support of its position; each constructed a narrative from easily verifiable data; and each arrived at a “truth” that was convincing to its followers. The “truths” they presented, however, were diametrically opposite in the conclusion to which they led as to whether or not to support the legislation. Why? Because each was partial, each conveniently overlooked facts contradictory to its narrative, and each was partisan. Neither was factually inaccurate, but neither was entirely true.
Fully investigating and fully presenting all the facts of any situation takes time, effort, and resources, and might lead to some conclusion other than that which a partisan is trying to argue. And, anyway, it is much easier to simply go with a few critical facts supporting a partial truth; it lends itself to brevity of argument and to sound-bite news coverage. Furthermore, partial truths are inflammatory; they excite people, rally the troops, and build the cadre of (ill-informed?) supporters. Partial truths do not set free; they entrap and they entangle.
Partial truths make enemies (or, at least, opponents). And this is where we seem to be in American politics and society at the moment. We are in a battle of partial truths. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show recently made the point that partial truths about the Second Amendment have brought us to an intersection “of Open Carry Road and Stand Your Ground Place. * * * You have a right to carry a weapon that may cause a reasonable person to believe they are in danger of great bodily injury, and they have a right, if they feel that way, to respond with deadly force. It’s a perpetual violence machine.” And, I would suggest, the same is true in many other areas of our political and social life. Competing partial truths trap us in perpetual cycles preventing any advance; society ends up like a hamster in an exercise wheel, running to beat the band but going nowhere.
If the truth is really going to set us free, if we are going to be able to handle the truth, we must first determine what it is. In any discussion, listening to any news report, reading any newspaper, one should ask whether important facts have been left out or not, particularly if the report is inflammatory or clearly partisan. It is always wise to pause and consider that not all the facts may be given and that some additional data is likely to change the story significantly. This is worth the effort.
What is truth? It is more than few carefully chosen facts and a well-constructed narrative. The whole truth can set us free and, I believe, we can handle it. We have to make the choice, however, to get out of the hamster wheel and get all the facts.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.