06 May 2021

Living without lying

Pravda (Truth). Cropped from source.
"One of the hallmarks of the former president was his ability to turn any accusations against him into an attack on his opponents. True to form, this morning he set out to appropriate the term 'the Big Lie' for his own. Rather than meaning his refusal to admit he lost the election, he wants to use the phrase to mean the opposite: that it refers to 'The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020.'" Heather Cox Richardson.

"But they have softer ways, more therapeutic ways of implementing a totalitarianism. And so that's why we don't see it coming, we Americans, because it's all happening under the guise of helping and of social justice and so forth. But these people who saw the same sort of thing happen in the Soviet Bloc, that's why they're trying to warn us." Rod Dreher, source, speaking about his recent book, Live Not By Lies.

"Speaking as an agnostic, here's my question. How can you stand there on Easter with candle in hand, while simultaneously poisoning people and committing robbery on a cosmic scale?" Russian Twitter.

"What is truth?" -- Pontius Pilate.


In the fall of 1973, many of us at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa were following the fate of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had just given permission for his GULag Archipelago to be published abroad. Some of us eagerly pre-ordered copies from the YMCA Press in Paris, and in January 1974 our copies arrived.

For Solzhenitsyn himself, the consequences of his decision to publish his book were not long in coming. On February 13, 1974, the world learned that he had been arrested the day before, and had been expelled that day to West Germany.

As a sort of final shot at his opponents, he had prepared an essay, "Live Not By Lies," and had left instructions that it was to be released in the event of his arrest or death. It was dated February 12 and released on the 13th, the day of his exile.

Solzhenitsyn was -- and is -- a problematic figure for many. A courageous and persistent champion of free speech and the rule of law, he also tended to romanticize the Russian state (not its rulers, especially not Peter the Great and his successor tsars) and bitterly criticized the cultural decline of the consumerist West. Many of Olesya Zakharova's observations in her article "A Linguistic Look at Russia's Human Rights Record" apply to Solzhenitsyn's criticisms.

Nevertheless, I continue to admire Solzhenitsyn and his essay, including its advice for life in a time where "truth" has become a flexible commodity. Judging by the Mohler/Dreher interview quoted above (note: I've not read Dreher's book), Solzhenitsyn's essay (or at least its provocative title) may be co-opted by those who are warning that militant leftists and atheists are waging war on Christian civilization -- and that we should therefore be preparing for a totalitarian future.

Unfortunately, a totalitarian future is not out of the question, and the degradation of truth would almost certainly contribute to it. Too many ideologues (some on the left, some on the right, some unclassifiable) insist on their own tissues of half-truth, innuendo, and gauzy mythology, as an adequate standard by which to indict their enemies' alleged lies and conspiracies. In all these blasts of propaganda I see no evidence that actual Marxists are behind critical race theory, for example, nor do I see much Gospel content among those claiming to stand for Christianity. Through all that fog, I still see great wisdom in Solzhenitsyn's advice to those who don't consider themselves militants but who nevertheless yearn to resist the bondage of any oppressive system. According to this advice in "Live Not By Lies" [English; Russian] such resisters will reject service to falsehood, in favor of a commitment that they:

  • will not sign, write or print in any way a single phrase which in [their] opinion distorts the truth
  • will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation nor in public, neither on [their] own behalf nor at the prompting of someone else, neither in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, nor as an actor
  • will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea in which [they] can see a distortion of the truth, whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science or music
  • will not cite out of context, either orally or in writing, a single quotation to please someone, to feather [their] own nest, to achieve success in [their] work, if [they do not] completely share the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue
  • will not allow [themselves] to be compelled to attend demonstrations and meetings ... contrary to [their] desire
  • will immediately walk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film if [they hear] a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda
  • will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.

I want to go a step further and think about the implications of Solzhenitsyn's advice for the church. On a theoretical level, could we agree that the church must be a place that doesn't require servile behavior within its community, and also shelters people who take risks for truth in the wider world?

To go beyond theory, I see two contradictory realities in the church communities I know:

  • The church is the ONLY social institution that must, by its very nature, resist ideological conformity. Once we find our unity in Jesus, we may differ in our understanding of how to live as his disciples and what the ethical consequences of such a life might be, but we are united that we are in this adventure together, and we ultimately are for each other. In any Christ-centered church, there is room for the radical, the conservative, the evangelical, the socialist ... that is, in any church where people actually cherish each other more than than their own angle on the world. The church also has the capacity to distinguish vital theological conflicts from cultural, generational, and temperamental misunderstandings masquerading as theological issues -- should it choose to use that capacity.
  • The church reflects the distortions and pressures of the larger society. This is inevitable in any church that is actually accessible to the larger community, where people come in with all levels of woundedness and/or maturity. Churches may be (consciously or unconsciously) tempted to build themselves up by forming their identities around something other than Jesus. Those false identities might involve mythologies and common enemy lists that are anti-Gospel, however masked they might be in vague Christian platitudes or stern biblical "teachings" that we're required to take on as a condition of being approved by the church's authority figures. Is it any coincidence that the Quaker meeting over here has practically zero Trump followers, while that one across the state line seems to have a Trumpian majority?

So: to answer Pilate's question, "what is truth?", can we start here? (I'm serious -- let's discuss!)

  • Truth involves assertions and explanations that can be shared among people of goodwill who can freely make observations and ask awkward questions without fear of political or social rejection.
  • Truth is never immediately and completely obvious to anyone based solely on their social status or claims of exclusive knowledge.
  • Truth will never separate people from God's love. Where God's love prevails, truth will never separate people from each other.

First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, was probably a majority-Republican church in the late 1980's. It was a well-established and respectable institution in downtown Richmond, when its monthly meeting for business received a request to counsel and support several of us who were refusing to pay our income taxes, or part of them, in observance of the Quaker testimony against supporting war. First Friends prioritized Gospel obedience over conventional respectability and supported these law-breakers who insisted that, even when it comes to paying taxes, God, not Caesar, should have the last word. 

I'm sure that most members of First Friends did not plan to become tax resisters themselves. Probably the majority had never even heard of such a practice. Even so, they decided to support those who asked for counsel and accountability for their witness, minuting the church's readiness to accompany them to court if it should come to that, and to help them out in practical ways if the path led to financial hardship. For me, this story has always been a case study of a church's ability to accommodate dramatic differences in understanding of discipleship.


Related posts:

Division of labor, part one, part two.

Love and truth and religion addiction.

Publishing Truth -- ethically!


Olga Misik updates Solzhenitsyn for the year 2021.

Julia Duin on covering Pentecostals who exalt Trump: "... There's a lot of America that feels this way. And most journalists are utterly missing it."

Roger E. Olson asks where God is in this pandemic.

Bill Yoder interviews Peter Epp on Siberian Mennonites.

Steven Davison considers "that of God" -- and the language of Light -- in the gathered meeting.

Keith Richards removes a string.


Billy Branch and friends in Chicago: "Help Me."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Johan!
Thanks immensely for your always interesting publications! Best regards to dear Judie and sons!
Nothing can separate us spiritually!
And certainly - Christ Has Risen!!!