Sermon Archives

Truth in an Epidemic of Political Deception

Rev. Dr. Brent Coffin
Sun, Apr 23

Texts: John 20:19-31

A Time of  Epidemic

In the summer of 1775, John Adams and the Committee of Five in Philadelphia were crafting the words of a declaration. It was important work. Democracies are built on a foundation of language. (1) They had to find the language on which to begin a new democracy.

Equally important was the work Abigail Adams was doing in Boston. The whole of Boston was caught up in another epidemic. An earlier smallpox epidemic, in 1721-22, had been devastating. Then Boston was a town of 11,000 people. 6,000 of these men, women and children became infected; and 850 died. (2)

How do we begin to imagine the fear that pervaded Braintree and Boston in the summer of 1775 when it was happening again?  Every neighbor, every visitor was a possible carrier of a lethal disease. Who could you trust in such a time? The prevailing wisdom was to isolate and avoid all contact with others.

Abigail Adams chose a different course. Something new, called inoculation, was an option. You cut the arm of your child and put the fluid from a smallpox victim into their flesh. Then you wait, you pray, and you hope. Some would die from being exposed by inoculation. Even so, Abigail had herself and their four children inoculated. Nabby, their oldest daughter, nearly died from it. As it turned out, this Founding Mother modeled a way others could protect their families and community in a time of epidemic.

A New & Lethal Epidemic

Today, I believe, we are caught in another lethal epidemic. The epidemic is a new, more lethal strain of an old, familiar infection: deliberate political deception.

A new strain is now breaking out so rapidly and pervasively that we’re in danger of becoming numb and ignoring its distinct symptoms. Do you sense what I mean: an epidemic that is weakening many of us with deception fatigue?

 But there are those moments when we are shocked by the epicenter of the new strain of political lying. Such a moment happened for me on a recent Saturday morning. Five tweets had just come from the White House in less than two hours, between 6:35 and 8:19a.m. Here they are in order:

     “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!          

     “Is it legal for a sitting President to be "wire tapping" a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!  

     “I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!        

     “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!  

     “Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show “ (3)

I was stunned. I still am. My deception fatigue was pierced. I realized in a deeper way that I cannot ignore this new form of political lying. I have to figure out how to monitor it without it taking me down.

Political lying isn’t new, I’ve told myself. It’s the perennial danger that led the Founders to design a government with checks and balances, so political deception could not wield power with impunity. It’s why the Constitution was amended with the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of press—freedoms essential for a free people to hold power accountable for deception. But is this new strain just more business as usual? Is this the new normal in a post-truth world?

I for one refuse to live in a post-truth world. There are forms of political lying so virulent they threaten to destroy the very institutions designed to contain it. Friends have reminded me of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: the lie that prompted Congress in 1964 to authorize full force war in Vietnam. My soul as a citizen was shaped by Watergate. And, though it’s been all but forgotten, I’m still sickened by the false claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction—a falsehood that lead America to invade Iraq and created the conditions leading to the present horror in Syria.

Yes, all of us—not just politicians, not just one party—all of us carry the virus of deliberate deception. But some strains are more lethal and dangerous than others. Perhaps you disagree, but I believe that is what we are now facing.

Like many others, I’ve thought a lot about how to identify the key indicators of this Trumpian strain. It might be very helpful to clarify these key signs together. Maybe a common diagnostic tool could help us pay attention, without just reacting or turning away. We might even develop a kind of public health alert for circulation—not for political advocacy, but civic awareness.

As best as I can see, these are the distinctive marks of Trumpian deliberate political deception:

(1) Chronic

(2) Deliberate

(3) Never taking responsibility, but always blaming others

(4) Fundamental Contempt for truth itself.

A comment on just the last of these four signs—contempt for truth itself. It’s this feature of the new strain that makes it so extremely dangerous. In my opinion, we have a public leader who has appealed to the desire of Americans to know the truth. He’s done so by constantly accusing his opponents of lying—Lying Hillary, Fake News, etc. And yet, while appealing to our need for truth, this leader practices a politics of deliberate deception himself.

“What is truth,” Pilot asked?  For those who have fundamental contempt, truth is nothing more than a weapon to wield in the win-lose battle for supposed superiority.

Another public official explained this kind of “truth” this way. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the…consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” (4) The official was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. Perhaps Goebbels was right:  When public officials conceal their aspirations with the politics of lying, truth becomes their mortal enemy.

I hope we can help one another to better identify this strain of political deception. But that will be only the first step. The next step is to learn how we best inoculate ourselves and protect the public health of our nation.

Honest Thomas

The Bible is not a handbook of solutions. It’s a repository of memory, practical wisdom and grounded hope. In today’s passage, we recall our brother Thomas. Yes, we know him well. So well, we can’t even think of him without using his nickname—dear old Doubting Thomas.

When the disciples were gathered, they experienced the presence, peace and empowerment of the crucified and risen Jesus. But Thomas was away, and didn’t experience the communal epiphany. When he learned of it, he had the audacity to say some extremely harsh things:

“Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (5) Nothing like blunt honesty to stir things up!

Thomas is being a little too assertive here. But is he wrong? After all, he wants to know the truth. He wants to get the facts…facts matter. Who among us doesn’t want to get our hands on the real hard facts? Who doesn’t feel the drive to keep digging until we get to the truth? Isn’t that why scientist all over the world yesterday came out and marched? (6)The right kinds of vaccines matter.

Yet truth is more than facts. Religion and science are both motivated by a search for truth. They just pursue it different ways--different, not incompatible. One seeks to know how the world works. The other seeks to know the meaning of the world, and how we mortals best live and die in it.

So let us remember Doubting-Honest Thomas anew. He had the courage to speak with veracity, as a minority of one. He could not live a way of life if built on deception. He needed to know enough of the truth to trust his companions. And that required a practice of truth-telling and truth-hearing. The Risen Christ entered into this process, acknowledging that facts matter and the truth Thomas needed was more than facts. It was the truth of faithful relationships. The Risen One was present to Thomas and deepened the conversation—a conversation that continues to this day.

 Honest Thomas, we remember you. You modeled the principle of veracity:

 As I need others not to deceive me,

so I am duty bound not to deceive others.

The need for veracity brings us back to the present epidemic, and why this strain of deliberate political lying is so dangerous: 

Trust is the life-blood of every relationship on earth and in heaven.

And the life-blood of trust flows through the veins of veracity.

If those veins become clogged with lying,

trust ceases and relationships die.

Sessila Bok, in her book titled Lying, says it this way:

If there is not confidence in the truthfulness of others, is there any way to assess their fairness, their intentions to help or to harm? How, then, can they be trusted? Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives. (7)

Words and Deeds of Truth

In the summer of 1775, Abigail Adams was doing the urgent work of inoculating citizens of Boston. Now, in 2017, the frontline of resistance to this new epidemic is right here in Boston, in our homes and civic organizations—and in every other city and town across the nation and political spectrum.

 At the same time, the language John Adams and others were crafting is essential to our ability to resist political lying. After sifting through more than fifty layers of conversation, these white, property-owning men in Philadelphia adopted a Declaration of Independence. And that Declaration created a new nation, literally. Democracy is built on language. (8) And the integrity of our democratic words cannot be lost to the lethal infection of a new politics of deception.

We the people—not political parties, not corporate elites, not religious authorities, not military generals—

 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” (9)

Now, many among us, like Honest Thomas, have reason to doubt the veracity of these words. Their forefathers and foremothers were not only absent from the table in Philadelphia—they’ve been denied their rightful seats for centuries since. So let us be like Thomas: voicing our doubts, demanding to touch the gaps in these words, attempting to put hands deep into their flesh until they become our own truth:

 We hold these truths to be clear and sure, that all women and all men…all persons of every race and ethnicity and places of birth…all persons living in red states and blue states…all people of religious belief and all of no claim none…

 ALL of us are free and equal persons, ALL of us endowed with unalienable rights, and among these are the right to a healthy and secure life, the liberty to choose with whom and how we pursue our lives, and the opportunity to pursue happiness consistent with the fair opportunity for all to do so.

 I don’t know how we’ll contain this epidemic. Many of us have a daily sense of deception fatigue. None of us knows how it’s going to play out.

So what can we do?  Let us reach out to one another, and let us remember: ours is not the heritage that ends in a tomb of deception.

Let us remember, with Honest Thomas, why we live by a principle of veracity: as I need others not to deceive me, so I will not deceive others—and thus we build and sustain relationships of trust.

Let us remember our founding mothers, like Abigail, people who risked cutting open the arms of their children at great risk, so they could become more resilient and free.

And let us continue the layers of conversation that brought forth the words on which our democracy is still being built. We hold these words must be made clear:

There will never be a “post-truth world”…

Truth is not buried in a tomb of deception…

Truth sets us free—free to trust one another…

And in a time of epidemic, here and now,

“Truth, crushed to earth, is rising.” (10)

 

 

1) Danielle Allen states: “Democracies are built out of language.”  See Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014; p.43.)

2) “The Fight over Inoculation during the 1721 Boston Smallpox Epidemic.”  Harvard University Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences, Infectious Disease, December 31, 2014.

3) Cited in “Trump, citing no evidence, accuses Obama of ‘Nixon/Watergate’ plot to wiretap Trump Tower”, by Robert CostaEllen Nakashima and Philip Rucker. The Washington Post, March 4, 2017. 

4) http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/joseph-goebbels-on-the-quot-big-lie-quot

5) John 20:25.

6) The March for Science on 22 April 2017. https://satellites.marchforscience.com/

7) Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life. New York: Random House,  1999: p. 31.

8) Danielle Allen, Our Declaration, p. 43.

9) The Declaration of Independence, In Congress, July 4, 1776, para. 2.

10) William Cullen Bryant wrote in 1873, “The Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again!”  Senior Minister Daniel Smith quoted Bryant to begin his Easter Sermon on April 16, 2017, “The Truth Crushed to Earth is Rising.”