Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Fear of Telling the Truth

As a high school student in the late seventies, I started to notice a trend that was disconcerting. Classes were even given on the subject and examples started to creep through society. The topic? Situational ethics. I distinctly remember an exercise during a class I took at a public school when I was ten years old. I called it "The Lifeboat Dilemma."

A group of fifth-graders were told to imagine themselves in a lifeboat. In the lifeboat were other people, such as an elderly person, a person who was disabled, and a person who was sickly. A few other passengers were healthy. The lifeboat, however, could only hold so many people and one person had to be thrown overboard. Who would we choose to throw overboard? (I am not making this up.) I remember it clearly because I was horrified and slightly traumatized by the thought of deliberately having to choose to place someone in harm's way, which would most likely lead to their death. The discussion over who to throw overboard was conducted calmly and methodically by the teacher who reminded us to think of "the greater whole," as though that made it any easier.

I knew it was wrong to deliberately throw anyone overboard and was upset by the exercise. Now I can see this was simply one more way to convince children that rationalization was acceptable if a group accepted it as society's "greater good." Later I learned about the Holocaust and how mentally ill and disabled patients were euthanized for that very reason. Because their worth was only determined by what they contributed to society, it was reasoned they wouldn't be missed.

Our faith instructs us differently when it comes to worth. We believe we were created by a loving God who cherishes us. In fact, He cherished us so much that He was willing to enter into our society, appearing as a humble carpenter from a middle-class family. They weren't beggars, but neither were they rich. When Jesus walked this earth, He interacted with a wide variety of people - from the highly-regarded religious class to the rejected prostitutes. He treated every one of them with respect and dignity. It wasn't what they did that He focused upon. It was who they were. In His eyes, all His followers were His brothers and sisters. (Matt. 12:49-50)

Jesus had a way of telling the truth. In fact, He said He was the truth - which is a pretty amazing statement no matter which century you're living in. The Pharisees and Sadducees, who were the religious muckety-mucks of the day, weren't too keen on this kid from Nazareth out-debating them on religious matters. And they certainly didn't care for Him telling the truth about what His Father expected from His children. Because when truth is spoken, two things happen: 1) those in power have their lies exposed and 2) people are set free. For those who are invested in keeping the status quo (and as such, retaining power and control), there is only one response to truth-tellers. Silence them.

I remember being a twentysomething Christian, eager to love people and be peaceful. I mistakenly thought that meant often keeping my beliefs to myself because I didn't want to be seen as "forcing" my views upon anyone and besides, I wanted to keep peace. I didn't realize that in essence, I was being silenced.

It is a risky thing to tell the truth, perhaps even more so today. If you are bold enough to voice your faith, especially a faith based on the Bible, it won't take long to witness mild annoyance from others and even outright hatred. We are living in an age where it is acceptable to be truthful about your beliefs for everything under the sun except Christianity. You can be truthful about being a Wiccan, a pagan, a Communist, or a radical Marxist feminist. But be truthful about being a Christian and watch the fireworks explode.

I remember working at a local Starbuck's and having a conversation with a younger co-worker. He was an intense guy, handsome with his dark hair and deep-blue eyes often blazing according to his outbursts. During a slow period, he was ranting about a group who had bowed their heads at a table in prayer. According to him, they had no business "shoving their beliefs down his throat." I confronted his viewpoint. How, I asked, was a simple show of prayer forcing beliefs down his throat? I'll never forget the raw look of hatred he leveled at me. He was someone I liked and got along with, but at that moment, I could understand why some Christians backed away from such discussions.

I emphasized that I wasn't looking for an argument, I was genuinely interested in his viewpoint. He again repeated his main complaint, that doing such a thing publicly was "forcing beliefs" upon others. I asked if he had a problem with Muslims kneeling on a prayer rug out in the open according to their regimented schedule of prayer? He backed up and then admitted that he had dated a Christian girl who in his mind, tried to convince him to go to church. He refused and ever since, had been overly sensitive to any public expression of faith. I then discussed with him the issue of our freedom of speech and religion. I didn't push it, but hoped I gave him something to think about as I calmly reasoned with him.

I've come a long way in this area. When I was a young child, the last thing I wanted to do was to upset people. I became quite adept at forecasting my audience's reaction and would adjust my sails accordingly. Of course I wanted to be liked, as often is the case for young people. Confrontation was not something I looked for, let alone initiated. Now I am almost the opposite. Now I look at telling the truth as a battle and without engagement, a battle that will be lost for future generations.

In our society, those who have a different viewpoint than the current administration is being told to shut up. They are being told that their opinions are "hateful" or "racist." Those who boldly speak their mind in opposition are being harassed and castigated on a level I've never before witnessed. And because of such attacks, fear has the opportunity to muzzle truth.

Back to my classroom exercise as a ten year old. Situational ethics raises the question of truth. It goes like this: I can believe what I believe because it is "my" truth. You can believe "your" truth. Somehow, we're all supposed to happily sing kumbaya together. But what if your truth conflicts with my truth? What then, is truth?

Christianity is hated by many because it believes in absolute truth. And this is what bothers those who insist upon situational ethics. Because it's easy to switch scenarios and justify beliefs and actions predicated upon one's preferences. Our worldview evolves. What we preferred when we were twenty usually changes drastically by the time we're fifty. We grow. We learn. We change.

Absolute truth, though, does not change. It is not the puppet of preferences or desires. It is the rock-solid foundation of what is right and wrong. It is what frees a society to peacefully co-exist with one another, in spite of differences. Truth is what keeps the megalomaniacs from destroying the world.

The fear of telling the truth is getting ratcheted up by those in power because they know what will happen when people know the truth. There will be repercussions, consequences. Some may lose their jobs. But what will happen if truth is silenced? I challenge anyone who thinks limits on free speech a good idea to study history. In every instance of dictatorship, the path toward enslavement was silencing those who opposed them and ridding society of those who told the truth.

Let not our voices be silent but instead clearly proclaim the truth more than ever. Our freedom, as Christians, and as a society - depend upon it more than ever.


laurazim said...

After years, I have again read CS Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" and with great interest and dismay saw unmistakable truths in his writing. Anyone who reads it would not be able to dismiss the paralells of modern society to the desires of the demon Screwtape.

Rachel said...

The devil is clever... coming up with new stupid reasons to convince us to commit evil.

Steve Taylor sang a song called Lifeboat about a class of kids being taught situational ethics. Till now I never met someone who'd actually been subjected to that conscience abuse!