“What is truth?” Pilate asks Jesus. (John 18:38) I think Pilate really wanted to know. At that time and place, truth was in short supply. The world Pilate lived in, and had authority over, was in constant tension. The higher-ups in Rome didn’t care what Pilate did or how he did it, as long as the Jewish people over whom he ruled were kept quiet. And they weren’t. The religious leaders wanted Pilate to eliminate the itinerant preacher from Galilee, because he was becoming a threat to their authority. And the followers of Jesus were becoming more brazen: they welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with hosannas and palms, with the bizarre idea that Jesus would assume power as King.
Pilate couldn’t have that. But at the same time, he was intrigued by the poise of the prophet. Maybe Jesus did have some access to truth that would enable Pilate to wiggle out of the political vise he was trapped in. But Jesus spoke in riddles, which Pilate didn’t understand—and so he defaulted to his training, and the expectation that Rome had of him: truth was whatever those in power said it was. Pilate had the power. Case closed. An exploration of deeper truth was denied yet again.
What is truth? More often than not, history demonstrates that truth is determined by the one who has the power. In this sense, truth becomes more of a weapon than a concept. Whenever I hear someone say, “I speak the truth”; it feels like an opening salvo to a conflict that the speaker wants to engage in, with no willingness to concede to the possibility of another truth. In my experience, “Speaking truth to power”, which has become a mantra for so many, is less an exercise in discovering truth than an attempt to wield power over another power. The search for truth then gets lost in the battle, or is forgotten altogether.
There is a growing outcry over the American history curriculum recently passed by the Florida Board of Education. One particular component stands out: that slaves developed skills that could be used for their personal benefit. That curriculum claim truncates the truth. By it the search for truth is essentially shut down. The curriculum is really a statement about power: power over what their advocates see as their “woke” adversaries; and even more unfortunately, power over the development of students’ minds.
I am often oblivious, if not blind, to claims of truth which are, fundamentally, expressions of power. For the longest time, a truth I embraced was that capitalism is a constituent element of democracy: that one could not exist without the other. In recent weeks I have come to realize that they are not only distinct, but capitalism exercises power over democracy. In effect, capitalism has come to define democracy. While it is true that we operate on the democratic commitment to one person, one vote –the people we vote for need to have financial “war chests” in order to even be a candidate. Money manages votes. And while we understand that elite colleges seek out the most proficient students, the New York Times reports that children of the wealthiest one percent are 34% more likely to be admitted to those selective schools (NYT, July 24, 2023). More money wins. The “free checking” I receive at my bank is made possible by the late fees and bounced check charges of those who are on the perilous economic edge. (Matthew Desmond, Poverty, by America). Less money limits choices and fosters penalties. The list goes on. Capitalism has become an unchallenged source of truth. For me at least, capitalism has co-opted the concept of democracy – and will not let it go.
Truth is not about power, at least as the world wields it. Truth is not a weapon. Truth requires exploration and discernment. Truth involves wrestling with riddles. And maintaining poise.
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”, Jesus tells his disciples. (John 8:32) They had to work at getting to the truth. They had to learn and listen and explore and reflect. They had to risk going beneath and beyond the world’s addiction to power as truth. Theirs was not an easy journey.
Nor will it be ours. But we need to take it.