Walter Brueggemann: Truth or Consequences in 2020

We live in a world of so-called “fake news” and so-called “alternative facts.” These propositions, largely invoked by Donald Trump and amplified by myriad conspiracy theorists, have quickly eroded trust in foundational pillars of democracy and of shared community. Ultimately, the assertions of “fake news” display downright violence against our neighborhoods and our shared vision for humanity. For me, it is a world already recognized by Isaiah:

Woe to you who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20)!

Jeremiah observes the same a century later:

Search the squares and see
if you can find one person
who acts justly
and seeks the truth—
so that I may pardon Jerusalem.
Although they say, “As the Lord lives,”
yet they swear falsely.
O Lord, do your eyes not look for truth (Jeremiah 5:1-3)?

In that world matters are misrepresented, called by their wrong names or concealed in misleading euphemisms. Given that social reality, I have been thinking about truth, the way in which the gospel proclaims the truth, and the way in which the church is empowered to be a practitioner of truth. That thinking has led me to ponder three texts in particular, though you may think of many others as well.

The first text I thought of is the ninth commandment:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20).

The language of the commandment pertains to an oath in court. Under oath you shall tell the truth. The commandment believes that the truth can be told, a conviction clearly reflected in our familiar court oath, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” A trial most often consists in competing truth claims borne by different contradictory witnesses; the judge or jury must decide the truth of the case by determining which witness is a truth-teller. The truth is a faithful remembering of what happened, depending upon reliable witnesses.

Two matters merit attention. First, the prohibition concerns “the neighbor.” The matter of truth-telling in court, as with all of the commandments, concerns the neighborhood; the “other” in the court case is a neighbor.

Truth-telling is designed to enhance the neighborhood. Falseness diminishes the neighborhood. The truth depends upon regard for the neighbor.

Second, in his exquisite exposition of the commandment, Patrick Miller (The Ten Commandments 343-386) suggests that the eighth commandment on stealing and the ninth commandment are closely linked, that is, stealing and lying go together. Lying in court has a violent effect on one’s neighbor. Miller compellingly cites two cases (among others). In I Kings 21, Ahab and Jezebel are able to seize (steal!) the property of Naboth by lying against him:

The two scoundrels came and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people (I Kings 21:13).

On the basis of their false testimony, Naboth was executed so that his property fell to the crown. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira withheld property from the church and lied about it. They are convicted by Peter:

“Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?...You did not lie to us, but to God!” (Acts 5:3-4).

Lying under oath is an act of violence against a neighbor; it is most often committed by strong neighbor against a weak neighbor, so that the court may become an arena for violence against the neighbor. Truth is enhancement of the neighborhood. Truth-telling is an act of enhancing the neighborhood. Lying, conversely, diminishes the neighborhood, for it is most often an act of self-serving that puts self over-against the neighborhood.

The second text of which I am mindful is John 1:14:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Fourth Gospel is fully occupied with questions of “truth,” asserting that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In the doxological prologue to the gospel, the full divinity of Jesus is attested; he is the “Word of God” become “flesh.” Our verse witnesses to the character of the Word, thus the character of the Father, and as result to the character of the Son. The Son is marked by the “glory” of the Father’s only Son. That shared character is marked by “grace and truth.”

Given our modern Western assumptions, that word pair is a curious one. “Grace” we get as the self-giving generosity of God. But the term “truth” is odd in this usage and does not seem to go with “grace.” It is odd for us because given the impact of Descartes, we incline to treat “truth” as “fact,” a reduction of the term to propositional certitude.

In order to refuse such a modern reduction, we will do well to go behind “grace and truth” in the Fourth Gospel to see that in the Old Testament the same word pair regularly is used to attest covenantal fidelity. The Hebrew terms, hesed and ‘emeth, bespeak readiness to act faithfully according to one’s covenantal commitment. Thus the word pair appears in the defining self-revelation of God:

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

In the extended affirmation of God’s care for King David in Psalm 89, the word pair recurs many times:

I declare that your steadfast love is forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens (v. 2).

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you (v. 14).

My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him (v. 24).

But I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness (v. 33).

And even in the pathos-filled response of verse 49, Israel can ask:

Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David (v. 49)?

Thus it is clear that the two terms in John 1:14, “grace and truth,” are an echo of Israel’s faith concerning God’s hesed and amunah that we translate regularly as “steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Jesus’ embodiment of God’s own life is an embodiment of steadfast love and reliability, that is, covenantal reliability.

This sense of “truth” (amunah, emeth) is evident even on the pernicious lips of Abimelech who insisted in “good faith” (emeth) (Judges 8:19), as in the parable of his frightened brother, Jotham as the demand of the bramble (Judges 8:15) (see my exposition “Refusing the Bramble”). Thus in our verse (John 1:14), Jesus is full of “good faith” that he performs variously for trusting needy people all around him.

In such a usage, we are a very long way from Cartesian facticity that comes to us as propositional certitude. Clearly, “truth” in this trajectory from the Old Testament through the Fourth Gospel is a relational term that speaks of how it is that the Son (and the Father) will to relate to the world in self-giving ways, that is, in grace-filled ways. We can see that this usage in John 1:14 is congruent with the ninth commandment, because both texts concern fidelity toward the neighbor, and a refusal to violate or abuse the neighbor. The God of the covenant will not do that, nor will the neighbors in the covenants of Israel and the gospel.

The third text I consider is the well-known trial of Jesus before Pilate, the Roman governor (John 18: 33-40). Or in the ironic sense of the Fourth Gospel, the trial of the Roman Empire before Jesus. Pilate is an embodiment of fully established imperial power. He is accustomed to imperial edicts that declare reality and pass imperial judgments off as the truth. The governor, however, is bamboozled by Jesus, because Jesus does not fit imperial categories. In his silence, Jesus is not actively defiant. He does not make any defense for himself.

He refuses to engage the power of the empire that has come to think of itself as the determiner of truth.

It is clear that the governor is shaken by this presence that stands before him, defenseless, having no need to give answer. In desperation, the helpless governor, representative of the helpless empire before Jesus, asks, “What is truth?” He no longer knows. But of course Jesus does not answer. He has no need to answer. He knows, moreover, that “truth” is not a package of announcements or a collection of data. It is not an accumulation of knowledge. What Jesus embodies he has no need to declare.

The narrative affirms that the truth is standing right in front of the governor. The governor, however, cannot recognize the truth that is before him, because the truth fits none of the imperial categories of certitude or control. The truth before the governor fleshed in the person of Jesus, is the reality of a self-giving self who is the historical embodiment of the self-giving God who stands over and against the empire. Thus Paul Lehmann can conclude:

The point and purpose of the presence of Jesus in the world, and now before Pilate, are to bear witness to the truth, that is, “to make effective room for the reality of God over against the world in the great trial between God and the world” (Paul Lehmann, The Transfiguration of Politics 53, and quoting Rudolf Bultmann).

The trial in the Fourth Gospel is indeed a trial between “God and the world,” the world of imperial control.

The claim of the gospel is that Jesus makes “room for God in the world.” And the God for whom he makes room in the world is the God who gives God’s self away in love for the world, giving “his only Son” (John 3:16). The God embodied before the governor is the one who loves the neighbor and who calls us to love the neighbor. The reason the governor cannot discern the truth before him is that “neighbor” is not a workable category in the empire. That, however, is the point of the trial, to insist on the cruciality of the neighbor, and therefore the cruciality of the commandment to love the neighbor.

We have now come full circle from the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20), to the “grace and truth” of covenantal reality (John 1:14), to the truth embodied in the neighbor-valorizing person of Jesus (John 18:38). As Moses insisted that the neighbor is the measure of truth, so Jesus performs in the most complete way the truth of neighborly love. It turns out that “truth” is utterance and action that restores, emancipates, and reconciles neighbors for a viable neighborhood. What does not do that is a lie! The way to bear false witness is to violate the neighborhood.

We can now reconsider the world in which we live, a world of so-called fake news and so-called alternative facts. The fake news is not false simply because it misrepresents reality. It is fake because it violates neighborliness and willfully aims to set neighbor against neighbor in competition for scarce goods. Fake news is news that distorts the reality of generative neighborliness. Alternative facts are claims that fail to take into account the reality of the neighborhood, most centrally the reality of pain and loss. Thus it is always a lie when property and wealth are preferred to the wellbeing of the neighbors.

Obviously the imperial governor could not comprehend!

In the midst of this palpable world of fake news and alternative facts, the church is put down as a truth-teller. Its work is to tell the truth about the neighbor and about the neighbor-loving God. Its work is to act this truth that valorizes the neighbor in the performance of restoration, emancipation, and reconciliation. The talk of truth and the walk of truth go together. In the initiative of Moses, God stakes out a core claim for truthfulness concerning historical persons. In the restorative, emancipatory work of Jesus, God decisively radicalizes and advances the claim for neighborliness. In the wake of Moses and Jesus, the church finds its truthfulness in the neighbor. It refuses to be silenced by any other truth claim, by fake news or by alternative facts. It refuses to give in to the imperial posturing of Pilate.

No special gift of discernment is required to see that fake news and alternative facts have consequences. The central consequence is the dismantlement of public institutions and public possibilities. The consequence of lying is the seeding of hostility and enmity in the body politic. In the same way, truth-telling and truth-acting also have consequences. Truth-telling funds generative political energy, confidence in public institutions, and public sustenance for “the least.” In the embrace of gospel truth or imperial truth, we choose consequences. Moses saw most clearly the consequence of that decision:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity … Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for this means life to you and length of days (Deuteronomy 30:20, 19-20).

In light of that either/or of Moses, Jesus knows that we cannot have it both ways:

No one can serve two masters … You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13).

Flannery O’Connor saw matters clearly:

You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.

The church is now summoned to embrace its oddness in the world, odd in its truth-telling and in its truth-doing.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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