Colleen Cook: What Is Truth?

In Greek mythology there are stories of the underworld, Hades, the place where Greeks believed the dead lived. Hades was surrounded by five rivers: Acheron - the river of woe, Cocytus - the river of lamentation, Phlegethon - the river of fire, Styx - the river of unbreakable oath, and Lethe - the river of forgetfulness or river of oblivion. When the newly dead entered the underworld, they would have to drink from the waters of the Lethe to forget their earthly lives. Lethe is also the name of the goddess of forgetfulness. She watches over the river.

Why do I bring up this river from ancient mythology? Because of a matter of etymology. The passage I read you from John climaxes with Jesus telling what his kingship consists of, what the meaning of his reign is to be. Jesus says, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

The word truth in Greek - and it is reasonable to think that Jesus and Pilate were conversing in Greek, a language each had access to - is aletheia. The prefix a- is used to denote an opposite, just as in the words asymptomatic, amoral, asexual. Aletheia is the opposite of lethe, forgetting. So, the word Jesus and Pilate were using for truth meant un-forgetting, or un-concealing, or the opposite of oblivion. Aletheia.

One would think that truth is the opposite of falsehood, a-falsehood, a-fake news. But instead, truth as used in this context is the opposite of forgetting, the opposite of having one’s memory wiped out. Which makes truth a kind of deep remembering.

Pilate walks back and forth between Jesus and Jesus’ accusers, his accusers piously staying outside the praetorium in order that they will not be ritually defiled and unable to take the Passover meal - ironically, a meal of remembering. Remembering God’s deliverance of God’s people from slavery.

On the one hand, he is negotiating with angry Jewish leaders who cannot give him the information he needs as to what Jesus has done. They only say, “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” On the other hand, he has Jesus acting more as a judge than as the accused, giving him cryptic answers to his questions, questioning Pilate’s motives and beliefs: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” No wonder Pilate’s exasperated rhetorical question at the end of the lection: “What is truth?”

What is truth? How to un-forget what we have forgotten? The word of the year in 2016 was post-truth, a philosophical take on the political landscape we lived in then and now, where objective standards for truth have seemingly disappeared and the times in which we live can be thought of as a Post-truth Era. Alternate facts described arbitrary narratives that were held up as truth but which had no basis in reality. Still today, the media provide polarized takes on the day’s happenings as if one can shop around for truth and pick the narrative that suits one’s beliefs best.

In social media and in politics there is a concerted effort at gaslighting, suggesting you didn’t see, hear, or read what you saw, heard, or read. A new version of the facts is constructed and we are asked to collectively take a dip in the river Lethe and forget what we knew. Forgetting the truth can be profitable. Conspiracy theories and gaslighting are the enemy’s way of making us forget what we know.

So, if Christ has come to bear witness to the truth, if truth-telling is - as Jesus told Pilate - the purpose of his incarnation, we as Christians are called to un-forget. It must be done on many levels.

In childhood creating is play and, until you are told differently, it is joyful to paint an orange sky with a green sun and red grass. It is a pleasure to squeeze clay and stack blocks and create for the sake of creating. But at some point, we are exposed to criticism, to the demands of realism or utility and some of our joy seeps away. We are encouraged to forget the raw creative joy we once felt. The work of the Christian, the truth-teller, is to un-forget our joy, to remember.

We begin to hear that we are not beautiful and that we ought to compare ourselves to airbrushed models who are paid to sell us things, and we forget the joy of our own image and try to cover it up in a dozen ways with makeup and spandex and plastic surgery. We forget that we are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. The truth-teller’s work is to un-forget our beauty, to remember our loveliness.

We are told we are bad, or unlovable, and we internalize this about ourselves until we become defensive and angry or filled with shame, because we have forgotten we are children of God, precious and good and lovable. The un-forgetting of this lie may take years of therapy and the unconditional love of a community. But it is the job of the therapist and the Christian community to help one another remember who we are, beloved children of God.

There are so many lies in our lives that Jesus came to intervene and truth-tell with love. Some that seem innocuous, like the myth of independence and self-determination, but taken to its conclusion this myth has us thinking our personal whims represent our freedoms and keeps us from bearing the burden of protecting each other by doing things like getting vaccinated and wearing a mask. Christian freedom does not impair and deal death to our siblings. We need to remember the deeper truth, that we are all interconnected, a breath away from one another. Love of self and love of other are inextricable if we are to survive. I suggest that each of us knew this truth, and we have forgotten it.

The myth of scarcity finds us hoarding and believing there is not enough of anything to go around. It keeps us from giving to those in need and makes us into unhappy misers. It opens ever wider the gap between rich and poor and endangers lives. It has us believing that some people are more worthy based on what they own and control. We have forgotten our earliest lessons about sharing, about making sure each of us has enough. We need truth-tellers who will help us un-forget how to share.

And God would have us remember our history, both the painful and the positive. It is tempting to forget that which harmed us, but true reconciliation is impossible without memory. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize lecture:

Of course we could try to forget the past. Why not? Is it not natural for a human being to repress what causes him pain, what causes him shame? Like the body, memory protects its wounds. When day breaks after a sleepless night, one’s ghosts must withdraw; the dead are ordered back to their graves.

But for the first time in history, we could not bury our dead. We bear their graves within ourselves. For us, forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered.

Remember. Un-forget. Remember the Holocaust. Remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Remember Edmund Pettus Bridge. Remember Stonewall. Remember 9/11. Remember Mother Emmanuel AME church. Remember Pulse. Remember Michael Brown. Remember Philando Castile. Remember Trayvon Martin, Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. Remember Jesus. Un-forget.

Pilate hardly bargained for philosophical sparring with the poor teacher brought to him by the chief priests. He probably expected Jesus to want to set the record straight, to deny whatever charges the Jewish leaders had brought against him. Instead, he admits to seeing himself as a king, in that he admits he has a kingdom not from this world. That he came to bear witness to the truth. Pilate finds himself in a tight spot, caught between the empire who props him up and those he must govern. The drama, which exceeds the portion of scripture I read you, includes Pilate asking the Jewish leaders, “Shall I crucify your king?” and them insisting, “We have no king but the emperor!” Their dirty deal with the empire sealed.

We celebrate Christ the King Sunday today, and it is generally a recognition of Christ’s lordship - a triumphant declaration: our Jesus is the ruler, the king over us all. But John tells us that Pilate and the Roman guard made a mockery of the idea of king, pressing on Jesus’ head a painful crown of thorns, mocking him, writing an inscription in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin above Jesus’ head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Not, as the Jewish leaders wished, “This man said he was king of the Jews.” And three days later the king who came to testify to the truth rose again from the dead.

His kingdom, not from this world, enlists us whenever we are able to un-forget the lies of a world mired in sin. His kingdom declared as now and always coming is a kingdom of aletheia. The truth. Let us un-forget, and yes, let us remember the way God remembered God’s covenant with God’s people. The way the people of Israel were to remember that God delivered them when they were slaves in Egypt. The way at the Lord’s table we remember Christ’s death until he comes again - and come again he will! The way we remember our baptism, and are thankful.

Let us remember who we are and let us remember whose we are. It was for this that Jesus came.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Please join me in prayer.

Holy God, you sent Jesus into the world to bear witness to the truth; to love us and to save us from our own forgetfulness. Forgive us when we forget that we are your lovely and beloved children. Help us to remember our calling to be beacons of the truth, to un-forget the world’s lies, that we might love one another as you have loved us. In Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen.