“Oh Say, What is Truth?” is a buoyant and richly poetic LDS hymn*, but in my lifetime, it’s been sung only rarely in our meetings. I’m hoping that will change.
Because that. hymn’s. time. has. come!
In a post-truth, alternative-fact, fake news, free-press-as-enemy epoch, truth or objective reality is under siege, and with that, the bulwarks of democracy in our nation and across the world are eroding. As never before, we must search for and speak in truth.
It was in recognition of this newly-sprung truth-crisis that Senator Jeff Flake** quoted some of this LDS hymn’s verses on the senate floor. And that was about the same time I noticed the hymn had already been playing in an infinite white noise loop in my subconscious for a very long time. It hasn’t sounded so buoyant in my head lately, to be honest. I have to admit that at times it’s sounded more like a funeral dirge or at best an ironic taunt, and just this week I’ve felt the loop drooping. With so many truths coming to light yet so many in power evading said truths and so many others trusting those in power more than they trust their ability and responsibility to recognize truth … well, I haven’t been singing.
I say this to reassure you that if the attack on truth has in any way driven you to occasional existential despair and a wilting faith in humankind, I understand. I’ve been fighting back despair because, however justifiable it would feel to slump into a mound of gloom, life has taught me that despair deadens. Hope, on the other hand, animates. Hope is spiritual fuel. It keeps you moving. And heaven knows, these days we all need to keep moving.
Few speak with more authority about despair and hope and their rootedness in truth than does Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Holocaust survivor, and author. His voice cries to us as we stand in a precarious crossroads witnessing a detailed recap of many of the factors that led, only 80 years ago, to the erosion of truth that was inescapably linked to the scourge of a world war. Were Wiesel still living, what watchwords would he offer us in our present turmoil?
Wiesel has written that, “We are moved by despair, but we must never be moved to despair.” If we despair, if we abandon hope, if we believe the lie that “truth is not truth”, we will be immobilized, anesthetized, our most tender and compassionate humanity even deadened.
Maybe you’ve observed that when truth is attacked you might rally at first, but you might also slump, then shrug, and finally you shut your eyes, roll over, and burrow into your slumber. It is a deceptively small step from the undermining of truth to despair, and from despair to indifference. And indifference is as much an enemy of the good as is injustice.
It helps me to remind myself more and more these days of my own words, which became an early MWEG (Mormon Women for Ethical Government) slogan, that “We must not be complicit by being complacent.”
But I suggest that Wiesel said it better: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
To guard against the numbing effects of indifference, we do what we set out to do from the beginning of this organization. We keep our eyes riveted on the landscape. We watch with heightened scrutiny for any signs that deceitful rhetoric is echoed, normalized or even celebrated in the media. We respond to all of this with alacrity, gravity, and dignity worthy of peacemaking disciples of Christ. We pressure our local civic leaders and media outlets to never wink at that which is a lie. We show great tolerance and compassion for people but we never grant impunity to deceit.
In short, we act in truth. “Action,” said Wiesel, “is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.” Do we feel fed up or worn out in the defense of truth? Wiesel would applaud, saying that in the end we have at least been true to ourselves. We have maintained our integrity.
A meager triumph? Not according to Wiesel, who in his Nobel acceptance speech said, “One person of integrity, [one person who knows and lives by truth] can make a difference, a difference of life and death.” At a time when there is a vacuum of integrity at the chief level, our private integrity and avowal of truth might indeed be our greatest public service.
Which reminds me of a parable Wiesel once wrote with which I will close. It tells of a young man who wanted to save Sodom, the most decadent (and deceptive) of all cities. What were Sodom’s sins? In the Book of Ezekiel we read:
“Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (KJV, 16:49)
Or, as it is translated in the New International Version of the Bible:
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. (NIV)
The fiery activist wore out his life warning Sodom’s inhabitants of the falseness (the pride, the gluttony, the moral indifference, the civic detachment) of their ways. He coursed through the streets — wrote to his Members of Congress, I guess, and posted on every social media platform, held vigils, even wore purple — as an ambassador of truth, a truth few were willing to hear. They had, perhaps, been convinced that such messaging was fake, or that all messengers but the King were enemies of the people.
At first, folks listened, but only because this man was entertaining, an oddity.
Soon, however, they stopped listening altogether.
Years passed, and the man, who’d grown old, was still relentlessly trudging through town, calling at the top of his lungs, “You are destroying yourselves and each other!”
A child stopped him one day and asked, “Why do you keep yelling if they don’t listen? Isn’t this a waste of time?”
The man nodded, “I know. It’s not changing them.”
“Then why keep doing it?”
“Because,” the man said, “I know I’ll never be able to change them. But if I keep shouting and calling and warning, it’s because I don’t want them to ever change me.”
We can and must stay alert. We must stand up. And we must speak out in the steady and calm truthfulness that the Savior exemplified when standing before His chief accusers. “What is truth?”, a cynical Pilate asked the Being who Himself was the way, the truth, and the life. Pilate really didn’t want to know the answer to that timeless question, given that he didn’t see the answer in living flesh.
We can be quietly confident that, as we follow the Savior’s way and fill ourselves with His truth and light, we will not only be able to discern truth and point others to it, but we will also stand as living answers to Pilate’s question.
Oh, we’ll say what is truth, alright.
But most importantly, we will be what is true.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2018. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.
Portions of this essay are taken from this piece I wrote and published in December, 2016: http://inspirelle.com/global-mom-resisting-despair-stoking-hope-after-the-us-elections/
(Image: “What is Truth?”, Nikolai Ge, 1890)