Post-truth: Reflecting With William Stringfellow


"In Christ the false lords of history, the principalities, are shown to be false; at the same time, in Christ the true Lord of history is made known."
-William Stringfellow*

The votes are in. According to many lexicographers last year's "Word of the Year" was "post-truth." The word seems unnecessary to me. We already had a perfectly good word for what it describes: falsehood. Or, if you prefer an even more basic word: lie. For that matter, we have a perfectly good commandment against it, one of the top ten: "Thou shalt not bear false witness," (Exodus 20:16).

One columnist, commenting on the word "post-truth" noted that we are in an era when "anything goes" so long as it gets attention. So long as we have a 24-hour news cycle with a voracious appetite for marketable "content," the more sensational the better, (and that, sadly, is here to stay because the 24-hour news cycle makes lots and lots of money), we are in for a great deal more of what we have seen in the past year.

If we live in a time when lies and falsehoods have become acceptable, when anything goes as long as it gets attention, then we have no way of knowing where we are anymore, not only morally and ethically, but also in the most essential human relationships. If people, including politicians and public figures, are not just occasionally wrong about their facts, but are just making them up entirely; and, if in the name of "balanced reporting," facts, opinions and lies are all treated alike, we are not just in an uncomfortable spot, we are in a very dangerous place as a society.

Again, if we really are in a post-truth era, then we have no idea where we are anymore.

Popular media and, apparently, a great many of us are willing to substitute the word "post-truth" for "lies," as though we had "matured" to the point that we have simply outgrown the truth.** Prophetically the Christian thinker William Stringfellow decades ago encountered a similar dynamic and responded to the problem from the perspective of biblical faith. In an essay Stringfellow wrote in 1984 in response to Seymour Hersh's book, The Price of Power, Stringfellow reflects on a certain glib disregard for truth that fits right in with many of the discussions we are having (whatever our party affiliations) around water-coolers and watering holes these days.

Stringfellow asks how in the world politicians and other public figures can possibly retain credibility when they exhibit virtually no respect for truth.

He writes:

"The answer is that each [of the public figures about whom he is speaking] has succeeded in shifting credibility from a connection with truth to a dependence upon marketing technics. The shift is from that which is credible because it derives somehow from truth to that which is credible because people can be coerced, induced, conditioned, or programmed to believe it whether or not it has any significant relationship with the truth. Often, in the present U.S. culture, especially in the commercial realm, credibility is achieved simply by the technics of repetition, redundancy, and volume." [Bill Wylie-Kellermann, editor, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 291.]

It is easy enough, of course, to say to some politicians and public figures, "Shame on you for lying!" But what happens when we allow ourselves to become complicit in their lies, either because we allow ourselves to be manipulated, treat the falsehoods as "business as usual," or dismiss the untruths as irrelevant? In any of these cases, we are essentially saying, not only that we have no moral obligation regarding the truthfulness of statements, but that there are no social consequences for lying. There are, however, real consequences.

In fact, lies are among the most consequential of social acts. Lies are corrosive, eating through the fabric of relationships and society like sulfuric acid burning through cloth or skin. Our active or passive complicity with lies only lends them force, creating a culture in which human relationships become a fiction and the fundamental social contract making possible our life together is rendered void.

One of my all-time favorite plays is Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Since first seeing the play, my respect for Williams' understanding of the corrosiveness of mendacity has only grown. For Williams, lies are a vile and ugly violation of everything that promises life and the possibility of love. Indeed, for Williams, mendacity is the language and tool of death, a malignant tumor eating away at all human relationships that indulge in it. Unless the lies are exposed, cut away and burned out whenever they appear, unless the body politic learns to attack the cells of duplicity and dishonesty within it every time they return, mendacity will threaten our society's life and future. What is really required is a social body with a robust enough immune system that it can discern and resist the empty promises of untruth.

This is a serious spiritual issue. This is a serious biblical issue. It's an issue which Christians and other people of faith cannot afford to ignore for the sake of short-term political gains. Only by realizing that lies represent the death of human society can we understand why in our Christian tradition Satan is described as "the father of lies." Whatever the intent of the ancient maxim, vox populi, vox dei, in fact "the voice of the people" may not be God's voice at all, but the devil talking, as perhaps the earliest written record of this saying, in a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne, clearly indicates. Alcuin wrote: "Those people should be ignored who say that the voice of the people is the voice of God because the mob is always close to madness."

I don't think I had really taken note, until recently, of the significance of the fact that the person who asks Jesus, "What is truth?" was Pontius Pilate, a Roman political figure, a person who, in the end, had Jesus crucified either because he became convinced that Jesus was a threat to the imperial power of Rome or simply because it was easier to crucify a person he knew to be innocent than to resist the mob. I somehow doubt that Pilate was sincere even in asking the question, "What is truth?" I suspect he knew what the truth was. And his life became a lie as he conspired with death (John 18:28-19:16; Luke 23:1-5). It's ironic that the only reason Pilate's name is familiar today is because of his association with Jesus of Nazareth.

The cynic, of course, will say that only a fool believes what a public figure says, much less gives credence to the word of a politician, but the cynic is wrong. The Proverbs have it right when they say: "Truthful lips endure forever, the lying tongue, only for a moment," (Proverbs 12:19).

*William Stringfellow, "Christ and the Powers of Death," from "Free in Obedience," (1964), in Wylie-Kellermann, Keeper of the Word, p. 203.
**One politician, when confronted about misleading statements and deceptions spoken by a fellow-partisan, actually said recently we just need to "grow up" because this is the way the real world works.