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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Truth or Falsehood
distributed 3/10/06 - ©2006

The grand hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation, is passionate and theologically complex, but I first loved it because it is gross.

What teenaged boy could escape fascination with the opening worlds of the second verse: "By the light of burning martyrs, Jesus' bleeding feet I track." Eeew!

The hymn is well over a century old, yet it speaks a contemporary word about Christian commitment in an ethically difficult world. To each of us -- individually and as nations -- comes a moment that forces us to decide for the good or evil side.

The hymn echoes the message that I sent to y'all last week about the need to decide between two contradictory visions of "the blessed way of life" -- the simplicity that Jesus holds up in the Beatitudes, or the hyper-consumptive "American way of life."

There comes a moment to decide, to take a stand, to be transformed -- and too often, it seems to me, churches shy away from calling their members and their communities to those great decisions. Having said that, though, let me also name a balancing perspective.

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Hymn writer James Russell Lowell set out stark differences: the strife of truth with falsehood, the good or evil side, bloom or blight, darkness or light. And that's just in the first stanza!

I hear similar rhetoric in the multitudes of political action alerts that arrive in my e-mail. Over and over again, I'm urged to take prompt action to stop the evil-doers -- the greedy, corrupt, ignorant, mean-spirited or otherwise horrible people who disagree with our obviously righteous positions. In the either/or world of activism, the choices are clear-cut.

It is an effective strategy for motivating a committed constituency, which is why it is used so often, by leaders of all kinds of causes. I'll even admit to having used the we/they approach once or twice. (A month, you say?? Ouch!)

There are dangers, though, in that approach, both spiritual and strategic. Claiming "The Truth" for ourselves and seeing "Falsehood" in all the others sets us up for problems.

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of simply attending a Sunday School class at my home church. The group is doing a series on Genesis, and was discussing the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God (Gen. 32). The group leader drew us into our personal faith experiences with a question along the lines of, "what is the difference between wrestling with God, and just wrestling?"

I found myself saying that, in my experience, I've only wrestled with God when I've been open to discovering God within the tussle. It is only when I've been willing to hear new truths and see new perspectives that I can discern God. When I think that I know all the answers, when I think that I'm the one standing steadfast for the righteous cause, then I'm unable to discern the holy in my wrestling. When I'm not open to being changed in the struggle, it is just a fight. (A marriage counselor, of course, would point out parallel insights about any relationship.)

As a spiritual discipline, I try to be open to wisdom, insight and truth from others, including those that I find to be misguided or wrong. I try to remember that I don't know it all, and that my perspective on an issue doesn't capture every possible nuance of meaning. I try to hear truth in what they're saying, instead of labeling them as evil.

Rather than thinking that there is one absolute and perfect Truth, I try to remember that there are many expressions of truth. As physicist Neils Bohr said, "The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth." That doesn't free us from having to take a stand about the truth that we claim, but it should make us a bit cautious about easy polarizations between truth and falsehood, and labels about the good or evil side. Spiritually and relationally, we find health when we don't claim a corner on truth.

This spiritual insight has strategic ramifications.

A strident proclamation of prophetic truth can mobilize the faithful. It can also do a very effective job of alienating those who don't see the same truth. The "I'm right and you're wrong" approach doesn't do much to attract new folk into the cause. Encouraging others to hear a truth in our message, instead of dividing with The Truth, can open a path to transformation.

In last week's Notes, I provided a link to the "provocative" statement that the US delegation of church leaders took to last month's meeting of the World Council of Churches. One subscriber wrote back to me with a comment about using that statement to the WCC in a class at their church. I replied with a word of caution and advice.

When you discuss the statement to the WCC, be aware that it has not been welcomed by all parts of the US community (surprise, surprise!). I'd suggest that you spend some time talking about the setting for the statement -- the US church leaders were going to meet with their peers from the world-wide ecumenical church for the first time since 9/11, and at a time when the US is taking no action about urgent environmental problems like global warming. It is presented as a confession, not as a perfectly balanced statement of US involvement in the world. The class might find it helpful to discuss where there is truth in the confession, instead of talking about whether it is "true."
I am speaking truth when I say, "this is how I see the world." That's a different sort of truth statement than, "this is how the world is." The first approach provides an opening to talking with other about how they see the world. The second approach is a path to contradiction and fights.

There is truth in the words of confession that the US church leaders spoke last month in Brazil. What they said does not express the fullness of the US role in the world, or of the witness of the Christian church in the US -- but what honest prayer of confession does name every nuance? That would be an explanation or discussion, not confession! Members of our congregations could be drawn into a spirit of confession themselves if they can discern truth within that prayerful statement. If their attitude is to reject the statement to the WCC as falsehood, though, they will have gained nothing from reading the prayer. It is just a fight, not a wrestling with God.

Political activists and religious fundamentalists can be very seductive (and very offensive) when they hold up a single, decisive Truth. There are times when those stark declarations must be made, against nuclear war and genocide, for example. As the hymn reminds us, there are moments to decide, and to act, on clear-cut cases of good and evil.

Far more often, though, we are called to decide, and to act, on truths that are not perfect or absolute. Within the church, we have the transformational opportunity to help people encounter other truths, to become more confessional about their own lives, and to wrestle with God in that encounter.

May we -- personally and in our churches -- seek that delicate place which includes both firm decisions for the truth that we know, and respect for the truth spoken by others.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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