Following Jesus in a Post-Truth World
by Brayton Shanley
“Ultimates have to be seen for what they are; namely, ultimate.” This statement from Thomas Merton drives a clarifying wedge into the post-modern age of today. Pondering the truth of things has captivated me for as long as I can remember. Where is God? What is the truth? If I have one life to live, how am I to live it? This life-long journey into the deepest recesses of human life on earth has been fundamental to meaning and purpose in my life.
We exist in North America’s 21st Century post-modern age where the dominant belief is that one need not seek ultimate truth because there is no ultimate truth to seek. A plethora of good ideas exists with important values from which to choose. It behooves us to be ambitious about constructing our lives around what we determine to be the best of the ideas. No hierarchy of values or beliefs is relevant. Wisdom and knowledge are contextual. My subjective truth comes from the needs of my socio-economic class. My truths are the realities of my ethnic group, my tribe.
The values Americans hold dear are ones our nation-state has promised us: free speech, political freedom, free market capitalism, a strong military and police force, living our American dream, having it all. For most pursuing this kind of sensible pragmatism, good credentials are required. Be certain to show up early at the job and work hard.
We cling to these identities in our electoral politics. We align ourselves with those who protect us or advance the interest of our group. In the absence of ultimates, post-modernism yields to post-truth with no sacred moral or spiritual quest. We can easily see post-truth seeping into Christianity in our American context. The average Christian might say: “I am a Christian. I go to church on Sunday. I am a good person. I believe in God. I vote for people who believe in God. I work hard at my job. I am good to my family.”
However, if most Christians were honest, they might add: “I try to be a good Christian, but I don’t really know how to live my faith. How I make my living has very little to do with the life and example of Jesus.”
So where does “There is no ultimate truth” lead us as Christians? With no real uncompromised standards, we descend into a functional meaninglessness. Our life becomes an anxious wandering through a self-serving maze of choices which lead us to what philosopher Ken Wilber calls an “aperspectival madness” of nihilism and narcissism. No way emerges for us to evolve to a higher level of consciousness with no methods to improve morally and spiritually.
Measure that truthless faith against Jesus Christ in the gospel of John. In proclaiming his purpose for being Jesus states to Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world: to bear witness to the truth. All who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” (18:37) Jesus’ recognition of truth is primary. He proclaims such truth over seventy times in the gospels.
Inviting us into a threefold process, Jesus requires first that people have “ears to hear” and readiness “to follow.” Once we hear him and believe, Jesus challenges us to the maximum directing us to bear witness to the truth that he was born to teach.
Coming to us as the paragon of Divine, nonviolent love, Jesus reminds us that if we are “on the side of Truth,” we demonstrate our fidelity by bearing witness and by living in uncompromising Christic Love. We can fail in the effort again and again, but we cannot contradict or deny his truth. If we fail, we simply confess and return to this sacred commitment to his truth: to love mercifully moment in and moment out. Failing at love is not a problem. Inevitability, the real problem, is our denial or ignoring the truth of Jesus.
Gandhi illuminates the painful reality of what the situation is for too many practicing Christians:
I tell every Hindu that their lives as Hindus will be greatly enhanced if they know the teachings of Jesus. He taught as no other could the spirit and the will of God. But, I never encourage my Hindu brethren to become Christian. I know too many Christians who rely on governments who use brute force; who deny Jesus every day of their lives. This is Christianity without Christ.
We can settle for the lukewarm, a cultural Christianity, the faith we were born into. I think of my father, a proud third generation Irish American. His self-understanding was that of an Irishman and coming, in almost in the same breath was “Catholic.” They were inseparable. This allegiance he accepted as an Irish American was only a step away from being a breed of secular Catholic, with no noticeable passion for Jesus, no commitment centered on his life and teachings.
Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus commands us “to love one another as I have loved you” (15:12); Believe in God; believe also in me” (14.1); “You will bear much fruit and become my disciples” (15:8). Jesus’ nonviolent love is a command, not a request. Profoundly simple to understand, its fidelity is essential to discipleship and is almost completely ignored or finessed by too many Christians as Gandhi so straightforwardly declared.
The Hebrew prophets all the way to Jesus were street preachers announcing that the bedrock truth of faith is to risk comfort in service to the poor, while excoriating pious demonstrations of prayer without good works. Beyond the safety of this Temple-bound faith, there was little to recommend it. The prophets make public the time immemorial longing of the human heart, living the commands of Yahweh without fear of consequence. Jesus, the last in the line of Hebrew prophets, offers his peace as a divine gift, but it is “the peace that the world cannot give.” ( John:27) His prophesies offer a sharp distinction between the ways of the world and the ways of God.
Post-Truth and DC Politics
A hollow mockery of truth is frightfully visible in Trump and his followers. Trump bullies world leaders, especially our allies, abuses women, emboldens white supremacists with his racist rhetoric and allows separation of immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border. His administration maintains a chronically engorged military budget, perpetuating war without end. For all this, Trump calls himself a Christian, and the majority of his several million followers answer to that same name. Yet, aren’t his morally depraved policies the antithesis of Jesus Christ?
Ironic how Trump calls news “fake” given that his two year presidency is built on falsehoods to the extent that 75% of what he says is fact-checked as…well…untrue! Post-truth taken to the heights.
Mike Pence, an Evangelical Christian, grew up Catholic, was educated by Jesuits, and joined Trump as his vice president. Now, he must deny Jesus every day of his life. 82% of his Evangelical Christian confreres voted for Trump. Isn’t this president a viable candidate to be the modern day anti-Christ? And yet, no one calls any of them hypocrites of the most blatant kind. Looks like a dangerously post-modern Christianity.
A fellow Catholic friend of mine was complaining that “none of the American Catholic Bishops are challenging Trump and his people.” By not speaking out as prophets, they end up supporting a heartless health care system, policies indifferent to the ecological doom of climate change, empowering a man who swaggers around bullying his world. This is an American plutocratic monstrosity, totally out of control at the top.
Any resistance from the pulpit? Should we really be surprised that half of the Catholics who cast a vote in 2016 did so for Trump? Pope Francis comes to a church that seems to be dying a slow, post-modern death comes. He challenges Trump and his base at every turn. Catholics can only hope against hope that his courage in the name of Jesus isn’t too late to save us from complete doom. Can Christians of any denomination continue to support an administration that holds our world, its people and the earth hostage to this narcissistic white supremacy?
Recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Christian himself, turned to Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. … Whosoever resists the authorities resists what God appointed.” Apparently Paul blesses Trump’s policies of separating immigrant children from their parents. I assume that Sessions means: all political authority, especially in this country, is ordained by God; therefore, the immigrants coming to the US illegally must obey this New Testament teaching on the Divine Right of civic authority or pay the price.
Sessions appears to break with “anything goes post-modern” to quote sacred scripture. He grabs a New Testament verse to justify the cruelty of separating immigrant families. Failing to read down into the passage to Romans 13:8, he conveniently eliminates Jesus’ core teaching: “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Certainly traumatizing immigrant families and children at the Mexican border could never be love. Would Saint Paul ever command us to obey totalitarian governing authorities?
Christians “Embrace your Love Command”
Franciscan Richard Rohr and Sojourners’ founder, evangelical Jim Wallis, joined other Christian leaders across all Christian denominations to write and promote the document, “Reclaiming Jesus.” It calls the Christian faithful back to the biblical Jesus in these horrifying and unstable political times that we are suffering through. The document reads:
It is time to be followers of Jesus Christ before anything else — nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography. Our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. … Therefore, we reject “America first” as a theological heresy for the followers of Christ. …We reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We believe that the truth is morally central to the prophetic biblical tradition. …speaking the word of God into the societies and speaking truth to power. …Falsehood can enslave us, but Jesus promises us “You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32)
So living in a world that does not revere truth, our Christianity becomes contaminated with theological lies and wholesale rejection of love as the ultimate expression of how “to seek and to find.” Throughout Native American Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s book, Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Native Americans name their oppressors as white Christians of European lineage, guilty of torture, rape and genocide of native people.
Are we white Christians so all-powerful that we can manifest the antithesis of Jesus and not be immediately charged and written off as frauds? The fact is that without love, we are not at all Christian, but simply successful empire builders in love with military conquest, and world-wide economic control. As seen through our contemporary post-truth lens, doesn’t it matter that someone can kill and torture, or remain a silent endorser of these evils and still dare to call themselves Christian? Doesn’t the word, Christian, still possess the name, Christ?
If we white Christians desire to run the world economically, it will require us to see fidelity to Jesus as secondary. Jesus must be seen as irrelevant when it comes to the hardball of real life– power politics and severe economic recessions; nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran; war, weapons of mass destruction and desperate immigrants seeking asylum from poverty and war in Syria, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some Americans are overwhelmed with the image of tens of thousands of immigrants flooding our border, imagining them as people who will take our jobs or threaten our security. Is the goal of American rule of law to insulate us from political madness and economic extremity that swirls around us without our getting dirty and still remaining on top?
Let’s say we American Christians who comprise the majority of the country decided to reject moral relativism and the post-truth of “me-first” Christianity and reclaim Jesus at the center of our lives. Wouldn’t the quest for Divine Love truly save us from the chaos of our subjective, selfish truth and the chaos of the unjust political policies we have helped to create and perpetuate?
What healing image of compassion is worth holding onto when considering the tens of thousands of asylum seekers at our borders? With masses of the desperate poor at the border, wouldn’t Jesus invite them to him and care for them? If we were on the border with Jesus, our controlling, all-powerful, American persona would surely melt into compassion without conditions. Finally, aren’t we humans made for unarmed truth to guide us into loving kindness? Will we yield to a peace within all, a peace we so desperately want?