“I hear a ‘but’ coming.” Joy and I have said that to each other hundreds of times. We anticipate a “but” when we hear statements like this:
“That is a striking shade of chartreuse.”
“Those peppers certainly did add some zip to the yogurt.”
“Spending vacation with your parents is an idea worth considering.”
The “but” usually announces itself in our tone and a brief pause at the end of the sentence. And even if it didn’t, Joy and I have lived under the same roof for going on forty years. We know each other. Really well.
We’ve had thousands of deep, revealing conversations. Resolved hundreds of conflicts. Muddled together through scores of daunting challenges. We can hear each other’s “but.”
And if you spend enough time with Jesus, you begin to hear his “but,” too. Actually, he frequently spells it out in stark and even startling terms. For instance, he told his friends, “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Then elsewhere he goes on to explain just how costly that sort of freedom will be:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? (Luke 14:26-28)
A variety of contemporary writers have added their own slant to what happens when truth starts setting us free:
Truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.
Truth will set you free, but first it will p*#s you off.
Truth will set you free, but not until it’s finished with you.
Jesus came to bring reconciliation into a fractured, aching world. He taught us to forgive. To turn the other cheek. To love our enemies. And he taught us to tell the truth. Jesus actually never suggested that we should overlook injustice, keep our traps shut to avoid conflict, or swallow our pain or humiliation to avoid upsetting other people.
Jesus taught us to seek peace in the only way that genuine peace can be found. By listening, really listening to each other tell hard truths.
Desmond Tutu put it this way, “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are…. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt.”
Jesus spoke the truth, and the Romans crucified him for it. Centuries earlier, the prophet Jeremiah spoke the truth to the rulers of Judah. They threw him in prison, tossed him into an empty cistern, and, according to tradition, eventually stoned him to death. As Jesus teaches us again and again, to get to the empty tomb we have to walk the way of the cross.
Truth will set you free, but first it’s going to leave a mark.
In the United States—and across much of the planet—divisions are deep and tensions are running high. Like-minded people have tribed up and have engaged in verbal and even physical combat with their perceived opposition. Many of us lament our fractiousness and yearn for civility. We want peace.
I suppose that’s why social media is littered with memes and blogposts pleading with us to be nice. We’re frequently reminded that we can still like people who disagree with us. And while I too value respect for different opinions, niceness, and unconditional love, I can recognize cheap grace and shallow peace when I hear it.
Cheap grace and shallow peace are achieved by dismissing wrongs and injuries done to others instead of facing them and doing what we can to make things right. At best they give comfort to some at the expense of injustice for others.
James Baldwin put it this way, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
Bell Hooks points us toward a better way, a holier way: “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
To follow Jesus, we speak the truth.
We say that separating children from their refugee parents is inhumane, no matter what your views on immigration policy may be.
We say that letting any child go hungry, homeless, and without basic medical care violates Jesus’s law of love and is incomprehensible in this wealthy nation.
We say that white supremacy is a sin, whether you embody it by waving a Confederate flag or by wearing a Brooks Brothers suit in a position of political, corporate, or social power.
Saying these truths can make you the skunk at the garden party. It can set you on the path to Golgotha. To quote Tutu again, “[Telling the truth] could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
Even though it is likely to leave a mark, telling the truth is the only thing that will set us free. It is the only thing that will heal us.