Several years ago I attended a conference to get continuing education credits in order to maintain my certification as an addiction counselor. It was held at a large hospital in one of Chicago’s suburbs. After a morning of intense concentration in lectures and lunch in a noisy cafeteria, I needed solitude and stress relief. I found an empty chapel. It was perfect for my seclusion.
As I settled in to relax, a large banner with large letters at the front of the chapel attracted my attention. It boldly proclaimed: “Truth shall set you free.” It seemed profound. I realized it was a part of a quotation from the Bible (John 8:32): “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
As a lay person, I pondered, “What is truth?” What meaning might the phrase have in the secular setting? From what bondage, deprivation, or captivity could truth set one “free?” Obviously in cases of wrongful convictions, the truth serves well to set one free. But often truth is proof of guilt.
Webster’s dictionary defines truth as “A faithful presentation of facts and actuality.” The implication is that truth is superior to falsehood. Any alteration negates truth. Half-truth is not acceptable. Our justice system mandates presentation of the whole truth.
In 1918, Senator Hiram Warren Johnson said, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
Having lived my formative years in Europe during World War II, I learned then that none of the statements, reports, or proclamations by a government agency could be trusted or believed. Now, many years later, I still feel a sense of betrayal whenever our government seems less than truthful.
After a war, dictators keep the truth suppressed and oppress their people. Free, open societies like ours stop managing the flow of information and allow the people and truth to heal from the wounds inflicted by war.
When the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979, Barbara Walters interviewed Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris. She asked him if he was going to assume leadership of Iran. He stated that he had no such plans. One week later, Ayatollah Khomeini became the first Supreme Leader of Iran. Barbara Walters interviewed the Ayatollah again, this time in Tehran. She asked His Holiness if he had lied to her in the first interview about his intentions. He said no, he did not lie. He said he was fulfilling his holy obligation of withholding the truth. The Ayatollah implied that Muslims are directed to withhold the truth from infidels as their holy obligation. They are not directed to lie, however.
Such a smear campaign obliterates the very existence of a well-informed electorate and makes a mockery of the election process.
Other examples of blatant manipulation of truth occur in Senate hearings which investigate suspected misdeeds of corporate giants or government agencies and their officials. Heads of agencies such as the CIA, NSA, or FBI, and corporate CEOs of GM, Monsanto, and bank presidents have been called to present testimony. They all swore to tell the truth but, invariably, truth was either withheld or at least greatly edited. Evasive or untruthful testimonies were presented. Damaging evidence was withheld as “classified information.” Citizens’ trust and sense of security became compromised.
When it comes to our personal lives, the banner’s profound proclamation that truth will set one free does not carry an implication that truth shall be consoling or comforting. Truth related to death of a loved one does not ameliorate the pain of grief. Truth about our own flaws of character is discomforting and often difficult to accept. But such acceptance of truth can help us change and heal.
Throughout history, truth has been used, misused, and abused. And yet truth continues to serve humanity faithfully. It remains a point of reference, a source of reassurance, and a foundation for honesty.