In a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration, I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?
In the previous post I wondered if it was possible for us to allow our current vitriolic political environment—an environment Donald Trump seems keen on helping thrive—actually teach us to become kinder, gentler, and more gracious. I quoted from Fr. Gregory Boyle, who said, “The answer to every question is compassion to begin with.” I wanted to emphasize the Christian commitments of charity toward our neighbors, love of enemies, and kindness in our speech. Now I want to turn to the Apostle Paul’s great exhortation to the Ephesian church to speak the truth in love. (Eph 4.15)
I’ve heard plenty of preachers say Paul juxtaposes truth and love. I think this misses the point. Truth and love are not opposites. Rather the truth may be spoken in ways that are loving, hateful, indifferent, etc. We have to commit to practicing compassion in our speech.
There is a temptation to take off the rough edges of truth and see that as an act of love. Often this means not telling the whole truth or any of the truth at all. Let us be clear. There is nothing loving about such an action. That is in fact deception. Our goal is not to avoid offending people. The fact is the truth is often offensive. People usually need to work through their offense in order to accept the truth. I know this was the case for me as I first learned about racial reconciliation. I took offense to claims that I, as a white male, disproportionately benefit from our racialized society. Friends were able to help me process my feelings of being slighted and see the truth that I do in fact carry privileges not extended to people of different ethnicities. The truth hurt, but living in the truth is better than living in a lie. Jesus reminds us there is great freedom found in truth. (Jn 8.32) I have found freedom accepting the truth of my privilege and I am free to use that privilege for the sake of others.
Speaking the truth in love demands we commit to knowing the truth. Many social and psychological factors work to prevent us from knowing and acting on the truth. The obvious culprits of partisan spin machines and the now popular scoundrel of “fake news” fill our minds with outright lies, half truths, and paltering. Often these sources confirm our biases. We like resources that tell us what want to hear and we want to avoid cognitive dissonance. We don’t want our convictions or beliefs challenged.
Knowing the truth thus requires humility. Christ-followers must take the words of those in power with a grain of salt. However, we will also exercise a healthy skepticism toward voices who say things with which we agree. Those of us who opposed Trump in part because of his propensity to lie must not assume everything he says is false. He has and will tell the truth. When he does we must acknowledge it.
Those who speak in love appreciate where their audience is and understand the same argument won’t work for all people. We cannot expect the same response from someone who is ignorant of the problems mass incarceration as from someone who has worked for prison reform for years. We know how hard we can push at a given moment. The great truth-tellers of the Bible, i.e., the prophets, did not mince words and were even willing to engage in rather harsh speech. But they used this language to wake up their audience and it was always an act of love—love for the God they worshiped, love for the people being oppressed, and love for the oppressors whose actions they condemned.
In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “To our most bitter opponents we say…’One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.'” This commitment to win over even our opponents as we seek justice is a wonderful picture of speaking the truth in love.