The Truth Will Set Us Free
There seems to be an assumption out there among some folks in our society that if you critique something then you must not love it.
I don’t even know how to respond to this idea.
Maybe the reason I don’t know how to respond to it is because it isn’t really an idea at all, but a psychological problem.
If someone is so emotionally fragile that they can’t receive criticism without becoming defensive or reactive, we all know that’s a problem. Maybe they were abused or hurt in some way growing up and they just feel too fragile to hear honest feedback. And we know we ought to be sensitive to such personal issues. We ought to take care to help them in such a way that they are able to hear criticism, because without constructive criticism (even when it’s painful to hear) we have a hard time really growing and maturing.
That’s why we’ve come up with clever ways to say, “You are doing so many things so well, and it seems to me that as you address the one or two growing edges you’ve got, you are going to be firing on all cylinders.” Sometimes, we know, criticism has to be packaged so it can be heard.
Another way of looking at this problem, however, is to recognize that robust and healthy egos don’t require lots of praise in order to hear criticism, nor does criticism provoke an angry reaction among those who are psychologically whole. Healthy egos know deep inside that nobody’s perfect and everyone has room to grow and improve.
So here’s the thing. Healthy religions can also take criticism without claiming that a negative comment about them is automatically blasphemy against God. And healthy countries can answer for what they’ve done wrong without assuming that citizens who critique their history or current policies must hate the country and ought to get out.
Loving the people around us, holding our religion precious, or having pride in the nation to which we belong has never required ignoring their faults.
I do not believe for a minute that my wife’s love is conditional if she points out something I could do better. In fact, I know her love is unconditional when she does this. And I cannot imagine reacting to her by saying, “Michael, love him or leave him!” That would be a monumentally dumb reaction to criticism. My wife has helped me to become a better, a calmer, a more generous person over time.*
But we do get the impression sometimes that if a person points out occasions or events in history or in the news when the church has been less than Christian, we’re letting the side down. And if someone has the temerity to point out the obvious sins of our nation or our national forefathers or some group of officials or our country’s contemporary policies, then it is proof that they don’t love their country.
This is patently silly. Not so much evil (although it can get that way); just silly.
Those who are willing to point out how we can become better (what we’ve come to call “gadflies”) are among God’s most wonderful, if also annoying, gifts. And every human generation has been as well served by its annoying gadflies as by its cheerleaders, often more so.
Nobody remembers the names of the civic leaders of Athens who voted to put Socrates to death because he was sowing seeds of critical thinking among his students. Really! Truly! Nobody remembers the names of those guys! But who can forget the venerable name of that irritating gadfly, Socrates, who stung Athens again and again until it became the intellectual and democratic jewel of the ancient world. His influence cascades through history, from Ancient Greece and Rome, through Early and Medieval Christianity, empowering the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and beyond.
Most folks can’t recall the names of the church officials in Denmark who saw Soren Kierkegaard as a traitor to his class and an enemy of the church. Indeed, the only time these ecclesiastics get a mention at all is in biographies about Kierkegaard. It is that gadfly of nineteenth century Danish society we remember, a Christian thinker who had the courage to say that what passed for official Christianity in his native land bore virtually no resemblance at all to faith in Jesus Christ. His insights gave birth to Existentialist philosophy and his fury transformed Christian thought long after his death, not least because of the influence he had on our Reformed faith’s greatest modern theologian, Karl Barth.
I believe that the experiment of the American republic is the single greatest and most brilliant political miracle in the history of human culture. The principle of representative democracy, the concept of a balance of countervailing powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches, the conviction that no one is above the law: all of these mighty ideas and more are enshrined in our U.S. Constitution, among the greatest gifts human genius has bestowed on all humanity.**
At the same time, I also recognize that the whole edifice of this nation’s founding rested on the backs of enslaved persons and benefited from the natural resources of a continent almost emptied of the people who had lived here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. The injustices and inequities that have been committed in the name of our country are many, and they stand right beside our most glorious aspirations and the valiant and courageous deeds accomplished for the sake of human rights and freedom around the world.
It is not too much to expect that mature citizens and a mature country can hold these conflicting facts in their heads, and recognize them in their history, and seek to deal with them creatively, justly and peacefully in their common life. It is common for states all around the world to deny their faults; what has marked us out from the beginning as unusual has been our nation’s belief that our institutions must be guarded against the worst angels of our own souls so that our better angels in time may prevail.
Truth ennobles us. “The truth will set you free,” said Jesus of Nazareth. Lies only delude us and lead us into historical cul-de-sacs of misery, unconvincing rants of braggadocio and vain-glorious acts of self-deception. And a history unwilling to face the whole truth reveals only weakness.
Yes, the truth does set us free. But sometimes it can make us feel pretty darned uncomfortable and unhappy before we feel its liberating power. This is as true for religions and nations as it is for individuals. But the liberation that comes from truth is worth the discomfort.
This was not an easy lesson for me to learn personally. And it was first taught to me four decades ago by a couple of tough-as-nails supervisors in Clinical Pastoral Education and the members of our group of chaplain interns at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas. They cared more about my growth and maturity as a person than about my hurt feelings.
A little historical background may help to understand what I learned.
Theological education, as it evolved in the mid-twentieth century, became aware that it mattered little how much Bible and theology and church history a potential pastor might know if that pastor was beset by intra-personal and inter-personal issues that would undercut their relationships with colleagues and members of their congregations. To put it bluntly, most pastors get fired because they are jerks, not because they have an inadequate understanding of Koine Greek declensions or a questionable view of the divine consubstantiality of the second person of the Trinity.
Therefore a whole new curriculum was devised in which potential pastors would be placed in clinical settings, given assignments to serve as a chaplain in specific areas of a medical center (medical ICU, for example, or Emergency, or Obstetrics), were required to engage in minute supervision of all they said and did, and also to submit themselves to a relentless process of critical personal reflection in what was called Interpersonal Relationship (IPR) groups.
The process was intended to stress the students with long hours and intense, sometimes overwhelmingly and emotionally intense, assignments, to find out and point out their psychological and psycho-social fault lines so they could be dealt with honestly. I was a student in one of the earlier generations of Clinical Pastoral Education, before a kinder, gentler approach gradually emerged; and while I was going through it, I hated the whole process.
Because the CPE process made me face unpleasant and painful truths about myself and the ways in which I related to others.
As my life in ministry unfolded over the decades, however, I came to have the most profound appreciation for this educational process. I came to realize that had I never confronted those unpleasant truths about myself, I would never have discovered the power of God’s grace, not as an abstract theological concept, but as a spiritual force in my own life.
When my supervisors or fellow chaplains saw me deflect an unpleasant observation someone made about me, they called my hand.
When they saw me react passive-aggressively to one of them or to a patient or to medical personnel, rather than to say what I had meant honestly and straight-forwardly, they told me so.
When they saw me try to manipulate my way out of an uncomfortable situation, they wouldn’t let me get by with it.
Their love for me was expressed by not letting me get away with self-deception or dishonesty. It was my first experience of “tough love,” you might say. And it took me years to recover from the bruises. But I never recovered from the education (Thank God!).
Those we love, the faith we share, and the country to which we belong deserve no less from us. If we really do love the people who are close to us, if we really do love our faith, and if we really love our country, they deserve the truth. We owe them honesty. And we owe ourselves honesty too. And we owe it to everyone not to ignore the gadflies.
The truth is never entirely true without love, but love is never complete without truth.
*As Lyle Lovett sings: “Now a small and more ordinary man might not appreciate the guidance of a good woman who truly loves him. He might drift in despair after the ignorant dumb doings of his dirty daily existence. That’s not me. No, yessireee. I’m proof that true love will set your free.” (“My Baby Don’t Tolerate”)
**Writing these words, I have at my side the little leather bound copy of the Constitution which lives on my bedside table. I wish as many people read the Constitution as allude to it. For those who wish to know more about this founding document which our federal elected officials, among others, vow before God to uphold and defend, I suggest reading the classic: “Miracle in Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention” by Catherine Drinker Bowen (1966).