“Truth Telling” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – September 29, 2013
Call to Worship – from Henry David Thoreau, Walden
No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well. For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out. In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is. Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.
Reading – The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Sermon – “Truth Telling”
There was a cartoon in a recent New Yorker that depicts a woman peering out from a dressing room where she has just tried on a new dress. She remarks to her husband who is waiting outside: “It’s two sizes too big, but it fits.” There is a truth there that many of us have a hard time admitting. Many years ago I wrote a newsletter column for Easter called “The Right Size.” In it I wrote about a time thirty years ago when I had lost thirty pounds and became a size thirty-four inch waist. Yet I kept buying size thirty-six pants because I believed that was what I was, “I am a thirty-six.” Or maybe it was just habit. The pants were baggy and I needed to notch the belt securely to avoid embarrassing moments. Finally I realized I was a thirty-four, and purchased the appropriate pant size. In the column I suggested we all try on something new for Easter. Easy to say when the waist size is going down. Now I wish that I could even dream of getting into a thirty-four or a thirty-six inch waist. My truth is in the forty range, and so now when something fits, I have to embrace the truth that comes with advancing age and over consumption of food, the expanded waistline. I know what the woman in the cartoon was saying all too well. If I squeeze into a thirty-eight, I am ecstatic, and the forty-two, while too big, might surprisingly be, just fine, when it fits.
What is the truth or your truth? Truth is elusive, and like an expanding and contracting waist, we are often never sure. With a Unitarian Universalist faith, you can’t even find it in church. We are never definitive about God, Jesus or the Bible, but what’s important is that we keep pursuing both larger truths about meaning, and the truths we find in our own lives. We merely say, keep searching, like the old Del Shannon song, “Searchin’ Searchin’.” Take my first sermon of the year that I gave a couple of weeks ago. I was told at a recent worship committee meeting that I usually leave some room for a belief in God, but that sermon seemed to lack it. Have I gone over completely to the other side, like Darth Vader? As Henry Ware, Jr. said to Emerson in the 1830’s ,if you only follow universal laws, God has no personality, and thus your belief in God is akin to atheism. As postmodernism seems to teach us, there is no overarching truth, there are only the truths we find in the context of our own historical and cultural context.
We can easily see that truth is hard to find, and moreover that everyone seems to have a different understanding of it, and as much as we might want one standard, the multiplicity reflect the complexity of the world. Yet finding truth is vital in our search for a more equal and just society, despite the frustrations we may feel. I am sure many of you felt those frustrations this summer when the verdict came down in the Trayvon Martin case. Here a young man carrying home an iced tea and Skittles was shot down by a self-appointed vigilante. We probably all expected a guilty verdict for the neighborhood watch shooter George Zimmerman. What we received instead was nuanced explanations of “stand your ground” laws, so that a seemingly innocent young man could be stalked merely because he was African American, and then shot down because Zimmerman could claim self-defense as a reasonable perceived threat based on Martin being present in his neighborhood. The Latin root of the word verdict is “truth-saying.” But when juries deliberate and reach these kinds of verdicts, do they really achieve the truth?
What was the truth? Years ago when I lived in Milton, people used to joke about how the police guarded the bridges leading into Mattapan. Any African American driving into white Milton was perceived as a threat. Having a black President of the United States hardly makes things different. The truth is we live in a racist nation. The other truth that was avoided, is that guns kill. Somehow in our fears about what keeps us safe, we have come to believe that when we carry a gun, we will be safe. Fear has come to predominate in our society, and as Andover Newton president Nick Carter said this summer, fear is going to help arm us in ignorance, not truth, and these kinds of killings are more likely to happen. We don’t find truth with false assumptions like guns will protect us. Truth is hidden when we are lied to or believe false assumptions. In this case the announced truth is that someone is worth less than someone else. It is one thing to know that in your imagination, but then when it is confirmed publicly in law, it makes us angry and frustrated and sad. Law only focuses on the narrow details, and cannot give us a big picture of truth. What was lodged in Zimmerman’s imagination as truth, is probably still there in the minds of many Americans. What if the roles were reversed, and a white teenager were shot by a black man? What if our judicial system began to address a few of the racial disparities in our society? So when truth is hidden behind the law, we try to expose it. We strive to create communities that do not live in fear. We strive to create communities where we learn the full truth and expose it, and live by it – this means learning the facts, because the more we know, the more opportunity we have to fight for justice and understanding and also reveal the truth that lurks in the imagination.
Sometimes we assume that documentary films reveal the truth to us. Not long ago I saw the film, “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” the story of back up singers in bands. They often never achieve stardom, and rarely get the recognition they deserve, but the chorus they sing is often the most memorable part of a song. Think of the Rolling Stones hit song “Gimme Shelter,” for instance. It was dismaying to learn the truth about these singers, but how true was the portrayal? I assumed very real, as we think that documentaries provide direct observation, and we perhaps assume that style guarantees truth. Errol Morris who directed “The Thin Blue Line,” says a hand held camera in an interview or filming apparent unstaged action “does not mean that what you are doing is any more truthful than anything else. Truth is a pursuit,” he says, “a quest.” Style does not necessarily equal substance; it can fool us. We sometimes think we see truth in looks, or appearance, or even a resume, that turns out to be doctored. One could say that TV reality shows are an attempt to make television come closer to the truth in its pursuit of entertainment that is not fabricated. Yet one expects even live television to be staged since the assumption is that entertainment is more important in that media than truth. Look at the sensationalism that newspapers rely upon. It always makes us at least somewhat suspicious of where truth lies.
Pablo Picasso once said that “art is the lie that tells the truth.” I wondered about that statement as I looked at the exhibit, “Photography and the American Civil War at the Metropolitan Museum in New York this summer. The show featured the works of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. You have probably seen many of the images in books or in Ken Burns films. I was especially interested in how photography transported people for the first time to the front lines to see the horrors of war, almost how the filming of Vietnam led so many people to turn against that war. One reviewer of a new biography of Brady, says that photography was America’s first killer app. Killer is literal here. Photographers used death as a sales strategy to convince people to have pictures taken of their loved ones who marched off to war, perhaps never to return. Or conversely to have pictures of your loved ones that you could carry with you into battle, to provide that last glimpse of those who loved. But this was true back home as well. People were enticed by the emotional pitch that you must have that true image as a keepsake before you lose your loved one. There was a blacksmith in upstate New York, who reviled the local photographer as a swindler, but once his son drowned, he came begging to see if the photographer had an image of the boy.
It was also a killer app on the battlefield as well. In the exhibit I saw familiar images from Gettysburg of what I presumed was a photograph of a dead Confederate sharpshooter. Yet I learned that photographers had moved corpses around to achieve the desired message they were trying to convey. Sharp eyed critics wondered how the same dead body kept showing up in different places and positions on the battlefield, just as dead in each different photo. Each shot then did not truthfully reveal where and how he died, but rather was staged to provide a picturesque effect. Despite the seeming violation of truth by using the documentarians tool to portray the literal falsehood of making corpses into puppets, the deeper truth of the terrible carnage they effectively portrayed achieved the artistic effect of the lie that tells the truth. Perhaps the famous photo of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima does the same thing. It was staged, but its public relations effect was enormous.
The great American poet Emily Dickinson once advised us to tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Dickinson wanted her poems to reveal deeper truths about life and death. Dickinson was introduced to the world by the critic and Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She first wrote to him in 1862 asking if her verse was alive? She was looking for some kind of standard and felt he could judge if the poems conveyed deep truth. She said, please sir, tell me what is true. She told Higginson that her father bought her books, but begs me not to reads them, because he fears they joggle the mind. She portrayed her entire family as religious, except for her, saying they “address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call “Father.” Wanting him to instruct her, she worried she would displease him, again asking him what is right? Knowing how hard it is for people to stand up for themselves, meant it was tough to tell the truth and not live by appearances. Dickinson told Higginson when they first met in person: “Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.” When they parted, he told her he would come again some time. And she replied, “say, in a long time; that will be clear. Some time is no time.” She wanted standards. She wanted the truth, not vague promises.
Remember that famous movie exchange about truth. Cruise says, I want the truth!” And Nicholson replies, “You can’t handle the truth ” Who are you going to believe? Truth telling requires courage. Do we really want the truth? This summer I was at the Museum of Fine Arts, and read the back story about an Edward Hopper painting. Like many of his, it is a street scene in New York. Think empty windows and lonely cityscape. This is a painting of a drug store, and he painted it as it really was, with a large Ex-Lax sign. Of course Ex-Lax was, and still is, a medicine to relieve constipation. His agent’s wife thought the reference to a laxative was immodest, and Hopper was convinced to change the X to a C – Ex-Lac, in order to sell the work. The painter compromised, but then ironically after it was sold to a Boston collector, he encouraged Hopper to restore the true product name, and he did. Thankfully the owner wanted the truth
Did Hopper lack the courage to stand up for the truth? Did selling matter more? Or reputation or image? Sometimes revealing the truth requires courage. Earlier in the sermon, I mentioned Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who introduced Emily Dickinson to the world. Just a few years prior to receiving his first letter from Dickinson, Higginson had been involved in what came to be known as the Secret Six, six people who conspired to sell materials and send money to John Brown, so that he might foment a slave rebellion. Higginson was proud to have been associated with Brown, feeling that all attempts to eradicate the great crime of slavery by legal means had failed, and that more direct action was necessary. The problem was that he was the only one of the six who did not abandon Brown, or lie about his involvement, or run to Canada to avoid prosecution, and save himself. Even prior to the abandonment, they had forced Brown into a postponement, which Higginson believed led to the failure of the project. He wrote to fellow conspirator Sanborn Brown, a school teacher, “Can your clear moral sense . . justify holding one’s tongue . . to save ourselves from a share of the reprobation,?”
Higginson was apparently the only one who believed the plan might succeed, but the others let it unfold, thinking that even in failure it would help lead to a necessary Civil War. Higginson felt like they knew this truth and abandoned Brown to his death, and they then abandoned Higginson after it failed.
While few of us have the opportunity in our lives to stand up for truth in such a dramatic way, it reminds us of the human importance of standing up for the truth about ourselves. It is not merely the jokes we make about our waist size, it is the deeper challenge of telling the truth about yourself. Just this week, I spoke to a colleague who was struggling with his ministerial role, and he blurted out to me, can I speak the truth about something that is important to me, or do I always have to worry about making the people happy? Do I just try to please, or help lead in a direction where they might be challenged to face something about themselves or their community that is difficult or painful? Telling yourself the truth about yourself leads to having the courage to telling the truth about yourself to another. And if you keep telling the truth, you will finally be able to tell everyone not only about yourself, but about others as well.
The Yellow Birds is a painful novel about our recent war in Iraq, written by a veteran of that conflict. Pvt. Bartle is called a hero by everyone back home in Virginia, but the honorific feels like a joke, because all he’s done is survive — and the man he promised to protect did not. Bartle feels more like a “murderer” and an “accomplice.” Finally, the lies about the war are just too much to live with, leading Powers to write a startling and angry rant against a country that celebrates its soldiers without understanding the viciousness of the war they went to fight. In the reading, he tries to comfort his friend’s mother by promising her that he will watch out for her son. But of course he can’t really truthfully make that promise, and the beating he suffers at the hands of the Sergeant portrays that grim reality. War is filled with many lies.
We all tell lies when we are afraid. Two weeks ago my brother underwent an operation for throat and tongue cancer. Once surgery had begun they had to cut more of his tongue than they expected. When my sister-in-law spoke to me after the surgery, she said, don’t tell him,” fearing what his reaction might be. Yet I believe we are often more afraid of what we don’t know. When I went to see him, it turned out that he knew everything, and was fine with that. He rejoiced to say, “they got it all.” The whole truth was better. When we doctor a resume or cover up the truth, we are afraid of what others will think, afraid of what will be found out about us. But when we don’t share the truth the fear grows larger and we end up breaking hearts, creating bigger lies, and feeling betrayed. Thoreau was once at a fancy dinner, where he said rich food and wine were in abundance, but sincerity and truth were not. He went away hungry. He said style and appearances “pass for nothing with me.” He compared the king who made him wait in the hall, and the man who lived in a hollow of a tree, but welcomed him with true regal manners. Thoreau finally concluded, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Closing Words – from Emily Dickinson
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.