by Stephen Chavez | 10 February 2022 |
“You can’t handle the truth!”
That’s the stunning assertion near the end of the film A Few Good Men. Marine lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), cross-examining Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson), shouts: “I want the truth!”
Jessup’s reply—“You can’t handle the truth!”—reveals that if we knew everything, we wouldn’t be happy with that knowledge; that some things are better left unknown.
And that, indeed, is what we’ve learned about the U.S. military’s role in civilian deaths because of drone strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as its interrogation practices in places such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. We don’t like to be told that our national reputation is not as sterling as we’ve imagined.
This is not a discussion about truth, as in what happened on January 6, 2021 (although that is a conversation worth having). It is, rather, an appeal for us to look at our historic past—both as a nation and a denomination—with eyes trained to see the bad as well as the good, our triumphs as well as our failures.
Take the United States, for example. The roots of this “noble experiment” are now more than 400 years old. And for most of us, the earliest and therefore most enduring impressions come from stories told by White/Eurocentric writers and scholars, telling the story from their perspective: that White people brought civilization, Christianity, and prosperity to heathens who were both uncivilized and ignorant. But is that the truth?
What of the indigenous people who already inhabited North and South America? Did they not have their own customs that were just as industrious and civilized as those who “discovered” them? Were their cultures, lifestyles, and beliefs less valuable because they didn’t come from Protestant or Roman Catholic traditions? The sad story of their indoctrination in Canada, as well as in the United States, has just recently been told as the result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2008-2015). Hundreds of native students were removed from their homes and villages, never to return, all in an attempt to “civilize” them. It’s true, but it’s not something we like to dwell on.
And what about the Africans brought to North America to serve as slave laborers and treated as chattel, not real persons? The Eurocentric account of the U.S. Civil War has been seen either as a campaign for states’ rights or a crusade against slavery, but hardly ever as an attempt to right the inequality between Blacks and Whites. The history of the southern United States post-Civil War is a horrific account of White supremacy, racial injustice, violence, and disenfranchisement.
The current laughably incoherent debate about Critical Race Theory is just the latest manifestation of White supremacy, which would sweep under the rug the realities of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and other forms of terrorism based on race. Race riots in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), Springfield, Illinois (1908), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921), saw countless Black citizens murdered, their homes and businesses destroyed, and families forced into exile by armed White mobs motivated by lies, unsubstantiated rumors, racial prejudice, and paranoia.
Events such as these are never taught in most high school and university history texts. It seems that some people just can’t handle the truth.
Adventist History Reexamined
We Adventists also have a tradition of preserving our history in ways that exalt our pioneers to almost canonical status. Stories about Joseph Bates, James and Ellen White, Uriah Smith, John Andrews, and others, told uncritically to children in Bible classes, seem to reflect the saintly lives of those nearly ready for translation. But on closer examination, read when we are adults, these stories reveal that our pioneers were made of the same stuff as we are. They were fallible, human, and prone to the same idiosyncrasies.
Ellen White, someone with a very rudimentary education, is often lauded for her prolific output as an author. We tend to describe her visions and the influence of her testimonies in glowing terms. Her books are described as “classics,” despite the fact that material in several of them was “borrowed” from other authors, often without attribution. Editorial assistants, with her approval, often altered what she originally wrote to make it more grammatically and historically accurate.
Uriah Smith’s views on prophecy have not weathered well. Writing in the 1870s, even a thorough Bible student could not have foreseen events that would shake the nation and the world in the decades since. When the church needed Smith’s counsel most—during conversations about righteousness by faith in 1888—he ended up on the wrong side of the debate.
None of this, of course, minimizes the hard work and sacrifice of these (and other) early Adventist pioneers. It is simply to say that some of the truth that belongs to their stories is often untold. Most of our stories, in which people always act honorably and are either right or wrong, resist simple tellings. And sometimes it seems as though the institutional church is not eager to tell complicated stories, perhaps because the individuals we think we know from Bible classes would seem more “human,” and the movement they inspired would seem less divinely inspired. But wouldn’t we rather know the whole truth?
What We Remember, What We Forget
Society’s attempts to “protect” the truth have produced some absurd manifestations of late.
The 2021 book, Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, ignited a firestorm in Texas. Just a few hours before the authors, Bryan Burrough and Chris Thomlinson, were to present at a video event promoting the book, the event was cancelled because of pressure from the Texas governor and lieutenant governor. The event, sponsored by the Bullock Texas State History Museum, was supposed to have given the authors an opportunity to explode some of the myths surrounding the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, a fortress in San Antonio, Texas.
In the book, the authors maintain that most of the popular images about the Alamo are taken from Hollywood films (the first in 1917, directed by D. W. Griffith, famous for Birth of a Nation). In most of those stories a small band of freedom fighters (White) try to outlast an overwhelming force of Mexican oppressors (Brown). What those films don’t say is that the Alamo was part of Mexico at the time, and that White people, there as settlers, were working to import slavery from the United States to Mexico, where it was illegal. The book also paints the “heroes” of the battle—Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and William Barrett Travis—in less than flattering terms, but in terms more realistic and well-documented. For this, the Texas governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house pressured the museum to cancel the event. Evidently the preservation of a myth is more important than the truth.
The resistance of state governments, school boards, and individuals to anything that might challenge myths and stereotypes is reaching alarming levels. NBCnews.com recently reported on 50 books that parents in Texas are lobbying to have removed from school libraries because of “racism, gender, or sexuality.” Titles include When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball, Michelle Obama: Political Icon, and New Kid, by Jerry Craft, the latter about going to a new school and being one of only a few Black kids in the school.
About New Kid one parent wrote that the book is about “critical race theory, which is forbidden by Texas law.” About Craft’s second book, Class Act, another book about being Black in an almost completely White school, someone wrote: “Kids will be brainwashed that one race is superior than the other.” It seems that these parents are simply afraid that their students will learn about racial diversity and the challenge it poses to their Eurocentric biases. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”
The Way, the Truth, and the Life
When people testify in court, they swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Indeed, the word “verdict” comes from the Latin word for truth: verus. Christians dedicate themselves to truth, in part, because of the commandment: “You shall not give false testimony” (Ex. 20:16). But also because Jesus said about Himself: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). And He said about His followers, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
We live in a time of “alternate facts,” “fake news,” and outright lies. For some, the truth is unwelcome because, like a mirror, it shows us as we are, blemishes and all. But only when we see ourselves as we really are can we work to remedy that which is wrong and seek by God’s grace to make it right. “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Prov. 4:18). That’s the promise to those who are satisfied with nothing less than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Stephen Chavez, retired after a career as a parish pastor and writer/editor, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.