Article 2.2 of The Ferguson Declaration reads:
2.2 “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” and “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.” (John 8:32; John 14:6-7) We reject the false doctrine that love of country means avoiding telling the Truth about our history. Neighborly love mandates that the Black church speaks truth to power, in love, so that the Church Universal and the World can see where Christ is (Ephesians 4:15): in the lives of the oppressed (Matthew 25).
“What is truth?” The Roman governor Pilate spoke those infamous words during his interrogation of our Lord Jesus Christ. The question was not sincere. It forecast a kind of postmodern subjective view of truth, an agnosticism born of political expediency in Pilate’s case.
As Pilate soon discovered, truth is that statement that best explains all the facts and describes life as it actually is. Truth possesses internal coherence and external validity. It comports with accuracy and objectivity. What is true for me is also true for you, though we may need our partial truths to compose the entire picture. In that way, truth writes all our stories.
The Gospel Truth
The Ferguson Declaration lays some emphasis on truth. In citing John 8:32, the authors call to mind both the epistemological accessibility of truth—“ye shall know the truth”—and the liberating power of truth—“the truth shall make you free.” According to Jesus, the truth can be known and knowing it changes us.
Moreover, the Declaration makes it clear, as the Lord Jesus did, that truth is actually a Person. The Lord claimed, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus is Truth Incarnate. Jesus is God’s lifestyle or culture (“way”) incarnate. Jesus is “the life”—true, everlasting and abundant life, that life that really is life (1 Tim. 6:19). No one has life unless they have God. No one has God unless they have Jesus. And no one has or knows Jesus unless they embrace the truth about Him (1 John 5:4-5, 9-12). Such truth-embracing frees us from the world, the flesh, the Devil, sin, judgment and hell.
The Historical Truth
And the Truth also frees us from our histories. The old man passes away and the new man comes (2 Cor. 5:17). That truth-produced transformation should allow every “new creation” to tell the truth about the old creation. The most loving act we take as ministry to Christ is speaking the truth. One characteristic of being in the body of Christ is this ministry of speaking the truth in love, the result of which is the entire body growing into maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:15). Our very oneness as the body of Christ obligates us to truth-telling. As Paul puts it, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25).
The Ferguson Declaration focuses this truth-speaking ethic on the history of our country. It declares, “We reject the false doctrine that love of country means avoiding telling the Truth about our history.” When they write this, the writers simply channel the understanding of love for country long held by disenfranchised African Americans. As James Baldwin once put it, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Love speaks the loving but critical truth about our history. It doesn’t mollify or excuse. While it doesn’t bludgeon, it’s also blunt. Truth-telling love doesn’t mince words and yet it doesn’t mangle people. Truth-speaking love gets into the unseemly so that the hearer and the speaker are freed together from the clutches of a broken past. If we truly love our country as Christians, and if we are to escape “God and country” idolatry, we must learn to tell the whole truth about ourselves.
Few people would challenge the virtue of truth-telling. But they may disagree about what precisely is the statement of the truth. The world is full of visions and revisions, versions and perversions, narratives and counter-narratives. In all the competing claims, the truth can and often is lost. So it’s all the more important that a Christian creed and ethic concerned with these warring depictions of reality call people to talk to one another. To not only share our stories but to also listen, accept, adjust, amend, reflect as we welcome the stories of others. From a Christian perspective, it can no longer be acceptable that “history is written by the victors.” We must subvert those mythologies by inviting, allowing and demanding that history be co-authored with the vanquished. For they have a story to tell, too. And it often fills in the self-promoting blanks left out by the “victors.” It’s the only way to prevent further victimization of the defeated and the continued self-deception of the powerful.
Speaking the Truth
So section 2.2 ends with a call to the Black Church: “Neighborly love mandates that the Black church speaks truth to power, in love, so that the Church Universal and the World can see where Christ is (Ephesians 4:15): in the lives of the oppressed (Matthew 25).” Before we reject or question this on the grounds that it’s “political,” we might do well to remember that the truth is inherently political though not partisan. The moment we declare, “Jesus is Lord,” to the would-be caesars and rulers of the world, we have made an explosive political claim. The moment Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he sat political orthodoxy on its head, feet waiving in mid-air. When Paul beseeched Philemon “on the basis of love” to free Onesimus and receive him as a brother, that was truth being political, even economic, setting free the captive and the captor. That all Christians and the Christian Church (not just the Black Church) have a responsibility to “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Prov. 31:8) seems as plain as the words written in the Bible.
If it seems strange that “Christ is… in the lives of the oppressed,” that tells us something about how we view God and how we view ourselves. It tells us we have not taken seriously God’s just character (Deut. 32:4; Is. 5:16; Zeph. 3:5) or His repeated insistence that He cares for widows, orphans, sojourners (Ps. 10:16-18, passim) and “works justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6). It also tells us that we have not properly conceived Christianity as a “true religion” or ourselves as “true Christians.” James 1:27 reminds us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Not until we have served “the least of these, Christ’s brothers” have we fully served Christ himself (Matt. 25:34-46). The Church had better begin to see Christ as revealed in and among the poor and oppressed just as much as He is revealed in His creation or in His providences.
And yet, a distinction must be drawn if we are emphasizing truth. Contrary to some theological claims, Christ’s identification with the poor never associates Him with the sin of the poor. We are not excused from repentance and truth-telling simply because we may be marginalized. The poor must repent of their sins as much as the powerful. Decisions that inflict the self must be truthfully resisted as much as the decisions of others that harm. For The Ferguson Declaration to carry all the weight it should, it must call the Church to speak not only about the sullied history of the country but also the painful, sordid, and self-destructive things that take place in and among oppressed communities themselves. Those aspects of the community may be complex and result from many factors. But that complexity is what necessitates clearer truth-telling, including the truth about self-destruction. That truth makes us free, too.