Trayvon Martin and Loving the Truth

The email contained a photo of what appeared to be archaeologists standing around a massive, partially unearthed human skeleton whose skull was the size of a small car. The story, which had been forwarded to me from a Christian I sincerely admire, insinuated that this “discovery” was evidence of ancient giants referred to in Genesis as the Nephilim. Why news of such a monumental and sensational find hadn’t broadcast worldwide was one of a number of questions that evoked my suspicion. It took little time and effort to find that indeed the photo was a hoax, though I must admit, an impressive one.

The ubiquity of such Christianized urban legends makes me wonder how much we, who claim that truth matters, really care about truth. I’m confident that the brother who sent that email had no intention of propagating what he knew was false. His lack of discernment was generated by his desire to bolster the faith of fellow believers and commend the faith to those who need Christ. We tend to relax our critical powers when assessing what appears to confirm the narratives to which we’re deeply committed.

February’s tragic killing of Trayvon Martin and the events that have ensued, have me asking once again, “How much do we really care about truth?” Actually, it’s more a question of how much I really care about truth. This essay would have been very different had I written it even a week ago. Based on what I knew or thought I knew then, I engaged in a passionate exchange with a friend, incredulous that he couldn’t see the clear racial motivation behind Trayvon’s killing and the Sanford Police Department’s handling of the case.

From Anger to Awareness

I was also angered by the apparent silence of Christian media about the situation. Now, in light of recent developments all is not as clear as I originally thought. Reports from eyewitnesses to the events of that night have recently been made public, and a close black friend of George Zimmerman is publicly defending him (while admitting that patterns in how the Sanford Police Department has handled things in the past would lead him to deem this a racist incident if he didn’t know Zimmerman). A week ago I was angry that major evangelical media were not lending their voices to the nationwide cries for justice. This week, while I would still like to have seen more Christian acknowledgement by way of reporting, I’m painfully aware of the difficulties involved in opining on the matter—-not least of which is the possibility that anything said can become obsolete in view of new developments. So, I ask myself again, “How much do you really care about the truth, regardless of what it is?”

As I’ve contemplated the answer to that question, taking into account my own reactions as well as others’, among the biblical passages that keep coming to mind are two verses from Proverbs 18: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (18:3). Responding wisely to a situation requires attentive listening and examination with the aim of acquiring understanding from which to speak. Foolishness, on the other hand, does not value understanding but rather, the airing of its own opinions (18:2). The bits of data that bombard us every day can give us a false notion of being well-informed. The speed with which the internet allows us to publish our thoughts for others to consume further tempts us to be fools (and yes, I understand the irony of making this statement on the web).

Proverbs 18:17 is another passage I think has tremendous relevance: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Anyone who has done marriage counseling has a catalog of illustrations for this truth. This is not to say that whoever speaks last speaks most truthfully. Rather, as fallen human beings we have an innate tendency to self-servingly select what we include and what we omit from our stories. Recognition of this fact should critically interact with reports about this and any other event, regardless of whether it comports with or contradicts our opinion at the time. This requires not only asking about the veracity of what is reported but also about what is not being reported and why.

Two Equal and Opposite Errors

In light of America’s reaction to the Trayvon Martin story, I’ve also been thinking a lot about C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. In its preface, Lewis warns: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” I think the same dangers exist and should be avoided when it comes to our thinking about racism in America. According to some, it is ubiquitous. According to others, it is non-existent. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere between these poles.

Our hearts’ commitments and desires can not only lead us to see weak evidence as strong, they can also lead us to minimize the strength of compelling evidence and, for self-seeking reasons, seek to extinguish it. I’m always amazed at the aftermath of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. If ever a persuasive case existed for Jesus’ authority, Lazarus was it. But John tells us that the chief priests, motivated by their fear of Jesus’ growing popularity, “made plans to put Lazarus to death as well” (John 12:10). Lazarus was evidence that needed to be suppressed or, more accurately, killed because he threatened the narrative the priests wanted to be true.

Despite conflicting opinions about the Trayvon Martin case, I hope that believers can unite in prayer that justice will be served by truth coming to light. But let us also add the petition that we will so cherish truth that we will accept it wherever it lies.