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  • Jim Forest

Tell the Truth, Don’t Be Afraid

Just hours before his crucifixion, at prayer in the presence of his disciples, Jesus told his Father that he was no more of this world but that those whom he had gathered remained in the world. He called on his Father to keep them — to protect them — in his name “that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17: 11). At the same time he told his followers, “This is eternal life, that they know you, Father, as the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Knowing the only true God is eternal life.

Look closely at just a few key words, starting with “knowing”. This is much more than knowing the price of something or knowing the sun rises in the east or knowing what’s for supper. It is akin to marital knowing. “Adam and Eve knew each other,” we read in Genesis. Knowing God is living with God and in God. Knowing God is an ever-expanding, ever-deepening intimate relationship.

And what about “true”? “True” and “truth” are words with infinite depths — not easy words to take on board.

Recently my wife and I found ourselves reading a poem by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney that includes the line: “Tell the truth. Do not be afraid.” The next day we discovered that Heaney’s last words were said in Latin, “Noli timere”, which means “Do not be afraid.”

Tell the truth — don’t be afraid. Not only is fear a potential obstacle for telling the truth — you can get into lots of trouble for telling the truth — but fear is an impediment to knowing the truth. The truth can be upsetting. It can uproot your life. It can make relationships but also destroy them. It can cost your job. It can subject you to ridicule. Just to admit you believe in God will, for some people, put you on their list of stupid people.

We believe in the true God and in the one God we see an incomprehensible three-ness — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God, not a proliferation of gods. We reject as untrue and nonexistent all the competing gods of antiquity. We reject the claims of all Caesars, the great and powerful rulers, to be regarded as divine and whom we are bound to obey no matter what they order us to do. We have another ruler, the true God. “Put not your trust in princes,” we are told in the 146th Psalm and, in the Orthodox Church, reminded Sunday after Sunday in the Liturgy of St John of Chrysostom. Only God deserves our absolute trust.

We are called to center our lives around the one true God. That means we don’t just memorize biblical sentences but we struggle to live the words, to translate them into life. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, longtime leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain, used to say, “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

One does not enter heaven by reciting the Creed correctly or by passing a theology test or memorizing the sayings and stories of Jesus but by becoming a living channel of the divine mercy. Participating in God’s mercy we already have eternal life.

A major part of living in God’s mercy is not being merciless. Actually that’s not so hard. When others have needs, try to help. When there is war, refuse to be part of it. Where there is deceit, tell the truth. For we know — Jesus made it clear — that what we do to the least person we do to him. For Christ is with us. He is and always will be.

I am reminded of an exchange between the often-imprisoned Jesuit poet Daniel Berrigan and a reporter. The reporter asked, “Do you believe Jesus Christ will come again?” Dan’s answer was, “He never left.” He also said, “If you want to be a Christian you had better look good on wood.”

One key element of the prayer of Jesus recorded in the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel is that we, his disciples, should be one even as Jesus and his Father are one. It’s a prayer that requires our active collaboration. God does not force us into unity. What a sad spectacle it is to see how divided we are, not only Christian from Christian but child of God from child of God. Far from obeying Christ’s commandment to love our enemies and pray for them we don’t even love our neighbor.

The walls that separate us are built of bricks of fear. Fear rather than the Gospel shapes so many of our choices, big and small. The toxic part fear plays in our lives is a point stressed by the Greek Orthodox theologian and bishop, Metropolitan John Zizioulas:

“The essence of sin is the fear of the other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the ‘self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the other … it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat…. The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness…. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different.”

What is the antidote for fear? Are there any remedies? What can we do to reduce the role fear plays in the choices we make?

The development of a stronger, deeper spiritual life is surely at the core of the answer. If fear is not to have a dominant role in our lives, a great deal of inner strength is needed. Without it the voice of conscience — and the courage to follow it — will be suppressed.

Prayer for the other — the adversary, the enemy, the person we avoid — is an integral part of Jesus’s commandment that we love our opponent. Prayer forges a bond. It becomes harder to dehumanize those for who we regularly prayer.

Try to see yourself and the world from the point of view of the other. So many of us see the other and his or her world through lenses that are distorted by misinformation, propaganda and fear.

Last but not least, tell the truth. Telling the truth is not the same thing as announcing your opinion. How often we discover our opinion on this or that subject was wrong. In fact it’s hard to know the truth, but the Gospels offer a touchstone. Whatever is at odds with the Gospels fails the test of truth.

But once you know it, tell the truth — don’t be afraid.

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