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When Truth is Compromised

“I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it. You must believe it.”

That plea sounds like a quote from today’s newspapers as participants in the January 6 storming of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. are inexorably rounded up and charged for their crimes. Many explain they never knew it would come to that – political insurrection.

But this quote comes from a 1961 film titled “Judgement at Nuremberg” starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster. The film is based on real events and tells the story of four German judges who were tried for crimes against humanity at the end of World War II.

German Judge Ernest Janning (Burt Lancaster’s character) was an internationally respected legal scholar. Yet, in the course of his trial he confessed his guilt. He condemned an older Jewish man to death knowing there was no evidence to support the crime. From there the condemnations grew to the point that Janning cried, “Those people, those millions of people. I never knew it would come to that.”

Janning explained that well-meaning people like himself went along with Adolph Hitler’s anti-Semitic, racist policies out of a sense of patriotism. Even though they knew it was wrong, they supported their national leader. Some even blamed the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.  Many Germans believed the treaty was a miscarriage of justice against the German people. Evidently, because they felt mistreated, some concluded they were justified in mistreating others.

The film is set against the Berlin Blockade, a Russian attempt to drive Allied forces out of Berlin by refusing to allow land convoys across parts of Germany under Russian control. The blockade threatened Berlin with mass starvation. Only a massive airlift of food over several months prevented another human catastrophe.

Political pressure of the day caused some Allied leaders to counsel giving the judges only a “slap on the wrist” in order to gain the support of the German people. Just move on, they said.

How uncanny the number of parallels between the film and today’s reality.

After being convicted and sentenced to life in prison, along with the other three judges, Janning asked Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy’s character), the chief judge of the three-judge Allied panel of jurists, to visit him in his cell. When Haywood arrived Janning implored Haywood. “By all that is right in this world your verdict was a just one,” he said before begging Haywood to believe that concerning the mass murder of millions of innocent people “I never knew it would come to that.”

Haywood’s reply is iconic. “Herr Janning,” he said, “it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

Janning cooperated with a lie and that helped enable the Nazi reign of terror. Truth took second place to patriotism. Today truth sometimes finishes behind politics, political party, power, pride, personal preferences and prejudices, just to name a few. When truth is compromised it can lead to crimes against humanity like the Holocaust or to unintended consequences like insurrection.

For some Germans, everything Hitler said was true. Everything he did was justified. They believed, acted and defended his lies. For people like Janning, truth became expendable in order to accomplish other goals. Is either excused for their actions? Is either more culpable that the other?

And what about the source of the lies? What responsibility lies there? What accountabilities?

During my seminary days a psychology of religion professor cautioned about church members who carry rumors in the congregation. People who carry rumors, he said, show what they are willing to believe and what they are willing to do in similar circumstances.

I thought about that as I listened to people spreading rumors about a stolen election despite a lack of evidence. They were unwilling to believe in people, in public officials, in established processes and procedures, even in the courts of our nation. What does that say about them and what they might be willing to do given the opportunity?

And I thought of Janning and the scene with Haywood as I watched nationally prominent politicians who had railed about election fraud for weeks finally admit that Biden really did win the election for President of the United States. Unfortunately, their comments came only after what was supposed to be a political exercise turned into something dark, ugly and deadly.

That is what can happen when truth is compromised.

When Jesus stood at trial before Pilate, the Roman governor was not interested in truth. “What is truth?” he asked in a dismissive way (John 18:38). Of more concern to him was how he could manipulate events to his own benefit and the benefit of Rome. Some people still view the world that way.

Jesus offered a different worldview. In John 10:32, Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Jesus is the ultimate truth who can set us free from sin and death. But truth is more than spiritual truth. Truth controls the directions of a Christian believer’s life, the steps of a believer’s actions.

No matter how difficult the truth or how attractive the falsehood, Christians are called to walk in truth (3 John 1:4). To do anything less leads away from God and can result in unspeakable consequences. And like Janning, the day will come when we are called to accountability when we compromise the truth.

‘Reputation Is Everything’

The girl was only 4 years old. She was lured from her parents by a man in his mid-20s and raped. The damage to her tiny body was terrible but not as terrible as what happened next. When the child’s parents found their daughter they did not call for medical help. Instead they abandoned her. Others in the community also turned a blind eye to the child, and the girl slowly bled to death lying alone at the site of the tragedy.

The reason for such brazenness? According to James Emery, author of a research article titled “Reputation is Everything,” the family and community felt the child’s misfortune would sully the family’s honor. Leaving the child alone to bleed to death was deemed an honor killing.

Honor killings are generally defined as murders of women by relatives who claim the victims brought shame to the family.

Afaf Younes was 17. Allegedly there was a pattern of sexual abuse by her father. Afaf ran away from home to get away from him. She was caught and returned to her father who then shot her in the name of honor. No one protested.

A 16-year-old Palestinian girl became pregnant after being raped by her younger brother. Once her condition became known, her family encouraged the older brother to kill her to remove the blemish (an out of wedlock pregnancy) from their honor. Both brothers — the rapist and the murderer — were exonerated. The girl was blamed.

An 18-year-old Palestinian man stabbed his teenage sister 40 times just because of a rumor she was involved in an extramarital affair. The family thanked God for her death.

Emery concluded “several thousand women a year are victims of honor killings.” Women are treated as commodities in these places. They are responsible for maintaining their moral and sexual purity. If they fail, for whatever reason, their “shame” is extended to the entire family and can be eliminated only by their death.

Honor killings usually occur in communities where reputation is everything, experts say. Frequently families will spend their entire lives in the same community. Mention a family name and people can tell you its complete history. Reputation and honor are the most important possessions one has whether one is wealthy or poor.

Most honor killings involve Muslims although the practice, Emery says, predates the founding of the religion and the Quran does not teach honor killings. “Some Jewish communities from the ancient fortress of Masada to conservative Hasidic sects of today have similar views of traditions and ritual law,” he writes.

When Emery writes, “Women are executed in their homes, in open fields and occasionally in public, sometimes before crowds of cheering onlookers,” one can easily draw parallels with John 8:1–11, where the Pharisees wanted to publicly stone a woman taken in adultery. Had the stoning taken place, it would have been an “honor killing” before a crowd of cheering onlookers.

Deuteronomy 22:20 demands the killing of a girl whose virginity cannot be proven. In verse 21, a girl who engaged in premarital sex was to be stoned to death by the men of the town. The purpose of the killings, one reads over and over again, is to “purge the evil” from the community.

It is important to remember that like many people groups in that part of the world, Israel had its own forms of honor killings deeply embedded in its history, traditions and practices. That reality causes one to read the Christmas story with a new sense of appreciation.

In Luke 1:26–38, the angel Gabriel appeared to a teenage Mary in the town of Nazareth. He was a stranger. Whether the angel appeared in her room in the middle of the night or at the well where she went to draw water, it was dangerous for her to be alone with Gabriel. No wonder she was troubled by his greeting.

After hearing that she would bear a son, one can hear the shock in her words, “How can this be?” One can almost hear the fear as she adds, “I am a virgin.” To hear the exchange between Gabriel and Mary as only an intellectual explanation of what is about to happen misses the human drama and fails to grasp the depth of dedication demonstrated by Mary.

While Nazareth was a small, out-of-the-way village resting atop a hillside, Sephora was a large regional Roman city in the valley about an hour’s walk away. It was a regional military post, one of the Decapolis cities complete with all of Rome’s vices.

Mary knew what happened to other girls who had gotten pregnant outside of marriage. She may have known about honor killings in her own community. She may have even witnessed them. So when the angel told her of the coming child, it is no wonder she protested that the foretelling could not be true. If what Gabriel said were true, it could cost her her life. She might join the list of honor killing victims stoned by the men of the town.

Against the fears of physical death, Gabriel told of the greatest longing of a Jewish heart becoming a reality. The Messiah would be born and Mary would be the human instrument of the child’s coming.

That day in Nazareth, hope defeated fear. In faith, Mary resolved, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Mary invited the shame and disgrace that would come when villagers learned she was pregnant. She made her family subject to humiliation because of the conclusions people would reach about her actions. She risked being stoned to death in an honor killing all because of the promise shared by the angel — “so the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.”

In the years that followed many people would suffer physical death because of their faith in Mary’s Child. People still die today because of Him. But these have the promise that “as God raised Jesus from the dead, so shall you also be raised.” Mary faced the possibility of death before Jesus was born. Her promise was about what was yet to be.

“May it be to me as you have said” — what a remarkable reputation that statement makes. What a wonderful faith it shows. It is a faith to be remembered and a faith to be celebrated as we prepare to commemorate Christ’s birth this Christmas season.

Finding Faithfulness

Have you ever found yourself wondering what in the world Jesus was doing? Have you ever found yourself confused, perhaps disappointed, with the way things worked out for you in the Lord’s service? Have you ever found yourself expecting Jesus to do more than He seemed to be doing?

All of us have. But we are not alone. So did his closest disciples.

For reasons lost in history, Peter, James and his brother John seemed to make up the core leadership of the 12 disciples who followed Jesus during His three-year public ministry. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, these three are chosen by Jesus to witness special events, providing insights into who Jesus was and what He was about.

Mark 5:21 tells the story of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus was “a ruler of the synagogue.” The Bible does not tell where the synagogue was, only that Jesus arrived “at the other side of the lake” (the Sea of Galilee) after casting out demons from a man in Gadara on the eastern shore.

Jairus forced himself through the large crowd gathered to greet Jesus and pled with him to hurry to Jairus’ home where his 12-year-old daughter was near death. “Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live,” he begged.

Mark says “Jesus went with him” but before they reached the home servants met them with the sad news of the young girl’s death (v. 35). Jesus dismissed what the servants reported, urging Jairus not to be afraid but to believe.

If you were Jairus, or Peter, James or John for that matter, you faced a dilemma. The servants knew when people died ‑- when their heart stopped and they quit breathing. That is what happened to the child. But Jesus insisted she was only sleeping.

The crowd laughed at Jesus’ words. But what would her father do? What would the disciples do?

Jesus did not allow anyone into the room where Jairus’ daughter lay except Peter, James and John. With them as witnesses, He touched her hand and said, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.” And miracle of miracles, she did.

Peter, James and John, along with others, had seen Jesus command the forces of nature when He calmed a storm the night before (Mark 4). They had seen Him triumph over demons in Gadara and heal a woman of a disease that plagued her for 12 years. Now the three stood alone with Jesus and saw His power command death itself.

In Mark 9, Peter, James and John are again chosen by Jesus for a special experience. They accompanied him up a “high mountain” for what is called the “transfiguration.” The three leaders of the disciples saw persons they instinctively recognized as Moses and Elijah at Jesus’ side. On one side stood Moses, representing the Jewish law. On the other side stood prophecy in the form of Elijah. In between was the grace of God in the person of Jesus.

Jesus began to glow with dazzling white light that the disciples could not understand or explain. It was as if the glory of God were visible in the person of Jesus. Mark’s gospel says law and prophecy slipped away. Only the love of God remained — Jesus.

Peter, James and John glimpsed the glory of God in Jesus, even if they did not fully understand what they saw.

About a week earlier there had been another incident. Jesus asked who people said He was. Peter answered for them all: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). But when Jesus tried to explain that being the Christ meant He would suffer and die, Peter argued. The two had a strong disagreement. James and John, along with the other disciples, missed the message, too. Instead of understanding what Jesus was saying, the disciples soon argued about who was the greatest (Mark 9:34).

Not long afterwards, James and John approach Jesus, privately asking that when He set up His kingdom, they wanted to sit at His right and left sides. Imagine the reactions that caused when the other disciples heard what they had done. Mark 10:41 says the other 10 became “indignant.”

On the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, He went to Gethsemane, a place He frequented for prayer. His “hour” was near and He needed time alone with the Heavenly Father. Still, He longed for human companionship as death approached.

Jesus asked all the disciples to watch while He prayed. But He took Peter, James and John a little farther into the olive grove and, in a rare moment, shared His sorrow. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” He confessed (Mark 14:34). He asked His closest earthly friends — these core leaders — to watch and pray with Him.

Instead, Peter, James and John fell asleep. Even a second request by Jesus could not keep them awake. As Jesus endured His worst moments of human agony, as He learned “obedience even unto death,” His closest friends could not watch and pray as He asked. Instead they snoozed.

Peter, James and John. They saw the power of Jesus over disease and death and somehow did not understand it. They saw the glory of Jesus in the transfiguration but missed its implications. They heard the mission of Jesus from His own mouth but were more concerned about who would be the greatest. They were invited to support Jesus in His agony but slept.

And when Jesus was arrested, Mark says, “Everyone deserted him and fled,” even Peter, James and John (Mark 14:50). Talk about confusion, disappointment and broken dreams.

Thankfully, that was not the final word. In time, confusion gave way to insight. Disappointment turned to amazement. New visions replaced broken dreams. And those who once fled in fear became pillars of the Christian church honored through the ages for the faithfulness.

The reason for the change? There are many but one is that Peter, James and John did not choose isolation or separation amidst their confusion, doubt, disappointment or failures. They held on to Jesus and to one another. And Jesus held on to them, providing new revelations and understanding that transformed their lives.

How strange that when the three disciples thought their journey with Jesus was ending, it was only just beginning.

Being like Peter, James and John as recorded in Christian history may be “a bridge too far” for most of us. But if we stay with Jesus and stay with His Church we will at least travel the same road they did. We will not be lost in confusion, doubt, disappointment and failure. We will find faithfulness and all that it brings.

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