Close this search box.

We are not the first to believe untruth

For those puzzling over some of the rumors, accusations and untruths behind the January events related to the election of President Joe Biden, it might be comforting to remember that ours is not the first generation to believe things about our government and its leaders that are absolutely weird.

Others have experienced similar problems. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was widely accused of being guided by spirits of the dead.

Spiritualism, or communicating with the dead, was popular in Lincoln’s day. And Lincoln acknowledged that after the death of his son Eddie in 1851 he and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln consulted “three good women who are in touch with the spirit world and can straighten us out,” according to historian Mark A. Lause.  Mrs. Lincoln evidently continued this relationship.

One Lincoln scholar who studied the President’s relationship to spiritualism said his attitude wavered between “amused interest and genial skepticism.” But truth did not keep some from Lincoln’s day of enlarging the connection.

An Iowa newspaper wrote, “Has it come to this! A great country governed by ghosts, spirits, hobgoblins, table-turnings, rappings, etc.”

In 1863 David Quinn published a pamphlet in which he called Lincoln a despot directed by spirits of the dead. He wrote of private knowledge confirming a secret place in the White House where Lincoln communed with the dead and received regular instructions for the war from Caesar, Washington, Jefferson, Napoleon, Andrew Jackson and others. The pamphlet proved popular among those opposed to the war in both the North and South.

It is true, historians attest, that Lincoln regularly received letters from a noted spiritualist of that day claiming the advice offered in them came from various departed souls.

When Lincoln was asked about this advice he reportedly joked that it was all about as confusing as the advice he received from his cabinet officers.

For the record, no secret place with a rapping table for communication with the dead was ever found in the White House. But the kernel of truth about Lincoln’s exposure to spiritualism only fired the imagination toward some weird and untrue conclusions. And the untruths rallied opposition to Lincoln’s policies because people believed the bad things written about him.

Today Lincoln is revered as one of America’s greatest Presidents because of his firm efforts to save the union of the United States of America and to move the nation toward the principle of its founding declaration that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln would not be turned aside by rumors, accusations and lies thrown at him. Most were left hanging in space without retort while he pursued the goal of victory.

Our time has been filled with rumors, accusations and outright lies, too. Some may have had a kernel of truth. Most did not. Some people acted on false information just like some of Lincoln’s opponents acted on rumors about Lincoln being directed by the spirits of the dead.

But now January is past. A new president has been elected and inaugurated. History will judge events of our fateful January and the players in those events just as it judges people from Lincoln’s day. And history will judge President Biden and his government just as it judges Lincoln and his.

Why people believe rumors, accusations and untruths about one another we may never know. The tendency goes back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve believed Satan’s lies about God.

Believing untruth is costly. It got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden. It was costly to humanity as it changed our nature forever. Believing untruth was costly to Lincoln’s war effort. And, in January, it was costly to the United States of America.

Isn’t it time we acknowledge that our experiences affirm the truth of the Bible? It is truth that sets us free (John 8:32), not some imaginative, even fanciful story no matter how appealing or how much we want it to be true.

Some may remember the name Madalyn Murray O’Hare, the plaintive in the Supreme Court case that eliminated public school students reciting a government written prayer at the beginning of each school day. More than a decade after O’Hare died rumors still persisted that she was petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to ban religious content from radio and TV. Tens of thousands of Christians and others were hoodwinked by that misinformation and invested time, energy and resources to defeat the nonexistent petition.

We can do better than that. We can seek truth. We can communicate truth. We can act on truth.

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.

Close this search box.