“A Lie Repeated Often Enough Becomes Accepted Truth”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 25, 2017
University Baptist Church
A lie repeated often enough becomes accepted truth. This axiom has been attributed to Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Hitler and others. All were experts in propaganda. Propaganda is an essential element in political campaigns. Whether they are based in fact is less important than whether they feel true. Lenin, Goebbels and Hitler all gave their followers a clear enemy: Capitalists, Jews, gays, unionists, those who did not fit in the Aryan race and so on. It fed on what people wanted to hear. You are not bad. Others are bad. And they are responsible for your lot in life. And the more they said it, the more they told you it was the truth, the more it sounded like the truth.
Of course, they didn’t invent this. It’s as old as scripture. In today’s scripture two guards with the collusion of organized religion concoct a story to debunk Jesus’ resurrection. They know if they repeat it long enough, no one will remember the truth. They say that their lie is repeated by the Jews to this day (of course this day means the year 85 or so when the Gospel of Matthew was written). But it tells us that for good or ill, accepted truth can be built on a lie. I think about the political discourse that thrives on misinformation these days.
Lies or exaggerations that feel like truth: We are under siege. Insert category here: Christians, Muslims, children, the unborn, those who don’t have guns, those who do have guns. Immigrants are taking over. Gays want special rights. All fundamentalists are racist and sexist. All liberals are atheists. All police are racist. Homosexuals are interested in pedophilia. People are in jail because they deserve it. Muslims are terrorists and so on.
Our elections are rigged. I actually believe that this one is true. But it’s not just because of the Russians. It’s because of redistricting. It’s because of voter ID laws. It’s because folks think that even if they do vote, their votes won’t even be counted—which is true if you are black and in some sections of the country. It’s rigged because larger numbers of minorities are incarcerated and therefore denied the right to vote. It’s rigged because we rely on voting machines without a paper trail to verify the results. Minnesota has a very good track record on voting, in larger part because there is a paper trail and the system is less likely to be hacked. It’s rigged because people in certain markets have only one media outlet and that media outlet only gives one skewed version of the news. This is same news that says the major voter fraud is illegal immigrants voting rather than the system being rigged against those very people. It sounds like the truth, but it isn’t.
Stephen Colbert used to call this truthiness. Were that it were a joking matter. In this Internet age, a lie can make it around the world before the truth has had its morning coffee.
The Russian thing may be an issue, but it’s a misdirection, a distraction so that a different agenda can go on behind the scenes.
Our current president has told so many untruths that we expect it. When faced with a contradiction, he doubles down on the untruth. This tactic was outlined in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal.” Here’s one of the things he wrote back then:
"The…key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion."
Think of this when he says, words like disaster, the best, the worst, the smartest, the fittest and so on. We’ve come to expect it of him. Some have even called him the liar in chief. But to say this to his supporters doesn’t sway their support of him. It’s because he touches on a sense of truth. Something that feels true. That makes sense out of this crazy-making world.
I’ve been impressed over the years with the work of Berkeley linguist George Lakoff. He wrote books on framing and archetypes. His most famous is “Don’t think of the Elephant.” Even though he’s a liberal Democrat, he predicted Trumps election because Trump controlled the frame. And every time people focused on the lies that he told or the exaggeration, they were playing right into his hand. He got people to talk on his terms and accepting his truths or even his arguments, no matter how far-fetched. What the opposition needed to do better was not refute his facts, but give a better truth, a better metaphor.
Conservatives believe in a what Lakoff calls the “strict father family,” while progressives believe in a “nurturant parent family.” In the strict father family, father knows best and he has the moral authority. The children and spouse have to defer to him, and when they disobey, he has the right to punish them so they will learn to do the right thing.
“The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality, and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate,” Lakoff said. “The hierarchy is God above man; man above nature; the rich above the poor; employers above employees; adults above children; Western culture above other cultures; our country above other countries. The hierarchy also extends to men above women, whites above nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays.” Since this is seen as a “natural” order, it is not to be questioned
Trump and those crafting the Republican message play straight into this strict father worldview, which is accepted in many parts of the country. Even traditionally Democratic groups such as union members and Hispanics include members who are strict fathers at home or in their private life, Lakoff says. The Republican message plays well with them.
The nurturant parent family, on the other hand, believes that children are born good and can be made better. Both parents are responsible for raising children, and their role is to nurture their children and raise them to nurture others. Empathy and responsibility toward your child also extend to empathy and responsibility toward those who are less powerful, or suffering from pollution or disease, or are marginalized in some way.
Lakoff believes that playing up this metaphor, this frame is more powerful than refuting the many untruths of the other side. It’s about holding up a different authority. The Good News is that Jesus sure seems to be on the side of the nurturing parent who looks out for the marginalized and says that those who would have been called sinners by the strict father mentality, are his beloved children. That is our truth and it might just set us free.
Where do we go for reliable truth in a post-modern or post fact age? How do our truths become the accepted truth?
Truth. Jesus said “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
I was at Pride yesterday and the UBC booth was right next to the Lutheran booth. They had a statue of Martin Luther, this being the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation and everything. They were inviting people to take pictures with Marty and holding up a sign that said, “not all Christians are jerks.”
As always, we received visitors to our booth who were very happy that we were there. One told me of how she was ostracized from her Baptist church first when she was a teenage mother and then when she came out. She couldn’t believe that there were Baptist churches like ours that would accept her and her family. With tears in her eyes, she said we would see her at UBC. I’m glad to spread that truth.
Here’s the truth we know. It may not get the airplay we need, but it’s up to us to repeat it so much that it becomes the culture’s accepted truth:
Truth: God loves everyone
Truth: Muslims are our neighbors and we will treat them with respect.
Truth: True Christianity believes in charity and justice.
Truth: True Christianity welcomes questioning authority.
Truth: You are made in God’s image.
Truth: You have a right to be here.
Truth: None of us is perfect.
Truth: We can all get better.
Truth: Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.
Truth: Blessed are the poor in Spirit for there is the Kingdom of God.
Truth: God does not want you to be poor.
Truth: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. It does not say blessed are the arrogant or blessed are the mean or blessed are the wealthy. Blessed are the meek.
Truth: As Jim Ketcham famously said from this pulpit many years ago, “the best evidence of the resurrection is the ability of Christians to live changed lives.”
Truth: Jesus embraces love and never ever condemned homosexuality. He saved his judgment for those who rip people off, for those who use religion to close people out.
Truth: We are better when we work together.
Truth: We can and we will get better.
Truth: A lie told often enough becomes accepted truth. But a truth, a real truth, based in facts, rooted in scripture and hopes and dreams, and shared in love is Good News. It’s salvific. It’s holy and it sets us free. Thanks be to God.