And the Truth Shall Crush You Like a Bug
"And the truth shall set you free."
The long list of Jesus Christ's sayings recorded in the Bible is prone to distortion or inversion. Part of that confusion owes to the man himself. He often spoke in parables and answered questions with questions or even insults.
According to a newly translated scrap of papyrus from the Nag Hammadi horde, as reported in the Onion, several Pharisees were reported to have griped, "That Jesus, what a jerk!"
Then there are Jesusisms that in popular English translations of the Bible seem pretty clear but are badly misunderstood anyway. For my money, the most distorted red-lettered sayings is, "And the truth shall set you free."
That it's a favorite saying of the recently cleared and exonerated is perhaps understandable.
This week, former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley was cleared of corruption charges after an investigation. The AP noted that he "quoted scripture," specifically the Gospel of John, chapter 8, verse 32, declaring that "the truth will set you free."
In January, Marcos Poventud of Long Island won the right to sue the NYPD for a cover-up that led to his now-vacated conviction for attempted murder. He told the New York Daily News, "I just can't believe how finally, after all this time, the justice system is listening. The truth will set you free."
And put you in line for a huge sorry-about-that-police-corruption-and-false-incarceration payout.
Yet truth is, to use another biblical idiom, a two-edged sword.
Also in January, jurors convicted Robert Williams of Albany, New York of second degree murder after little more than an hour of deliberation. Williams had stabbed his wife Sharene more than 30 times and stuffed her body in a closet.
Williams then sent out naked pictures of his wife to all the contacts in her cellphone, speaking in her voice, claiming she was a whore who "represent[s] Satan" and had tried to contract AIDS just so she could "give it to my loving and caring husband."
Williams's lawyer tried out the novel theory that his client hadn't sent the texts, which prompted exasperation from the incredulous assistant district attorney: "We're supposed to believe Sharene sent that herself? Really?"
Give Williams this much: he knew he didn't stand much of a chance.
The Albany Times-Union reported that the prosecution's "final words to the jury came from a videotape of Williams speaking to Albany police, saying, 'This is not one of those instances where the truth will set you free.'"
As a free-standing truism, this saying of Jesus doesn't work. Jack Nicholson's famous outburst in the movie A Few Good Men, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!" is probably closer to the mark.
But then, the saying was never meant to stand alone and the "truth" that Jesus spoke of wasn't an abstract one.
The full verse of John 8:32, English Standard Version reads, "And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."
So we back up a bit and learn that Jesus was talking to "Jews who had believed in him" from his preachments. He told them, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples and you will know," well, you know the rest of it.
And it confused the heck out of them.
These baffled new possible recruits asked, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?"
Jesus explained, sort of, and then shifted back into insult mode. The "truth" in question was likely the man himself. He was the truth and his freedom was freedom from sin and judgment that come from following after him.
Maybe his answer was the right one, maybe not. But the truth will rarely set you free. Jesus didn't pretend otherwise.
We all have secrets for a reason, some of them damning. Truth has the potential to imprison or bankrupt you, end relationships, leave you exposed and alone, effectively squash you like a bug.
Jesus acknowledged that bleak reality but said his truth was bigger still. A good chunk of the world's population sure hopes he was right about that.