“A truthful witness rescues lives, but one who utters lies is deceitful.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What value is there in truth? Do lies really hurt? We live today in a culture in which truth is a bit of a fluid concept. We speak of having “my truth” as if that can be different from your truth or even the truth. Indeed, if there is such a thing as your truth and my truth, can there even be something that is the truth? Perhaps more importantly, does it really even matter? What’s wrong with these fluid concepts of truth? I’ve been watching a show lately that puts on display just why living in the truth matters so much. Let’s talk this morning about the HBO miniseries, Chernobyl.
Released in 2019, Chernobly tells the story of the infamous Soviet nuclear disaster. The series is terrifically written and the story it weaves is incredible compelling. The acting is superb and the production values are excellent. With one episode yet to go, and with a caution due to a great deal of bad language and a couple of scenes with nudity (although both are contextually appropriate and not sexually explicit in any way), I would enthusiastically recommend the series if you have access to it.
Personally, although I had heard of Chernobyl, beyond the fact that there was a terrible nuclear accident, I knew almost nothing about it. On April 26, the number four reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located near the city of Pripyat, Ukraine exploded. The explosion completely exposed the core and ignited a fire that burned for weeks. It spread nuclear radiation over an enormous area and threatened to be precipitously worse than it actually was. While the international community quickly knew of the disaster, Soviet officials at first denied the actual severity of the problem and then attempted to cover up its full extent. Today, although some people have moved back into the villages located in the original evacuation zone, the region is still considered uninhabitable.
The scene that best captures the whole series so far comes in the first episode. One of the chief nuclear engineers on the job at the time of the explosion aggressively denies that anything is seriously wrong. He actively attacks the engineers who insist that something disastrous has taken place. He insists to the local Communist Party officials that while an explosion has occurred, it was a minor event and that no radiation has been released. This gives them the cover to insist to their higher ups that they have the situation under control and that everything will be okay all the while the excessive levels of radiation actually being released are already beginning to wreak havoc on the bodies of the first responders and plant workers on the front lines of the unfolding tragedy. In one critical moment, the chief engineer actively insists that nothing is wrong in one breath and in the next second vomits all over the conference room table because of the radiation already poisoning his system.
That moment captures what has far too often been the response of totalitarian governments generally to bad and otherwise embarrassing news: Deny and insist the truth is something other than it actually is. We have seen this today in the response of the governments of China and Russia and Iran to the destruction unleashed on their populations by COVID. While they have officially insisted on death counts that put them in the best light possible, most international observers see evidence of numbers that are in actuality much, much higher than the official reports.
So, what is this? This is nothing more than a large scale version of something we are often guilty of trying to do in our own lives. These governments then and now are attempting to live out “their truth” in spite of whatever may happen to be the truth. We ask in the context of our own lives why this matters. In the case of Chernobyl, the cost of trying to live with a “truth” that was disconnected from reality – or to put that another way, to create a personal reality of some kind – was measured in the thousands of lives lost and otherwise painfully disrupted by the cloud of toxic, cancer-causing radiation that spread across large swaths of Europe. There is no telling how many lives have been taken by COVID because of governments and sympathetic media voices trying to downplay the severity of the virus.
That’s on a big scale, though. Does this really make all that much difference in our own lives? Simply put: Yes, it does. The scale may be different, but the potential for tragedy remains the same. Reality is not a multifaceted affair. We may not have a full perspective on all it entails, but that doesn’t mean we can pretend it is something other than it actually is without eventually paying a price for our trip through fantasyland. Those tickets aren’t free, and the longer we try and stay, the higher the eventual cost will be.
Today we throw around phrases like “my truth” casually as if there really is such a thing as that. My friends, there isn’t. No amount of wishing or insistence or cultural pressure will make it so. Truth and reality, defined by the character and identity of God, are what they are and we can either adjust our lives to them or wait for them to catch up to us. Either way, they won’t change according to our current whims. Solomon was right: a truthful witness rescues lives. Lies and deceit, no matter how well-intentioned, will not accomplish anything of lasting good. They will unfailingly sow seeds of destruction. The better path is always going to be to live in our lives according to what is true. We may have to make adjustments and those adjustments will sometimes be painful. But the end result of that will always be life.