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"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…”
I have two confessions to make concerning this phrase. The first: before, well…before today I have never given a second thought to these words. I’ve heard them in a movie or two but that’s about it. This phrase never struck me as odd; it never struck me as worth thinking about; frankly, it never really struck me as anything. The second: the only thing assuring me that this phrase is actually used in the real world is a quick Google search. I’ve never actually been in a courtroom to verify it.
Regardless of its real world validity (though I am trusting Google on this one!), the phrase is common to American culture. It’s something we say…but is it something we really think about?
The second clause of this phrase is quite critical. There’s a reason that this courthouse vow doesn’t just say: “I pledge to tell the truth.” We can say things that are true without saying the whole truth. This can, for some things, just be splitting moral hairs. For some things, this may be inconsequential. But, in other cases, this reality may lead us down a dangerous road.
This tendency towards truth, without whole truth, can do a lot of damage. In fact it can, implicitly or explicitly, be a way of deny someone his or her personhood. In Christian terms, only telling part of the truth can be a way of attempting to reject or deny someone their status as image bearer. It can be an attempt to deny an innate reality.
Theologian Herman Bavinck notes that to be an image bearer of God encapsulates all of our being. It is not merely our possession of a soul, our rationality, our intellect, or our relationality. It is every part of us. Bavinck states that “…nothing in humanity is excluded from God’s image; it stretches as far as and constitutes our humanity and humanness.” (Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics).
Now this statement has two huge implications. The first: because all humans are image bearers we have a common basis with one another. The second, which I’ll focus on here: those things that are distinctive to us as individuals and us as people groups are a part of what makes is image bearers. It’s not just about this intangible, unseeable soul; it is also about everything that makes us us, including our bodies! It’s not just about the color of our hair, the melatonin in our skin, our bone structure, our language, and our customs. But these are a part of the picture; these things do matter. The whole of the human person is the image of God.
If this is true, why do we so easily dive into stereotypes and unilateral vies of a person, a group of people, or an entire culture? Why is it so easy for us to pick up on one part of said person, people group, or culture and say that is the whole of who they are? How do we justify understanding the whole in light of one thing that has been seen to be true? In other words, why is it so easy for us not to tell the whole truth?
Clichés arise out of reality. Our inclination as people to tell one part of the truth without the whole truth makes the statement “the truth, the whole truth…” quite necessary. This tendency is incredibly pervasive in our culture, but recent events brought this point into sharp focus and have highlighted our lack of whole truth when speaking of racial issues.
While its not my intention to re-hash the events and ongoing implications of the events in Ferguson, MO, I think it is more than fair to say that what has happened in that city has been a somber reminder that racism is still alive and well in the United States (note: even the fact that some of us need a reminder of an everyday reality for so many of our brothers and sisters highlights an issue of privilege). And with racism (now I’m talking particularly about racial issues concerning African American communities) comes a lot of racial stereotypes – you know, those pervasive ones like low education, high crime, drug use, gang membership, negligent fathers, and the list goes on. Some of these stereotypes may be grounded in reality, while others may be straight out lies. But either way, they are not the whole truth.
Let’s play this idea out a bit. I spend a fair bit of time in the South Side of Chicago; this is a community I know and love. It’s also a community that is in the news quite a bit, and not for flattering reasons: shootings, beatings, heavy drug use, gun wounds, and more. So there is the truth. The South Side of Chicago has a higher than average amount of gun violence and overall violence. It also is a primarily black area, so these stats also get intermixed with a lot of racial prejudices. That is the truth, but it’s not the whole truth. Because, you see, if I told you that there were some kids wielding bats in that area lately, everything I’ve said so far would lead you to assume that those bats would be use to break in some windows, or something of the like.
But the whole truth would tell you that those kids wielding bats were part of a baseball team. And not just any baseball team, but the US Little League Champions, runners up in the Little League World Series championship, and one of the most celebrated all-black little league teams in US history.
It’s easy to dilute an entire community, or members of a community to one or two traits. To say “if you are part of the South Side of Chicago and have black skin, you will do fill in the blank here.” To say you are black so you will do this or you are white so you will do this. It’s a lot harder to see individual people, with individual stories, influenced by dynamic and complex cultures. It’s a lot harder to take all of that seriously and try to see the whole person! It takes work, for example, to understand how the bat will be wielded. It means asking questions, building relationships, and forming friendships. But, pushing beyond stereotypes of a person, a neighborhood, a people group, or a culture, allows us to have a more full view of that person, neighborhood, people group, or culture. It makes a way for us to tell the whole truth, rather than a segmented version of that truth.
Not only that, though, seeing the whole person, telling the whole truth, is a critical move if we want to take the reality of our common status as image bearers of God seriously. Settling for stereotypes, pigeonholing people, or turning a blind eye perpetuates the injustice done to a person when we don’t tell the whole truth. Taking a whole person, their whole story, seriously is one way we affirm who that person is and how they were created to be.
So friends, instead of allowing stereotypes to win the day, let’s tell the whole truth.
-Jess Driesenga is a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary, studying Christian Ethics.