By Fr. Travis Russell, SJ
January 11, 2021 — If you are anything like me, the images of mobs storming the Capitol haunt you. Particularly jarring are the photos of Confederate flags being waved in the halls of Congress—not even during the Civil War did this happen. Words like surreal, desecration, and unhinged do not begin to capture it. To be honest, words fail, none of them accurately naming the feeling. Prayer ends in silence, too. How is one supposed to feel?
I’m not sure. I have neither the words nor answers. A quick call for reconciliation seems to betray the moral wrong that was clearly on display. As Christians, though, hope must have the last word, and so how is one supposed to balance it? Perhaps it’s too early to begin the healing, but can we begin to sow the seeds? Where to begin?
I would like to suggest a starting point: truth. God is the God of truth, and as believers we are called to live into that truth unflinchingly. As we all know, encountering truth can sometimes be uncomfortable, because it asks us to confront things that we would rather remain buried.
Falsehoods, on the other hand, can be soothing. They can provide a false sense of comfort by creating alternate realities. These, however, are worlds that we build, not God. Control, desperation and fear: They are the characteristics of falsehoods.
We are told by Jesus that the truth will set us free, that owning up to reality, although difficult, will lead to conversion and then acceptance. To begin the process of healing, the truth cannot be equivocated, the voices of those who are often silenced must be amplified. Of course, the truth has many layers, and that is why the fourfold framework in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission report is helpful. It gives us the layers of truth found in conflict situations.
First, truth is revealed in factual truth, which is tested by rigorous, universally accepted norms that adjudicate evidence as being admissible or not—the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when” questions. Second, the personal or narrative truth, which far from being relative, is the “why” of an event or happening. Third, the social or dialogical truth, an account in which the opposing sides can recognize each other’s stories. Fourth, is the healing or restorative truth, the truth that ends in a moral lesson so that the wrongdoing of the past might not be repeated.
The layers of truth are ordered, one must be accepted before the next can be attained. And what Congress did by certifying the vote on January 7 was to establish the factual truth—namely, that the November 2020 elections were free and fair, and therefore legitimate.
Then there is the more insidious, although no less factual, truth. The truth that requires ownership and personal responsibility: Whether because they support him or because they fear the alternative, 74 million Americans voted for a candidate who, long before election day, repeatedly refused to agree to acknowledge the results. The truth that, due to the president’s lies and unsubstantiated claims following the election, large numbers of Americans wrongly believe the election was stolen. The truth that the divisions in our country run deeper than we had thought.
Now is the time for Americans to come together and accept these factual truths so we can rebuild society and bolster our democracy Then, after the factual truth, the seeds of healing can be sown.
Fr. Travis Russell, SJ is the criminal justice policy advisor for the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology. He has worked with Jesuit refugee Service in Malawi, taught at Verbum Dei High School and served as an assistant at L’Arche Seattle.