“What is truth?” the Roman governor Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, during what Christians know as Holy Week. In the Gospel of John (chapter 18), Pilate asks this question after Jesus says that he has come into the world to testify to the truth.
“What is truth?” Pilate asks. And Jesus does not answer.
It is not a question that has an easy answer. Perhaps Pilate knows that. Or perhaps he really doesn’t care what the answer is, because he doesn’t wait for it. Instead, he returns to the mob and says, “I find no case against him.” The mob is insistent, so Pilate tries to appease them by having Jesus flogged and tortured. He repeats that he finds no case against the rabbi. But the consensus of the mob is that Jesus should be crucified, so, despite affirming, for a third time, that he finds no case against this itinerant teacher, Pilate orders Jesus to be crucified.
The story gives a fairly sympathetic view of the governor of Judea who, by all accounts, was brutal in his governorship–too brutal even for the Roman Empire. Not long after Jesus’ crucifixion, he was summoned back to Rome to stand trial for cruelty and oppression, and, under orders from the emperor Caligula, killed himself.
Which makes me wonder: Is the story in the Gospel of John true?
What is truth?
In the summer of 1996, I traveled on vacation with my parents across Montana. We visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and then went down below the steep bluffs and deep ravines of the battlefield to a small building nestled against the Little Bighorn River, not far from where Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and roughly 8,000 people from three Indigenous Nations had set up their camps. It was a museum that told another side of the story. There we met Barney Old Coyote, an elder in the Absaroke (Apsáalooke/”Crow”) Nation, and his daughter Rachel.
Mr. Old Coyote said to me and my family, “The Indian way of telling history is different from the European way. In the European way, everyone tells what they saw, and someone decides which story is the true story. Then that story becomes the history. But the Crow way of telling history is that everyone gathers in a circle. One person says, ‘From where I was standing, this is what I saw,’ and another person says, ‘From where I was standing, this is what I saw.’ And all of those stories together is the history.” (This quotation has been confirmed by his daughter Rachel Sue Old Coyote.)
All of those stories together is the history. Even if the stories contradict each other. Meanwhile, we white folks strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, trying to get to The Truth, or perhaps better yet, THE TRUTH (all caps). After which we say Amen, as if there is nothing more to be said.
Who gets to decide which story is The Truth? The European way of telling history is an exercise in power and domination. Only the people in power get to decide what the true story is. And there can only be one true story. In effect, everyone else’s story is erased.
Pilate’s question haunts me as I try to get to the truth of the story I have to tell, about what happened to my family in Wake Forest, NC, in the late 60s. What is the truth?
If you want THE TRUTH in all caps, don’t come to me looking for it. All I can tell you is what I saw and what I see, looking back through the tunnel of half a century. Or, to keep it biblical, “through a glass darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13) And is it the true past I see through the glass?
I’m telling a story about which I have a singular, personal, and particularly strong point-of-view. However, even that—my own POV—has shifted over the years. Especially over the last two years, as I’ve come to recognize and grapple with the way whiteness has shaped not only the landscape around me, but the eyeglasses through which I see it.
For example, in the past, I would have told the story of what happened to my family as an epic tale, about a courageous white Southern Baptist preacher’s family braving violence and ostracism to stand against racism and white supremacy, both of which I saw as outside myself.
From where I stand now, I cannot help but look at the story against the backdrop of my great-great-grandfathers and great-great-uncles who fought for the Confederate Army, whose fathers enslaved people and who worked to shore up a system that disenfranchised and disempowered Black people.
There were also those who took small stands here and there for what they viewed as simple fairness. For example, my Granddaddy Shipp, who at one point worked part-time as voter registrar for Princess Anne County, VA, now part of Virginia Beach. He was handed a test that he was instructed to give to every Black person who came to register to vote. A man with a 4th-grade education, Granddaddy took one look at that test and thought, I could never pass this test. He handed it to the best lawyer he knew, who blurted out, “Man, the Governor of Virginia couldn’t pass this test!” Granddaddy returned to the Courthouse and told his employers that he would either give the test to everyone who came to register, or he would give it to no one.
They promptly fired him. And that was the end of his protest. Because, you see, Granddaddy believed in segregation. He believed that everyone should “know their place.” He had taken a stand for what he saw as fair, but, once he was fired, from his point-of-view, it was no longer his battle. He felt no need to challenge the underlying system.
So, what is the truth of my story? The truth is all of it. All of these stories.
The truth of the story of Wake Forest also includes the stories of others who lived through and experienced that time with me. Even if they were against me. I want to hear from them, to know what they saw from where they were standing.
For me, the truth is that Wake Forest fell like an ax across my life, cutting off the ignorant and bliss-filled past from the suddenly uncertain future. Gaping between the two, there was a wound that swallowed up everything I’d thought I knew. A necessary wound, I think now, because everything my culture had taught me about being a good girl, about my place in society, about what it meant to be white and “Christian,” turned out to be lies. The white church in which I grew up professed to love God, and to love their neighbors as they loved themselves–but, as it turned out, only if their neighbor wasn’t Black.
If I want to tell the truth, I cannot avoid the wound. There is no way to tell the story truthfully without going through the wound.
But the story ain’t about my wound.
The story is about whatever truth I can speak from the center of my experience (and woundedness), while listening deeply to the experiences, and woundedness, of others. Only with all of our points-of-view can the story be truthfully told.
Over the next months, my posts will examine the holy discomfort I am inviting into my life as I seek to become anti-racist. Bits and pieces from a book that I am currently writing–about events in the late 1960s that separated me from both my white innocence and the church I grew up in–will pop up here and there. As I go more deeply into that story and my own learning, in these blog posts I will write about the challenges I encounter along the way. I hope these thoughts will be of help to other white folks traveling uncomfortably alongside me.