It’s that time of year again—the time when wishing peace on earth for all people feels important to do. But achieving peace takes more than the gauzy dreams of the optimistic; it takes an unflinching commitment to truth.
One of the most damaging implications of our social life right now is the deterioration in our trust that there’s any such thing as the truth.
It’s not just that the president, for instance, could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone without losing any voters. It’s that he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and say there’s no such thing as “5th Avenue” … and not lose any voters.
Immanuel Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative says that we ought to do only those things that we would want to become a universal moral law. It’s a more formal, societal way of institutionalizing the Golden Rule. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Do only that which you would like to have done to you. Kant, however, uses a specific example for how to think morally about truth-telling. He says that the reason it’s wrong to lie is that not only does nobody want to live in a world where lying is accepted as normal, but also that no community could survive it.
Love would be impossible if lying were not only accepted but expected. “You’re the only one for me. There’s nobody else. Seriously, I don’t have any communicable diseases … as far as you know.”
Without truth, the idea of peace is absurd. If we couldn’t trust the promises we make to one another, how could anyone sleep without at least one eye open?
According to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, if I will that people only tell me things I want to hear, instead of telling me the truth, I can never really trust anything they say. Community falls apart without trust. Peace is impossible without it.
But if I trust that people love me enough to tell me the truth—even though it’s sometimes hard to hear—that would be something to be a part of, wouldn’t it?
Wouldn’t we all love to be part of what Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community”—where trust born of honesty was the defining characteristic—where I could be who I really am, without fear that my honesty about myself would be thrown back in my face, without fear that someone was hatching a plan to shame me or run me out because of my religion, race, gender, my ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity?
What if we could live together without fear of the ulterior motives behind someone else’s agenda, without fear that our differences must divide us—but that the amazing richness those differences introduce are the very thing we prize most?
If we could live together like that … wouldn’t the rest of the world be more inclined to listen when prophets and agitators talked about justice for the oppressed, compassion for the vulnerable, and peace for those in conflict?
If together we inspired the kind of trust that could withstand the forces of division, wouldn’t our voices be more easily heard when we talk about a peace that welcomes the stranger, embraces the rejected, and loves those who’ve too often felt unloved—a peace that stands confidently against the voices of hatred and fear?
If we could see in our different religious expressions a source of strength and beauty, instead of a threat to an imagined, sentimentalized world of privilege where white Christian heterosexual cis-gendered males always make the rules for everybody else—wouldn’t talk of peace be more truthful, hopeful?
If those who truly desire peace at this special time of year could be that kind of community, we wouldn’t need membership cards—all we’d need are open doors and enough seats around the table.
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