Rev Steve Jones: How important is truth in public and private life?

Truth-telling has been an accepted norm of our civilised society

Truth-telling has been an accepted norm of our civilised society - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Reverend Steve Jones writes about the importance of truth in both our public and private lives

Several years ago, I worked in the USA, in a city just outside Detroit, Michigan.

It was a socially deprived and quite violent city that had become economically depressed following the decline in the motor industry. There was significant local unemployment and a palpable sense of hopelessness in many neighbourhoods.

As a Christian minister making one of many emergency food deliveries, I ended up connected with one of the three street gangs in the city.

Over time I was able to welcome the gang leader’s mother into our church. This connection led me to regular involvement, particularly in the lives of the gang leader and his brother.

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I worked hard to show these young men different options for their futures beyond the streets.

It is often said that we want young people who have had a rough start in life to have a second chance. These young men would say that they never even had a first chance.

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One of the things that really struck me about the gang culture I was experiencing was that the gang members had no real understanding of why telling the truth was important.

I recall asking one of them a question about his current financial needs, as I was going to try to help him. Less than 30 minutes later I asked him the same question again, and he gave me a completely different answer. I pointed out the inconsistency and asked him which answer was true - the first one or the second one?

His response was that neither answer was the truth. As I delved into this issue further, it became clear to me that the gang members always answered in the way that they believed would have the best prospect of getting them what they wanted in that moment.

They took this approach with their mothers, their girlfriends, the police, the courts, and even with each other.

When I asked them whether they were concerned that people might not trust them in the future if they lied, their collective response was ‘everyone lies, all the time’.

Telling the truth is a concept foundational to the Bible’s teachings and is an ethical principle that has underpinned our society for generations.

While, most certainly, people have not always told the truth, truth-telling has been an accepted norm of our civilised society.

The concept is that truth is about integrity and trustworthiness and provides a solid foundation for the development of durable and effective relationships. And that is important in both public and private life.

We need to be able to trust our partners, our children, our political leaders, our police officers, our courts, and our media.

An inability to trust these people can be a recipe for insecurity, loneliness, fear, or paranoia.

One of the things that has marked the recent US Presidential election has been a question about the importance of truth.

One might ask: is it now acceptable, in public life, to make statements that you know are untrue, or for which you have no substantive evidence, so long as the use of the words may improve your own position?

Could it become acceptable to tell the occasional lie to your partner, your child, your friend, or your co-worker, as long as you had a good reason at the time?

Are we moving into a transitionary period of human life where expediency, and not truth, is the prime ethical currency? I hope not.

It was hard for me to persuade those young gang members to be truthful and full of integrity when they were not witnessing that standard in private and public life around them.

What a wonderful gift it would be in our world for our global younger generations to witness the leaders of their nations and communities radically committed to transparency, openness, and complete honesty in all things.

Now that would really be a legacy worthy of celebration.

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