In outcry over anti-fake news bill, the question ‘what is truth?’ is still relevant

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been caught up in a public outcry over plans to introduce an anti-fake news bill in Parliament.

Apr 06, 2018

By Anil Netto
Over the last couple of weeks, we have been caught up in a public outcry over plans to introduce an anti-fake news bill in Parliament.

Grappling with what is truth and what isn’t – trying to distil between the two – is an age-old struggle, especially when there is an imbalance in power or a different understanding of power and how it should be used.

As always, there is a lopsided imbalance in how truth and falsehood are perceived between those who wield earthly power and those who are seemingly powerless.

Picture the scene two thousand years ago. Jesus responds to the Roman prefect of Judea Pontius Pilate, as described in John 18:36.

“Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. As it is, my kingdom does not belong here.”

37 Pilate said, “So, then you are a king?”

Jesus answered, ‘It is you who say that I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’

38 ‘Truth?’ said Pilate. ‘What is that?’ And so saying he went out again to the Jews and said, ‘I find no case against him.’

Now, Pilate was living in a different world, and the contrast between him and Jesus couldn’t have been greater. As the fifth prefect of Judea from 26AD to 36AD, he was the local face of the mighty Roman Empire, then under the Emperor Tiberius.

Roman imperial theology regarded the emperor as a deity, even a son of God, and the empire’s ideology was Pax Romana, the sometimes uneasy peace secured through military conquest or victory in bloody battles.

In contrast, Jesus was at pains to explain to Pilate that his eternal truth was not worldly. It was based on peace through love, compassion and distributive justice. His was a kingdom spread by love and distributive justice. Even the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus proclaimed, spoke of Abba, the Father, the householder, who was concerned that everyone should have enough – especially enough to eat, Give us this day, our daily bread. The all-powerful God was concerned over whether his people had enough to eat. Power was to be used responsibly to ensure that distributive justice prevailed. In washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus demonstrated servant leadership in the service of humanity.

This was in sharp contrast to Pilate, who was responsible for a relatively small detachment of a few thousand troops around Judea. The prefect was also responsible for the collection of taxes and he had some limited judicial powers, as in this case involving Jesus. His immediate boss would have been the Roman legate in Syria.

Civil administration was in the hands of the lay local councils and groups like the Sanhedrin, though the Roman prefect had the power to appoint the high priest in Jerusalem. As prefect, Pilate would have resided in Caesarea by the coast but travelled around the region. During the Passover feast, a sensitive time for the Romans, as that was the time the Jews celebrated their liberation from slavery in Egypt, Pilate would have made it a point to be stationed in Jerusalem to keep a watchful eye on proceedings.

Pilate, from his vantage point, found it hard to grasp the truth embodied in Jesus, hence his perhaps cynical, dismissive or quizzical response to Jesus, “Quid est veritas? What is truth?”

It was as if he could not see the real truth before him — or even if he could see it, it stood against all that the Roman Empire stood for, all that he was indoctrinated to believe. To accept that truth was a price he couldn’t afford to pay. For Pilate, the consequences of accepting that truth – taken to its logical conclusion – would have meant the surrender of his worldly position and status, power and influence, even wealth.

Power in the world, to this day, often has a seductive hold on those it is vested on – influence, status, wealth. For many, it is not easy to surrender power even when their shelf life has expired, even when confronted with the ultimate truth of the futility of their power, their excesses, their unbridled greed and corruption.

Much easier to dismiss it as false news or in today’s parlance, fake news. For the price of accepting the Truth can be considerable. In the end, Pilate may have saved his position in the eyes of Caesar by allowing Jesus to be crucified (a Roman punishment, and what a punishment it was) — but at what long-term cost? Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, wrote that Pilate took his life under orders from the Emperor Caligula in 39 AD.

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