What is truth? Discovering the basis for authentic community

The 3rd Annual Marg Barry Memorial Lecture, 2007

Rt Reverend John McIntyre, previously the Anglican minister at St Saviour’s, Redfern, and now Bishop of Gippsland

Bishop John Mac

In the traditions that formed and shaped me, these words are found on the lips of a cynic. Pontius Pilate, the man who washes his hands of responsibility, asks the question, not wanting it either to be taken seriously or answered. For him, to know the truth would have been too discomforting. He is a political leader with a problem on his hands; a social context on the edge of violence that could erupt into chaos at any moment, and a political prisoner standing bound before him with the capacity to stir the people into action against his authority.

A political leader whose only impetus is the will to power trembles before the possibility of losing control. What in truth he is dealing with is the furthest thing from his mind; for if truth be told, his control of the situation might at best be diminished, and at worst be lost. Truth is a luxury that cynical political leadership can do without.

What he and so many others like him fail to see, however, is that truth is the necessary pre-requisite for authentic community. Because people like him are not interested in authentic community, but are in the business of politics only for what they can get out of it themselves, truth is of no issue. But for those of us for whom the building of authentic community is core business, I want to claim that knowing the truth is essential.

Now I do not pretend I can come up with some neat definition of truth: that is not the purpose of this exercise. What I want to argue is that unless there is awareness of all that, in truth, makes up the situations in which people find themselves, there is no capacity for those people to build authentic community. Authentic community is community that sets all the people free to be; free to fulfill their potential; free to participate and free to celebrate fullness of life together. h ere are all kinds of obstacles on the path to realising this dream, and unless we can see clearly to overcome those obstacles, the dream remains nothing but a dream.

In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues the necessity of knowing the truth of what makes up the situations in which people find themselves, if there is to be liberation of the people. He calls the process of becoming aware of the truth ‘conscientisation’. He speaks from within his own experience in the 1970s of the exploitation of South American countries by the United States, including his native Brazil. A simple example of this (Freire argues) is the situation where the oppressor perpetuates the lie that the poor are poor because they are lazy, precisely because they want to veil the truth that the poor are poor because they are being exploited by the oppressor.

How reality is perceived, clearly impacts on what action is advocated to solve community problems. When the lie about poverty is told, the action advocated by the oppressor is for the poor to simply work harder. In such a context, authentic community remains impossible, because the truth has not been told. Freire suggests that when the truth of the matter is revealed; that poverty is a product of social exploitation, then the capacity to choose the action of wealth distribution is enabled. Ways can be found to end the oppression and liberate the poor. Only then will there be authentic community.

If truth is the basis of authentic community, how do we come to know the truth: how do we go about the business of truth-finding? This is a fundamental question for those engaged in community building. I want to suggest there are three component parts to the quest for truth.

The first component part of truth-finding is good and reliable information sources. We need to know the facts of the matter about the situations in which we are engaged.

The second component part of truth-finding is the capacity to decipher the information we have in such a way that it can be employed to the end of building authentic community. This takes us into the realm of values; desirable means and ends and an understanding of the basis of those values. Information alone is not power: knowledge is power. Knowledge is not simply having good information, though that is essential: knowledge also involves having and knowing the interpretive keys to order the information we have.

The third component part of truth-finding is attitude. Good information and knowledge without right motive and intention, particularly in leadership, do not guarantee authentic community. Unless there is right motive and intention, exploitation occurs, agendas are not transparent and there is no genuine capacity for everyone to participate in the process of their own liberation; there is no integrity; there is no basis for building authentic community. Beyond information and knowledge there is wisdom, in which truth is discovered.

If truth is dependent on good information, we in Australia have a dilemma with our current sources of information. Our popular media is so tightly controlled by parties interested in maintaining the status quo, we can never be sure we are getting good and reliable information. The recently formed media coalition, Australia’s Right to Know, an unprecedented alliance
of Australian media organisations, notes that Australia now lags dismally behind the leaders in the worldwide press freedom rankings compiled by Reporters Without Frontiers. On their index, Australia is ranked 35, behind nations such as Bolivia, South Korea and Ghana. If that doesn’t worry you it should, because it means we have more and more limited access to good and reliable information, the first crucial component to truth-finding.

Anyone, for example, who has seen the documentary OutFoxed would not have been surprised to have verified, that Murdoch’s news empire has no credibility anywhere in the world for producing anything like the facts of the matter on anything you would care to know. Essentially, the message is clear: if you want to know the truth don’t get your information from a Murdoch media outlet. That’s easy: so far so good.

I tend now to watch SBS for my news because it would seem not only to be the most comprehensive but so far less impacted by Federal Government interference than the ABC is. Even so, recent comments about the alleged bias of SBS from some government ministers are beginning to emerge that indicate SBS may also come under the threat of manipulation by the Federal Government.

On the matter of alternative sources of media, Marg Barry’s priorities certainly demonstrated an acute awareness. The ongoing value of a magazine like Inner Voice, in which she had such a significant hand, is to be applauded; as are similar alternative voice publications produced by others, such as the South Sydney Herald. Along with many sites on the internet, these
sources of good and reliable information are a vital component in the matter of truth-finding.

But what these alternative sources provide is not just facts: part of their role is to interpret and order those facts as well. As I have already indicated, this is a fundamental aspect to the task of truth-finding that takes us into the realm of values; desirable means and ends and an understanding of the basis of those values. There is no such thing as ‘neutral’ or ‘unbiased’ information: every piece of information we receive is interpreted in some way and ordered towards some end.

On the final component of truth-finding, which is about the attitude in which we go about the task, this strikes me as a simple matter. I see it in so many who have joined in the struggle for authentic community in the inner city. It is about dedication, and what I would call ‘self-forgetfulness’; it is that quality that makes people go the extra mile and put in that last extra effort, despite themselves and their weariness, and sometimes despite even that sense of hopelessness that feels nothing is ever going to change. Again I think Marg Barry exemplified this attitude, sometimes frustratingly, insofar as what she sometimes expected of others.

And finally there is celebration. Marg Barry was always on about the party that must follow the campaign, whether successful or not. I reckon laughter and dancing are symbols of authentic community. Never trust the person who has no sense of humour, by which I mean the person who cannot laugh at themselves and party on. That is the true sign of the humility and grace that is the well-spring of the wisdom that is the basis of all truth, that component essential for authentic community.

Certainly the task of building authentic community is not finished, here in Redfern where I imagine you are still taking up the fight to the Redfern Waterloo Authority, and in many other places where we struggle to see authentic community born. https://innersydneyvoice.org.au/our-projects/annual-marg-barry-memorial-lecture/what-is-truth-discovering-the-basis-for-authentic-community/Certainly the obstacles to it are many, not least in those who see no need for truth-finding, and like many who call themselves leaders in Australia today, seem only to be involved for what they can get out of it for themselves. But if you and I do not give up on truth-finding and the struggle to build authentic community, in whatever situations we now find ourselves to be, then there is hope.

And that’s the truth.