When was the last time you accepted the truth? Allowed yourself to hear it, brought yourself to face it, and embraced its transformative power in your life?
I recently watched Dead Man Walking, the critically acclaimed movie released in 1995 about a man on death row and a nun charged with being his spiritual adviser for the last few days of his life. Throughout the movie, the convict facing death by lethal injection, Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn, is scrambling for ways to dodge death. When he first meets Sister Helen Prejean, played by Susan Sarandon, he brazenly asks her to help him find a way to prove his innocence and escape the death sentence. Sister Prejean is moved to help Poncelet out of relentless compassion bordering on naïveté. At the risk of spoiling the movie, I won’t share whether Poncelet is guilty of the crimes for which he is convicted or to what extent, but that is not the point of the movie anyway.
With hours left before his execution, Poncelet pleads with Sister Prejean for some kind of way out. She asks him whether he has been reading his Bible, as she had instructed him to do. He says that he has; although, quoting W.C. Fields, he jokes that he has been searching for a loophole. Recognizing how that evasiveness is adding to his mounting anxiety about death, Sister Prejean invites him to read John 8:32, where Jesus says that “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Poncelet ponders that verse, nods his approval, and then gives a self-absorbed interpretation of it, saying that if he takes a lie detector test, the truth will set him free. Not letting him off the hook, Sister Prejean calls out his useless scheming and tells him that she wants to help him die with dignity, and that in order for him to do that, he must own up to his part in the crime for which he was found guilty. He must face the truth, accept its consequences, and then find his freedom.
You will have to watch the movie to see whether Poncelet takes Sister Prejean’s advice, but you don’t have to see Dead Man Walking to accept your own truth—truth that is meant for you and you alone to face so that you would be made free. That’s the invitation Jesus extends to each of us, meeting us where we are in our particular experience so that we can stop running—running in circles inside a cage of our own design—and start facing our part in unaddressed pain.
The truth is that I have insecurities to own up to if I’m going to be set free from others’ perceptions, expectations, and judgments of me. The truth is that I have a lot of forgiveness to do—forgiveness of myself and of others—if I’m ever going to know the infinite extent of God’s forgiveness of me and others. The truth is that I have unaddressed pain seething under the surface of myself, and the truth is that I have inflicted that same pain, or twisted variations of it, on others. The truth is that I have certain things I need to own up to, but fear of the consequences that intentional ownership might bring keeps me walking around like a dead man sometimes; like an impermeable shell of what could be instead of an open vessel waiting to be filled with grace and goodness, passion and peace, love and light to the point of overflowing. That’s freedom.
Freedom is a blessed consequence of facing, owning, and embracing the truth, whatever that might mean for us. Where Poncelet gets John 8:32 wrong is in thinking that he can use it to his advantage, rather than letting its message take hold of him. We don’t work the truth; the truth works us. We are not meant to reshape the truth; the truth is meant to reshape us. The truth will ultimately and always make us free, yes, but not before we let our guard down and let its transformative power work on us, work in us, and work through us. Then we know the truth, and that truth that comes when our exhausted pride gives way to surrender will make us free. Amen.