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Two Truths and a Lie – January 2, 2011

Sometime ago, I was at a gathering of other Unitarian Universalist religious leaders. The whole group of us were up just a little bit past our normal bedtimes and someone, possessed momentarily by the mischievous spirit of the hour, suggested that we play a game that’s popular among Unitarian Universalist youth. The game is a storytelling and get-to-know you exercise called “Two Truths and a Lie,” and it works like this: each participant states three facts about themselves; obviously the more strange, unexpected or entertaining, the better. Two of these facts should be true; one of them should be false. The group then has a chance to guess which of the three stories is made up, before the lie is revealed by the person who told it.

Now, I’d played this game before, in my high school days, and then later when I was a youth group advisor. But when one of my colleagues suggested that we play it, I demurred, explaining that in order to play the game properly, I would need to have at least two facts about myself that were interesting enough to be mistaken for lies. That’s a high standard, when you think about it. But I have only been the minister of this congregation for a few months now, and you and I are still getting to know one another. So here are my three facts about myself – two of them are true, one of them is not.

Once, while travelling in Italy – the only time I have ever been to Italy – I was stranded there. I showed up at the airport, ready to leave and hoping to get back in time for work the next day, and was told that not only had the flight been cancelled, but the entire route. If I wanted to get back to the United States, I literally could not get there from here. As far as the airline staff were concerned, just informing me of this change, once I’d come to the airport in person, fulfilled their responsibilities to me as a customer. But, eventually, an arrangement was made by which I could get home a day late, if I could get to another airport, in another city, in another part of the country, on my own. That’s story number one.

Number two, takes place when I was living in Oakland, California. They have a public transit system there called the BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – that covers many of the cities on or near San Francisco Bay. Once, while riding the BART late at night, I fell asleep and missed my stop. When I woke up I realized the problem, got off at the next station, switched trains and fell asleep again. The second time I was more anxious and when I switched trains again, I got on the wrong one. It was the last train of the evening, and I ended up having to spend the night not sleeping in a 24-hour coffee shop in San Jose.

The third story is from my early childhood, when I was in a playgroup with some other children whose mothers would get together during the day at each others’ houses, or sometimes go on outings. One summer we took an outing to a park that had a fish hatchery in it. They had all these pools with just hundreds and thousands of fish all wriggling together in them. It was long enough ago that my memory may be faulty, but as I recall there were no ropes or guardrails or other barriers around those pools, and my evidence for this is that I fell into one of them. Luckily I was a strong enough swimmer to push my way through all of those fish, back to the surface so that I could be hauled out again.

So there you have it: three short, colorful stories from my past. Just a little bit of flavor to help give you feel you have a slightly better sense of who I am. Except that you don’t really have any new information about who I am, because one of the stories I just told you, is a lie. Even if you’re very confident in your guess as to which one it is, you don’t know for sure, and until you do, the two true stories can’t really tell you anything.

As Unitarian Universalists we are devoted to the ongoing search for truth. While some folks may profess that their truth can be reduced to the contents of a single book or the substance of a narrow creed, our faith is far, far larger than that. For we hold that revelation is not sealed; that wisdom and insight into the deep meaning of life may be found in every moment, potentially in any book and most certainly in every heart. As a people who quest for the truth, and who have, in certain places and times, been persecuted for that quest by people who were offended that their own truths did not satisfy us, we have a deeply personal interest in the freedom of ideas. We have a duty to the free flow of information, to the practice of telling the truth, to ourselves and each other, and not to lie or dissemble, or otherwise to hide the truth from others.

Now, this basic value to speak truthfully and not to lie is very popular among the world’s religions. In Buddhism, for a statement to qualify as something permissible to speak, it must meet several requirements, and one of these is that it must always be true.[i] One of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible is that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”[ii] In the Greek Testament, the first Christian community began to pool all of its resources and hold all its property in common, following the teachings of that notorious socialist, Jesus of Nazareth. But two members of the community, Ananias and Sapphira, attempted to hide some of the money gained by selling their property, and when the deception was revealed, both of them fell down dead.[iii] This scriptural episode is presumably not one favored by the Cayman Islands’ banking system.

Opponents of Islam sometimes make the claim that the religion condones lying. Like most such attacks, this one comes from either misunderstanding or willful ignorance. Islam requires its adherents to tell the truth, but makes a few specific exceptions. One of these is in cases where lying, for instance about what someone did or did not say, will help to make peace, particularly between two people who are married to each other. There is also the practice of taqiyya, from the Shi’a branch of Islam; taqiyya involves lying, specifically about your religious beliefs, in order to protect your own life or the life of another.[iv] Taqiyya points to the sad fact that simply to tell the truth about who we are – what we believe, whom we love, where we were born – can be life-threateningly dangerous in the context of oppression. So while truth is a noble cause, and an end in and of itself, it should be a thing that gives life, rather than taking it away.

Yet the truth is also something worth risking life for. There’s a story in the Shi’a tradition that cuts

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right to this. The divide between the Sunni and the Shi’a branches of Islam stems from a series of disagreements over leadership of the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Mohammad. Thirteen hundred years ago, the Sunni Caliph Yazid claimed authority over all Muslims and their territories, but the Shi’a refused to follow Yazid – they were led by Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad. Yazid eventually lured Hussein and his followers into an ambush at a place called Karbala in what is now Iraq. Hussein and many others were killed, and the yearly mourning for this loss of life is one of the major observances in Shi’a Islam.

Hussein died, but his sister, Zaynab, survived the battle, and along with many others was taken captive. She was taken to the court of Yazid, the man who had ordered her brother’s death. Facing him under threat herself, she told the story of the battle of Karbala, refusing to be intimidated into keeping silent, or painting her captor in a more positive light. She told the truth, even though it was embarrassing to the government she was subject to.[v]

Centuries later, a different government in a different place and time had a different truth that it found embarrassing. The New York Times had just begun publishing excerpts of a historical study that had originally been commissioned by the US government. It was an analysis of the conflict in Vietnam from the Truman through the Johnson administrations. It was embarrassing because it showed that several Presidents and

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their cabinet and staff members had actively lied to the American public about the war – how it was going, what tactics where being employed, what they hoped to accomplish by fighting it, what it was exactly that members of the US armed forces and the South Vietnamese military were being asked to give their lives for.

The document, which came to be called the Pentagon Papers, was officially secret; it had been leaked to the New York Times by a man who had been involved in writing it, and felt that he had a duty to share it with the public. Because of the document’s secrecy, the Nixon administration was able to get a court order barring the New York Times from publishing any more fragments of it. Temporarily blocked in the press, the whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg looked for an ally in Congress, and eventually found one in Senator Mike Gravel, who entered the entire contents of the Pentagon Papers, all 47 volumes, into the Congressional Record.

Other newspapers began to print excerpts. More court cases began as the government tried to stop the flow of information. Senator Gravel and his staff sought a publisher for the whole document; one-by-one, 35 separate publishing houses turned them down. Nearly everyone who had touched the Pentagon Papers up to this point has wound up in court, and there was a good chance that they’d all be going directly from there to jail. No profit-minded publisher would take them. So, in final desperation, they went to the Unitarians.

Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was the only publisher who would handle the Pentagon Papers while the threat of law suites and felony arrests still hung over them. At a time when it was dangerous to print secrets the US government found embarrassing, our Association chose to do just that. From a legal and a financial perspective, it was all loss; years in court followed, and Beacon Press’ bottom line was still suffering long after that. But because we have a loyalty to the truth which runs deeper than the goal of worldly success, and even weighs against our own sense of self-preservation, the leadership of our Association knew that it was the right thing to do.[vi]

Today, forty years after the Pentagon Papers, we are in an age when government secrecy, in the name of security, continues to grow by leaps and bounds. There have been several cases, in the past decade, of the publication of officially secret government documents. Whistleblowers have tried to draw attention to the inaction and dissimulation by the powerful. The current WikiLeaks controversy is only the most recent example of this. We have come once again to the question of what truths a government can be permitted to keep from its citizens. How much secrecy can democracy bear?

I should resolve one particular secret now. You may recall my three stories from earlier: being trapped in Italy by a nefarious airline, being lost on the Bay Area’s subway, and falling into a tank at a fish hatchery. Well, I really did get stuck in Florence, and had to make my own way to Milan for a flight home. I spent the night in a hotel in a distant suburb of the city – that was the night that the Italian national football team won the World Cup. I did not get much sleep. And I really did fall into that pool at the fish hatchery, in an episode that I’m sure still lives on as a cautionary example in some of those playgroup families to start your children in swimming lessons at the earliest possible age. But I never did

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get so lost on the BART that I had to spend the night in San Jose. I would have to have been very lost indeed: you see, the trains don’t run that far south.

Now, about the more serious sorts of secrets, you no doubt have your own opinions, and I do not look to control them. But you have entrusted this pulpit to me, and with it comes a duty to speak the truth, as I see it, on matters both spiritual and temporal. In the last several months, there has been a great hew and cry over the WikiLeaks organization, and its publishing of details and records that governments and large corporations find embarrassing. Though I do not care for the person who serves as its public face, and I think that several of the documents it has released serve no purpose other than petty gossip, I believe that the WikiLeaks organization is serving the public good. My study of Unitarian Universalist theology and history teaches me to be loyal to the truth and to others who seek it, and to be deeply wary of secrets, particularly those kept by the powerful.

As a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. In our weekly affirmation of faith, we profess to seek the truth in love. These are lofty goals, and if we are to follow them we have a duty to both turn that commitment outward and inward. The Alcoholics Anonymous proverb that “you’re only as sick as your secrets,” may be applied to many things: to families, to governments, and to each of our own selves in turn.

[i] This is one of the requirements of right speech, an element of the Eightfold Path.

[ii] Exodus 20:16

[iii] Acts 5:1-10

[iv] “Taqiyah”. Oxford Dictionary of Islam

[v] For an account of Zaynab’s speech in Yazid’s court, see:

[vi] For video of a panel discussion involving several of the key players in this story, see:


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