by Peter Hancock.
A high-level professional rugby match was in full swing. Passion, commitment, determination to win, no quarter asked, no quarter given. Nothing more important than emerging victorious. The number 8 of the away side, also an England international, powered through to the line and carried the ball over for a try but then immediately turned to the referee and told him that he had done so illegally and that the try should not be awarded. The referee thanked the player and signalled for the game to continue.
In the context of professional sport, this was such an unusual occurrence that it attracted the admiring attention of the national press – “No. 8 steals the show with act of honesty”; “Selflessness by England No. 8 boosts the modern game” (Owen Slot, The Times, Monday 8 October). It has long been accepted that cricketers won’t walk when caught out, footballers will dive for an unmerited penalty and rugby players will pretend an illegal try is legal even though the referee, as he was about to do in this case, consults a video replay (because video technology is not always conclusive and the player may still get away with it). Truth can be inconvenient when you are driven towards a certain goal and this is not only the case in professional sport.
A government may wish to kill dissidents, on its own soil or that of another nation. It hopes that this can be done in the shadows but when the truth begins inconveniently to emerge it may respond with an absurd series of lies and counter-recriminations. Allies of this nation will need to acknowledge an amount of truth sufficient to satisfy right-thinking people but not so much as to disrupt ties of trade, armaments, intelligence etc. The leader of a nation may make statements which purport to be true because he wants them to be true and because the version of events they perpetuate gets him a step or two closer to a goal he is pursuing. Later, however, it may be that, in light of new developments, a new and possibly contradictory version of the truth will need to be pressed, forced, manipulated, crow-barred in to service as this is what achieving the goal now requires.
The Psalmist writes “Surely you desire truth in the inward parts” (Ps. 51v6). It seems, however, that as long as truth can be resisted in the outward parts the game can go on and edifices can be built upon a falsehood accepted as necessary by all concerned.
“What is truth” said Pontius Pilate to Jesus as two kingdoms approached a conclusive showdown. The biblical concept of truth is closely linked to that of reality and two versions of reality were at play. The Jesus walking among human beings was none other than the living embodiment of reality, the only true version of events and of that which lies behind them, the one through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together. Ultimately, this truth cannot be resisted even by the exercise of the greatest power that any alternative may bring to bear upon it.
With Jesus in her womb, Mary speaks of the reality which has been a done deal from the creation of the world. A reality in which the proud are scattered in their inmost thoughts, rulers are brought down from their thrones, the humble are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. This does not look much like the world as we know it but it is the ultimate reality which confronts the temporary realities of the world and puts on notice edifices which are built upon anything different.
This may all seem a long way from the instinctive decision of a professional rugby player to go with an honest version of events but in decisions large and small there is the choice to go with the truth which has its roots in the foundation of the world or not. The player himself is quoted as saying that the claiming of an unfair advantage is not just a rugby thing but a life thing and that in doing so you’re only lying to yourself. There is an attractiveness to such expressions of truth. The journalist reporting the incident had predicted at the beginning of the season: “Someone, somewhere being honest in the act of failing to score a try cleanly. Nice idea, won’t happen”. Yet when it does happen a little shoot of fresh hope emerges. Good to see that the player concerned is Billy Vunipola, the son of one of our Methodist ministers.