I haven’t had the psychological tenacity to watch the Kavanaugh hearings today. But I have been spending the week supporting a refugee woman whose testimony wasn’t believed. In a world where truth is defined by institutional stamps that make things official or by rigorous scientific testing, personal testimony has no validity.
For many Christians, truth is authoritarian by nature, because personal experience is fundamentally untrustworthy. This authoritarian definition of truth is the reason that institutions like the state and the church are usually believed over the testimony of people who have been abused by them (until their authority is counterbalanced by social media viralization as an alternate “authority”). We are in an age when the full satanic ugliness of authoritarian truth is being exposed, and I desperately hope that authoritarian forms of Christianity fail to survive the next generation.
My refugee friend is in an impossible situation because of the ethos of authoritarian truth. Since the stance of an American immigration court is essentially guilty until proven innocent, asylum seekers have to satisfy absurd standards of proof. It’s not enough for a woman to say that men in ski masks pointed a gun at her. She has to have a DNA sample or at least a photograph. She has to ask her attackers to let her scan their ID’s or something official to establish their identity. She has to hack into their emails to be able to establish that they were commanded by a political figure to threaten her because of her political views. Every refugee has to be a trained CIA agent to meet the standard of proof expected by our immigration system.
This is all a product of defining truth as official and authoritarian. Under this epistemological framework, we don’t get to ask why in the world a woman would make herself the target of death threats and public fury if she didn’t have a specific memory of an interaction with a specific person that would not let her stay quiet. Likewise, we don’t get to consider why a woman would suddenly uproot her kids and husband from a country that has everything she knows, her family, friends, and culture, if she didn’t really face an imminent threat of being killed.
Our refugee friends’ lives have become a Franz Kafka novel recently. We went to the ICE office to check in and report a change of address about a month ago. The official looked on his computer and said that they didn’t have any pending court dates. But lo and behold, they did have court dates in another city (that were apparently in a parallel database) and any notices they sent apparently went to the wrong address, so now a 13 year old girl has a deportation order for missing a court date she was never told about.
The irony of defining truth as authoritarian proclamation is that it makes the word of lying authoritarians like Donald Trump into the word of God. I’ve already written about how the biblical inerrantist champions of “absolute truth” became groupies on the Trump caravan. There’s a direct line from “The Bible says…” to “The dear leader says…” because the fundamental criterion is not whether truth has any basis in empirical reality but whether the speaker has authority. When Christians think this way about the Bible, they cannot avoid transferring their authoritarian conception of truth to political leaders.
The worldview of authoritarian truth is epistemologically nihilistic. We cannot trust our own senses or our own intuitions due to the doctrine of original sin. But what inevitably happens in a worldview of total depravity is that total depravity is selectively applied to marginalized people in questions of credibility.
Conservative evangelicals don’t believe women about sexual assault just like they don’t believe transgender people about their bodies for the same reason: they are totally depraved and their personal testimony is therefore untrustworthy. But authoritative texts and figures as well as people who are officially in the “saved” column gain immunity from mistrust.
This authoritarian understanding of truth is completely incomprehensible to young adults today. At least all the ones I’ve interacted with. They simply don’t care about being in conformity with an authoritarian proclamation for its own sake. What makes something authoritative for them (and for me) is its proven trustworthiness and benefit. And in cases in which there’s a power differential between two people whose stories are contradicting each other, we presume the truth of the person of lesser power as a default, not because they are necessarily more likely to tell the truth (though an argument could be made about power’s innate corruption), but because their stories have always been erased in a world of authoritarian proclamation.
I do not know if my refugee friend will get the asylum she’s seeking. I don’t even know if her daughter will be able to have her deportation order rescinded on the basis of our unofficial testimony that the database isn’t always right. If we do prevail, it will be because the judge we face is not thinking about truth from an authoritarian perspective. Thus I pray that her judge won’t be a conservative evangelical.