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08 April 2016

Truth and the Panama papers

Truth and the Panama papers

Jessica Scott works in the policy and public affairs department of Christian Aid

It is not long since many of us will have heard in our churches that great question Pilate addresses to Jesus: "What is truth?" (John 18.38). In the midst of the passion narrative we recollected just a few weeks ago comes this searching, crucial question.

That same question surfaced this week, taken up by our media absorbed in reporting the leak of the Panama Papers. We learnt of the exploitative offshore dealings of the rich, aided by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Pilate's question appeared once again: what is truth?

What is it that's going on here? What exactly have these powerful people been engaged with?

It's a question we can deal with at different levels.

On the one hand, these leaked papers answer it very quickly. What is truth? Here is truth: the rich use offshore tax havens. Now they're named and shamed. The darkness has become light. We didn't know it before and now we do. This is truth.

But Pilate's question can be dealt with another way. For what we sense in this drama is not merely truth at the level of exposure, but truth denied at the level of justice.

Those revealed to have had dealings with offshore companies have not contributed their fair share towards the common good. By avoiding paying tax they have impacted upon the lives of the poor. They have denied the truth that declares the dignity of others, the truth that says we are 'all called to become "givers" in the human community' – as Christian Aid's report Tax for the Common Good explores so well.

But to deal with truth as a matter of justice rather than mere exposure is to find ourselves on trickier terrain. When faced with Pilate's question, we can no longer grasp for the same dichotomy of right and wrong. Instead we find ourselves with more questions.

Injustice cannot be down solely to the greed of some persons, it also comes from narrow legal systems which are insulated from moral criticism. We should talk about a 'corrupt system', but also ask about our own failure to articulate right from wrong.

It feels an awful lot harder.

Yet the same gospel account that brings us Pilate's question also encourages us to stay with it. John's is the gospel account that so delights in dialogue, in conversation and exchange, in struggling with the question of truth. John's is the gospel account that sees the truth dawn for Nicodemus in a long and spiralling conversation. It is the gospel account that has the woman at the well find truth through question and answer. It is the gospel account that wants us to wrestle with it, to take it further, to try harder, to value the truth enough to stay with it. Truth for John is the Way.

What is at stake in this media storm is not a truth that offers an opportunity to point and stare at shamed celebrities for a few weeks, but a truth which causes us to face up to the reality of injustice in our world. And if this kind of truth is harder than a matter of voyeurism, harder than a matter of shouting from afar, then its demands on us will be harder too. We will need to go further than the surface lets us see and pose deep and critical questions, engaging – in our prayer and in action – with their complicated answers for as long as justice takes.

And let's remember that Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth and the life".

Image: CC PDPics