What is Truth?

By Tim Winterstein

“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus when Jesus said that those who are of the Truth listen to His voice (John 18:37-38). Intentionally or unintentionally, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder ([Sandome no satsujin], 2017, streaming on Amazon Prime) is a longer meditation on Pilate’s question, also in the context of a trial, although a trial for murder.

I’m working my way through what films I can find of his, after the impression that After the Storm made on me. If I were a filmmaker, I would study Kore-eda’s aesthetic. The way that he deals with faces, weather, and nature is slow and meditative, but never boring. I find it kind of stunning, the way he’s able to both slow down the story, while slowly ratcheting up the tension between the characters.

The defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) begins confidently, assuming he has the basic facts of Misumi’s (Kôji Yakusho) case. It seems straightforward: Misumi murdered his boss; he’s confessed it; all that’s left now is to try to find some way to plead down the charges. But things are never quite as they seem—and that would make a very short movie.

What begins as a crime drama becomes a philosophical investigation into the nature of truth itself that should impress any post-modern deconstructionist. We breathe it in like air that “objective” truth is unobtainable, so that there is “your truth” and “my truth,” as many truths as there are people—which is impossible to hold consistently. In spite of ourselves, we still seem to fundamentally believe that there is some ground of truth to which we can appeal, even if it’s only the way my stomach happens to feel today.

This breakdown of any Truth that is above us all, to which we can all appeal, finds its practical consequences in the fact that it is near impossible in our present cultural context to have a true argument on a given point. It’s a fine philosophical question to debate whether such objective truth exists. But even if we agree that that truth is out there, what is indisputable is that whatever access we might have to objectivity is fully and completely subjective from any positions we may occupy.

We do not float above anything. We do not float above facts and decide objectively how to make sense of all of them. First, it would be difficult—or impossible—to know whether we even had all the facts; and second, the position we do, in fact, occupy based on our knowledge, experience, and point of view will determine which things we choose to accept as relevant “facts” at all. We do not float above; we are right down in the middle of it (whatever “it” is). And our vision is limited.

Shigemori discovers, finally, that he has no firm grasp on the facts at all. And even as the story progresses, and other facts and evidence present themselves, he slowly begins to doubt everything that he sees and hears. He doesn’t fully understand anyone’s motives. He can’t hear what they’re not saying, and he can’t see what is not being shown to him.

If The Third Murder were a typical crime drama, the viewer might be excused for finding the ending unsatisfactory. But it is atypical because reality remains for us at the level of Shigemori’s own knowledge. The truth of the case does indeed exist. The boss was actually murdered. But neither Shigemori nor the court are going to get the full truth. And that means that Justice is blind in more than one sense.

She should certainly be blind to a person’s wealth, status, and position as she considers a given case. But we are not foolish enough to think that such an objective position is possible or happens in most cases. We know too much about how those who have the financial resources are more often able to escape the serious consequences and punishments that would come upon those who do not have those same resources.

If we assume that the scales of Justice are often weighted one way or another, why would we still assume that Truth is what is found in a court of law? Shigemori thinks he’s after truth, but what he discovers is that there is no way for him to get to it, subject as he is to the motives of the various players, including the judges and the cynicism of other attorneys.

The question is not, in the end, where the truth is, but what story he (and we) will believe. Even more: what story do we want to believe? Misumi is an “empty vessel,” which the police, the attorneys, the victims, and other observers fill up with whatever story they’ve already decided upon. We like to think that we, like Shigemori, are simply listening and observing, and deciding upon those observations. But no finite person is in the position to actually do that. So which story we want to believe not only depends on what we observe, but, to some extent, determines what we observe.

To pretend otherwise not only makes regular human communication and understanding difficult (and seemingly more and more so), but that pretense poisons religious communication. If we pretend that we are objective agents, simply deciding between two or more positions or “beliefs,” the only ones we’re fooling are ourselves. Lutherans (should) take it for granted that belief in Jesus as the resurrected Lord depends not on our reason and senses and our decision about the truthfulness of, for example, the Scriptures. But too often when it comes to evangelization, we switch modes and, almost by default, assume that if we can only present the Faith in the “right” way or a “convincing” way or the most entertaining and spectacular way, then people will flock to the Lord in droves.

It doesn’t, and cannot, work that way. Truth doesn’t work that way. If there is a resurrected, living Jesus, (who is the Truth, He says) then His word is enough to fundamentally alter the way people see and think what is true. If He is not the Truth, or if He is not risen from the dead, or if He is not the subject of His own activity, then all we’re doing is playing around with words, trying to manipulate people into hearing and seeing something that they literally cannot hear or see.

The Third Murder is simply a good movie. Watch it for that reason. But the sooner we realize that we are in the same position as Shigemori—although with respect to everything—the better off (or, at least, the more honest) we and the Church will be.