The Politics of Spin and Culture War Fatigue
In the eighteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, we see a clash between two governors: Pontius Pilate, the governor of Rome, and Jesus Christ, the governor of the universe (John 18:28-40).
Jesus has been brought to Pilate by an angry mob. The mob has charged Jesus with being an enemy of the state and a threat to Caesar’s preeminence. Pilate, wanting to hear the account directly from Jesus, has him arrested and asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.”
Not sensing Jesus to be a threat, Pilate says dismissively to the crowd, “I find no guilt in him.” But then he makes a concession according to Jewish custom to release one man for them at the Passover. The crowd pressures Pilate to release Barabbas, a known murderer and insurrectionist, and to crucify Jesus in Barabbas’ place. Wanting to please the crowds, Pilate accommodates. Jesus, the innocent man, gets the death penalty. Barabbas, the guilty man, goes free. Modern politics can also work this way.
The goal of politics is to get people to support a particular vision for the world and to conduct their lives according to that vision. In pursuit of this goal, we often use the same strategies that Jesus’ accusers and Pilate employed: misuse of power and manipulation of truth.
THE MISUSE OF POWER
The world’s politics rely heavily on power, including the power to dominate. Pilate finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. He believes that Jesus is innocent. He also knows that Barabbas is guilty. Yet the calculating governor is desperate to please the crowds. As he considers the accusations against Jesus, he goes back and forth between his private chamber and then back out to the crowds. Though he knows who is innocent and who is not, he can’t decide who to crucify and who to set free.
What is happening here? We can assume that Pilate is taking the temperature of the crowd. He is assessing potential outcomes, discerning which course of action will be best for his own approval rating as well as the preservation of his own stature. His conscience makes him reluctant to crucify Jesus, yet he wants the favor of the crowd. But in worldly politics, when conscience and the crowd are at odds with one another, the crowd always wins. When the crowd always wins, bad people can go free and good people suffer.
I love the animated movie Shrek for many reasons. There is so much about the human experience that the film gets right. One such example is the pitiful little king of the land, Lord Farquaad.
Farquaad is a single man. The one thing he feels is missing from his kingdom is the lovely princess Fiona, who has long been locked up in a castle far away, guarded by a deadly, fire-breathing dragon. There have been many failed attempts to rescue Fiona; many would-be rescuers have lost their lives.
Farquaad gathers his bravest knights together for a competition. The knights are placed inside an arena to duel against each other until only one of them is left standing. The prevailing knight will have the “honor” of going out on Lord Farquaad’s behalf to rescue Fiona. Farquaad, himself a coward, offers the following “inspirational” speech to the knights before they turn against each other in the arena:
Brave knights, you are the best and brightest in all the land. Today one of you shall prove himself. That champion shall have the honor—no, no—the privilege to go forth and rescue the lovely Princess Fiona from the fiery keep of the dragon. If for any reason the winner is unsuccessful, the first runner-up will take his place and so on and so forth. Some of you will die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.
The world’s politics. Your hopes, desires, ambitions, good name—and, if necessary, your life—are worth sacrificing in order to protect and advance my agenda. And I will use my power, the authority of my office, to ensure that this happens. Some of you will die. But it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make. Collateral damage in which other humans experience suffering so my tribe does not, is an unfortunate but acceptable reality. In the meantime, good luck convincing me to openly admit that there is any collateral damage to my political views.
We’ll never say it. But far too many of us believe it:
The ends justify the means.
MANIPULATION OF THE TRUTH
The world’s politics are also laced with manipulation of the truth, also known as “spin.” We see this in the exchange between Pilate and the accusing crowds. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews, Pilate is not interested in spiritual matters. He wants the answer to one question: Is this man a threat to power? Is he an enemy of Caesar, and therefore also my enemy? What is the size of his following? What is his agenda? What kind of momentum is there behind his movement?
Pilate would not be asking any of these questions about Jesus had the crowds not spun Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God to mean that Jesus was an enemy of the state. In reality this is a silly and baseless accusation, because Christ’s teaching directs his followers to honor those in authority in every way possible. This being true, to the degree that Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, they will actually be experienced as the most refreshing and cooperative citizens of any earthly kingdom.
This was of no concern to Jesus’ accusers, because his growing influence threatened the status quo for them as well. In order to keep Jesus at bay, they created a false narrative about him and went public with it. Eventually it got him killed.
How about us? Are we also prone to exaggerate, spin, and tell half-truths to protect (or usurp) the status quo? How easy it can be to get pulled in to the politics of spin. Some of us have become so used to these tactics and so numb to them that we—yes, even we who claim to be people of truth—have become willing participants in the spin.
On this side of the aisle is our candidate, the answer to all of the world’s problems. She can do no wrong. On that side of the aisle is their candidate, the reason for all of the world’s problems. He can do no right.
Are such partisan caricatures and political absolutes a Christian practice, or are they decidedly un-Christian? What do you think?
Leaning toward a certain party is one thing (Matthew did it, Simon did it, and Jesus allowed it), but it is important to see that a partisan spirit can actually run against the Spirit of God. If there ever was a partisan crowd in the Bible, it was the crowd that pressured Pilate to crucify Jesus instead of Barabbas.
Barabbas, a true criminal, went free while Jesus, an innocent man, was executed after having his impeccable character assassinated. This is the essence of partisanship. Partisans inflate the best features of their party while inflating the worst features, real or contrived, of the other party. They ignore, deny, or excuse the weaknesses of their party while dismissing the other party’s strengths.
I have good friends on both sides of the aisle politically. I trust them. Many of them (on both sides) have a strong commitment to their faith. Because of this I grow perplexed when Christian men and women willingly participate in spin—ready, willing, and armed to follow the world in telling half-truths to promote their candidates, while telling more half-truths to demonize their opponents. Have we forgotten that a half-truth is the equivalent of a full lie? What’s more, political spin is polarizing even within the community of faith.
GENERAL, GENERATIONAL SHIFTING
As a pastor I have been struck by what appears to be a strong reaction amongst the Millennial generation toward the faith of their Baby Boomer parents. Some surveys suggest that Millennials are either leaving the church or adopting an altogether different expression of Christianity than the one in which they were raised.
In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, reporter Brian Hiatt asked Marcus Mumford whether he still considers himself a Christian. Mumford, a pastor’s son and a famous Millennial (Mumford is lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons) had this to say:
I don’t really like [the word Christian]. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. . . . I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.
When those who feel a need to distance themselves from Christianity are asked why, Mumford and other Millennials cite several reasons. At the top of the list is weariness over the association of right-wing politics with mainstream Christianity. The “culture of Christianity” that Mumford and others want no part of tends to trace directly back to this association. In the realm of politics, Millennials have culture-war fatigue.
With this has come a pendulum swing. Wearied by their parents’ conflation of right-leaning politics with their faith, many Millennials have shifted toward the political left with a similar conflation.
There are some positives that come from a generational shift. Alongside their parents’ emphasis on kingdom values like protecting the unborn, strengthening the nuclear family, and preserving the right to free speech, younger believers are bringing renewed emphasis to kingdom values such as serving the poor, advocating for people on the margins, ethnic and cultural diversity, and other forms of mercy and justice.
What one wonders, however, is how a generational shift to the political left that conflates faith with politics might play out in the long run. Do Millennials risk repeating their parents’ errors, the only difference being a co-opting of blue-state sensibilities into faith instead of red-state ones? Will their children sense an imbalance in them as well?
We can only assume that time will tell.
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