Propagandists and Play-Doh (John 7:45-53)

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In my devotional reading of the story of the chief priests and the Pharisees sending temple guards to arrest Jesus I felt like I was reading today’s news. When the arresting officers came back empty handed the great spiritual experts (only in their own eyes) want to know why.

I encourage you to read the exchange between them first and then pause to see if you don’t get a similar impression that some of our present day powerful propagandists are channeling the priests and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

You probably know that these so-called spiritual leaders were on the take from their Roman occupiers. They were paid dearly in prestige, power, and cash to bilk their own people and to keep insurrections down to a minimum. Their problems with Jesus were far more than theological. They led a pretty comfy existence at the expense of selling out their own people and when they heard that some of them were talking like he might be Messiah (John 7:26), who would undoubtedly get them in dutch with their bosses, they hit the roof and took off to arrest him. When he slipped through their fingers, they decided to discredit him with lies and propaganda. (Sounding familiar yet?)

Anyway, when the guards returned without him it was game on. Apparently the propagandist’s tactics of lying, scapegoating, name-calling, denial, conspiracy-peddling condescension, and such are nothing new.

They made up their minds about Jesus and attacked the intelligence and character of anyone who disagreed with them. Out of fear that their golden goose would fall out of the sky dead they closed their eyes and ears to the obvious conclusion that Jesus was who he said he was. They may have won the argument but lost their souls in the process.

Let’s glean from the story how powerful propagandists protect their position. First…

They question your intelligence.

“You mean he has deceived you also?” (John 7:47)

Are you really that stupid that you could get taken in by this man? You’re “deceived.”

It’s noteworthy that rather than check Jesus out for themselves, which might have forced them to change their minds about him, they resort to attacking those who have personally experienced him. Changing their minds and risking their position is something these folks of yesteryear (and this year) are not willing to do. When lies serve them better in the short run they have no interest in knowing the truth.

Solomon wrote: “Prayerful answers come from God-loyal people; the wicked are sewers of abuse.” (Proverbs 15:28 – The Message Bible)

Jesus followers, on the other hand, don’t “let any unwholesome talk come out of [their] mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

They mold the facts into their own image.

“Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No!” (John 7:48)

Whether from a pulpit, in front of a TV camera, or on the campaign trail those who’ve mastered the art of truth-twisting, preach their half-truths with swagger over and over again. And voila, before your unsuspecting, undiscerning eyes the lie morphed into the truth!

The fact is, “many of the rulers” did believe in Jesus (John 12:42) and they knew it. (Nicodemus was standing right there; albeit a bit mum at the moment.) Saying that there were no such people didn’t make it true. It just made it sound true. That’s really all that matters to the professional propagandist. Sell it! Whatever you have to do, sell it! No matter what it is, people will buy it if you convince them that they need it. It’s all part of the art of the deal.

They weren’t after the truth. They cared more about protecting their privilege and power. They were more loyal to their tribe that to the truth. Loyalty is not as noble as integrity if we’re loyal to something or someone ignoble. Integrity, on the other hand, can never be anything but noble.

You probably noticed that we have no shortage of proficient reality benders in our world, and they’re not all secularists, communists, or Republicans! There’s lying and then there’s pathological truth decay. These confidence men and women treat the truth like Play-Doh and rely on their own concoction of “alternative facts.” Fact checking websites weren’t available to them, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because propagandists––professional “spin” artists––have no real interest in the facts.

Most disturbing to me is that of all people, those who claim to follow the Truth (as in “The Way, Truth, and Life”) should care most about what is true and not just what is most palatable and convenient for them at the moment. Overlooking the common good, many so-called Christian truth-benders shape their view of reality to suit their own lust for comfort and to maintain their privilege over the underprivileged.

They sneer at reality when it doesn’t suit their immediate and long term interests. If incriminating facts exist they dismiss them, label them fake news, and go on lying. They create fact-free zones which, those who have something to lose, fear to challenge. They act like consumers of information walking through a cafeteria, choosing the facts they like and walking past the ones they don’t.

They use the truth, deny the truth, and manipulate the truth and try as, Jim Wallis says, “to discredit any notion of the truth that is a threat to their power.” The consequences of the denigration of truth is hardly abstract… If truth frees us, as Jesus said, then lies incarcerate us. They tear at the moral fabric of individuals, churches, communities, parties, and nations. People have to have something solid to hold onto in this chaotic world.

Adolf Hitler, maybe history’s most notorious propagandist, said:

“Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”

In reference to those Hitler so successfully duped, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Against folly we have no defense. …reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions… We shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.”

Jesus followers, on the other hand, “speak the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15)

Stay tuned for the next post on this passage…

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