Fake News – Tom Mundahl reflects on the alternative.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year A (2020, 2023)
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
While there have always been questions about the accuracy of journalism, only in the past few years have charges of “fake news” and adherence to“alternative facts” gained prominence. This development is chillingly reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, which begins “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (Signet Classic, 1949, p. 5). Immediately we recognize that we are entering a world where the very idea of truth is called into question. Instead, everyone lives off-balance in a political culture whose creed is “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength” (Orwell, p. 17).
Linguist Winston Smith soon realizes he lives in a society based on raw power, not truthful information. “Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy” (Orwell, 69). Even though Orwell’s Oceania is fictional, it is easy to see how much — with the denial of climate science and lies about the danger of the novel coronavirus — it resembles our own. This very question of truthfulness also was central to one of the most dramatic episodes of Jeremiah’s life — his conflict with the prophet Hananiah.
This conflict and its background plays out in Jeremiah 27:1-11 and the entirety of chapter 28. In order to help the assembly to comprehend the appointed First Reading (28:5-9), the lector needs to read this narrative whole or employ a storytelling approach. Because we are once again dealing with the early events leading to the 587 BCE siege of Jerusalem, the focus is on grief, for we are witnessing the end of Judah as a self-determining polity. Terence Fretheim is right in calling this nothing less than God’s mourning a dead child (The Suffering God, Fortress, 1984, pp. 132-136). Into this unfolding grief comes another prophet, Hananiah with news too good to be true.
The essential facts are these: from 604 BCE, Babylon had controlled Judean life, and to demonstrate that power had kidnapped King Jeconiah and “borrowed” precious artifacts from the Temple. This was in addition to demanding substantial annual tribute. By 594/593 BCE, several tribute-paying kingdoms were beginning to consider revolt in the form of stopping these payments of “protection money.” In this context the prophetic word came to Jeremiah instructing him to make an ox-yoke to wear and say to the leaders of nations contemplating rebellion, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever I please. Now I have given all these lands into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him even the wild animals of the field to serve him” (Jeremiah 27:4-6). The ox-yoke symbolizes just that servitude.
Into this volatile situation comes Hananiah with a completely contrary message sure to please Judean leaders: “Thus says the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah….” (Jeremiah 28:2-4a). Who is the true prophet and who is peddling fake news?
Jeremiah responds without a trace of defensiveness. “Amen! May the LORD do so, may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied…. “(Jeremiah 28:6). But then he goes on to say, in effect, that prophecy is neither wish-fulfillment nor propaganda. Prophets are sent when there is a need, not as official cheerleaders. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Jeremiah spoke to a people with glazed eyes that looked and did not see. They were so encased in their own world of fantasy that they were stupid and undiscerning. And so the numbness was not broken and they continued in their fantasy world” (The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 2001, p. 55).
By the time a scroll of Jeremiah was available, everyone knew that Jeremiah’s words were authentic; after all, there is no “Book of Hananiah.” Then why go into the detail of Hananiah’s destruction of Jeremiah’s yoke (Jeremiah 28 :10) and the fact that although he had prophesied only two more years of Nebuchadnezzar’s dominance, in exactly two months Hananiah was dead? Clements answers, “No doubt many prophets like Hananiah, offering the same spurious appeal, were still known to the book’s readers. Hananiah’s grim fate was to be a warning to them” (Jeremiah, John Knox, 1988, p. 167). There was a price to be paid for pushing “fake news.” When the choice is between power and truth, Jeremiah would concur with Orwell: truth is the loser.
This is well documented in the case of climate science. In July of 1977, James Black, an Exxon senior scientist, addressing a conclave of top scientists at the energy corporations’ New York headquarters, warned that there is a growing scientific consensus that carbon dioxide release is warming the planet in ways that would have profound impacts on the ecosystem (Bill McKibben, Falter, Henry Holt, 2019, p. 72). This was ten years before James Hansen’s testimony before the Senate, often considered the first warning of what was then called “the Greenhouse Effect.” Exxon continued to do research which confirmed these findings. How were these findings used by the richest company producing the most valuable substance on earth? The next year, 1978, one Exxon executive said, “This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind” (McKibben, p. 75).
As we well know, this did not happen. Instead, looking to protect profits, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Amoco and others joined forces to form the so-called “Global Climate Coalition,” using their economic power to claim falsely that there was “another side” to a set of scientific findings and research. Essentially, they were following the tobacco industry’s playbook, basing “fake science” on another widespread addiction, this time not to nicotine but to carbon fuels. As we suffer the effects of forty years of relatively unabated carbon emission with the floods, fires, heat waves and diseases of the climate crisis, it is difficult to disagree with McKibben’s conclusion that this is “the most consequential cover-up in human history” (McKibben, p. 73).
Paul writes to make sure that there are no “cover-ups” when it comes to the significance of baptism. Baptism means belonging to a new creation of truth and justice. “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness (literally, “injustice”), but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness (“justice”) (Romans 6:13). Therefore, “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4) provides a communal “crap detector” helping us to discern falsehood. For this is not a mere change of opinion. As Ernst Kasemann reminds us, “With baptism a change of lordship has been effected” (Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 179).
It follows that the extensive discussion of sin in this text denotes a power that seeks allegiance, not a laundry list of offenses. As a power, sin lures us to a life of self-sufficient finitude: trust in our own strength, military power, economic growth, and especially technology. As Laszlo Foldenyi suggests in his book, Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears (Yale, 2020), “The true god of the modern age is technology; we are tremendously, imperially successful, but we have ‘murdered God’ with our ambition. And it is none other than our drive to find an answer to everything. When we began to seek solutions for things for which there are clearly no solutions, this ambition became transformed into hubris” (quoted in James Wood, “In From the Cold,” review essay, The New Yorker, June 1, 2020, p. 65).
Ironically, the same technology that has allowed diverse peoples of the earth to get to know one another, communicate instantly, and cure diseases previously thought of as “death sentences,” has also created the climate crisis and conditions favorable for new zoonotic pandemics. And, the unequal distribution of technology’s benefits has been an important factor leading to the racial roadblock we are experience today.
Not only that, but “progress” in technology carries the risk of changing the very meaning of truth. Instead of the storytelling, poetry, and “community history” genres familiar from the scriptures, new industrial technology produced what Walter Benjamin called information (we would include digital data) as the organizing center of capitalist culture. While information claims to be verifiable, all that is really necessary, argues Benjamin, is that it seems “socially plausible”(The Storyteller, New York Review Books, 2019, pp. 53-54). That low standard has paved the way for propaganda and advertising messages whose only plausibility is the reaction of the message’s recipients. To counter the constant dangers of the waves of media washing over us, the community of faith still remains committed to storytelling, washing, and eating together in the presence of the One who “makes room” for truth that is heard, touched, shared, and lived out.
It is this sharing which is central to this week’s Gospel Reading. Although Matthew 10 is an extensive teaching block aimed primarily at training disciples, it clearly applies to all people of faith who by baptism share this calling in their own unique circumstances. If Matthew is the “Emmanuel Gospel” celebrating Jesus as “God with us,” we participate in this process by being “with others.” The act of receiving and extending hospitality provides an experience of deep connection. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). By welcoming others, what could be mere words is authenticated; no “fake good news” here.
This powerful sense of hospitality follows directly from the verse preceding our text: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it” (Matthew 10:39). The baptismal grace that takes us from the font to the street frees us to “empty ourselves” (Philippians 2:5-11) through hospitality, not only to familiar figures of piety (prophets and the righteous), but to those outside the “lines,” even to the whole of creation. The “reward” is realized not only at the fulfillment of all things, but with the increasing fullness of life diversity brings (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2000, p. 246). This is concretized in the beautiful image — “a cup of cold water” (Matthew 10:42).
Unfortunately, in a divided and warming world, a cup of cold, potable water is rarer than we often think. Even in rich countries like the US, cities like Flint, MI, and Newark, NJ, have struggled with lead in tap water which will impair children for a lifetime. Time will bring more instances to light, most based on inequity in distribution of resources, often based on race. Similarly, in the so-called developing world, easily available water for drinking and irrigation is a common problem.
At a recent Global Earth Repair Conference, one of the speakers was Rajendra Singh, a medical doctor carving out a successful career. One day Singh was challenged by an indigenous villager who told him that if he really wanted to help the villagers he would “bring them water” (Rob Lewis, “Walking to the Restoration,” Dark Mountain, Issue 17, Spring 2020, p. 7). This farmer went on to explain the old methods of harvesting rains, practices discouraged over a century and a half of the British Raj. Rains were held for use, not with giant dams, but with traditional catchments called johads. “Once held, the water would drain down, recharging aquifers, feeding vegetation and calling back lost weather patterns.” In time, soil health was improved, flooding was moderated, and the regional climate cooled by 2 degrees C. (Was British standard water management “fake news?”)
This is a difficult time for truth. A young playwright, Heather Christian, complained recently, “I feel like we are bombarded with information, but none of it feels right any more…facts don’t carry weight any more. And this, for me, personally, has driven me to the edge” (NPR Morning Edition, June 9, 2020). 1984‘s Winston Smith was also driven to the edge and beyond during his months of interrogation in the Ministry of Truth. But one day he felt a new sense of peace as he unconsciously doodled in the dust of his table 2 + 2 = 5 (Orwell, p. 239). It was only a short step to total surrender to all that was false. Now, writes Orwell, “he loved Big Brother” (Orwell, p. 245).
There is no surrender as the congregation begins to gather in person around the central symbols of bath, meal, and story, where we discern together what we have called “the word of truth.” The gift is free, yet think of the price paid by Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus for bearing it. Falsehood, “fake news,” and deception are popular, profitable, and politically appealing. But not among us.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.