The phrase has entered our cultural lexicon with more regularity lately, but the concept has been around for a long time. Today we finish our series on Good News in the news, asking if we can find good news in the news. So today, I want to ask, “can we find good news in the ‘fake news’?”
When I requested stories of good news several weeks ago, a handful of you sent me political news stories. Not a big surprise, since so much of the news, especially in an election year, is about politics. And not a big surprise that there were some folks who sent me stories who leaned Republican and some who lean Democrat…we are a purple church, after all.
But that forces an interesting question. What do “fake news” and “good news” have in common? First, let me explain what I think is going on with the “fake news” phenomenon…
News starts as information. There are news sources that report on things happening. Associated Press, Reuters, CSPAN: these are middle of the road news sources and for the most part, rather boring. They simply report on what has happened.
Next, news becomes entertainment. Cable news, newspapers, web sources, most of the sources from which we get our news—unless you download the AP app—is from one of these sources. They pick up the information from Reuters and repackage it. But, they aren’t going to sell ad space with boring news, so they punch it up. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Politics sells. And often time, the emotional reaction needed to make news entertaining comes when it is presented from one political side or the other. A politically biased pundit comes on and tells you their version of what happened, and it raises the level of emotion…and entertainment.
Farther down the line, social media gets involved. What social media will do is take these secondary sources and simplify them. Turn it into a meme. Or a tweet. Or maybe they will attach a link to a thoughtful and reflective news piece, but no one ever reads the whole article. They see the title, or the comment, and they chime in. Or they don’t, but they get mad. That oversimplification of complicated issues raises the level of frustration and anger.
Finally, we get to what is actually fake news. There are people out there who will completely make stuff up, and pass it off as actual news. These actual fake news sources are meant to make people mad or make people believe that all news is untrustworthy. That is actually fake news
But what gets called “fake news” is really, “news from a bias different from my bias.” Or simply, “news that is not from my bias.” If it disagrees with me and my perspective, it must be fake. And this isn’t new. Conservatives have been calling MSNBC fake for years, and recently have started calling CNN fake, even though it is historically a lot more in the middle. But, if it doesn’t agree with my bias? Fake news. When really, all it proves is a) Republicans don’t like Democrats and b) Democrats don’t like Republicans!
And, more significantly, none if this is new to our generation. I just finished reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin about the political life of Abraham Lincoln. And I was a bit surprised about how Goodwin presented the media. In short, in the 1850’s and 1860’s there was this dynamic. A) Republicans did not like Democrats and b) Democrats did not like Republicans. At that time, both parties were very different than they are today, but that rule still existed. And, the division in the media was just as stark. Goodwin reports that there were in most major cities a Republican newspaper and a Democratic newspaper…or more than one of each. There were just as many diverse media outlets as there are today! We have always been divided on political issues, and the media has always capitalized on that division.
Why am I talking about this in a sermon? This is not a political history course. In fact, why talk about politics at all?
In short, because Jesus did.
Let me explain. Throughout the series, as a way to define the good news in our world, we have looked at these opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes. Jesus here tells us what Good News looks like. (show)
Now, it is helpful to know or remember that the culture in which Jesus preached was mired in a battle between honor and shame. Everything you did either brought honor or shame to you and your family and your community. Joseph wanted to divorce Mary quietly because adultery would have brought shame on him and his family. The disciples leaving their nets to follow Jesus was actually a significant controversy, because walking away from the family business would have brought shame on their family. And that is just from the first few verses here in Matthew. Everything in the Gospels needs to be seen through this lens of honor and shame. In fact, we have to look at the whole New Testament in these terms: who is honored publicly and who is shamed publicly?
And lest we think that the only times in human history where there was political difference was Lincoln day and ours, rest assured that there was a truth in Jesus’s Day. A) Pharisees did not like Sadducees and b) Sadducees did not like Pharisees. There were political differences even in his day. And like today, these sides tried to shame each other publicly. There was no internet or newspaper, but there were street corners where opposing ideologies would argue with each other and shame each other publicly. One would make a point about a controversial issue of the day – how to engage the Romans, for example. And another would say, “fake news!” “Not true!” “We should not do what they say but what we say!” Honor and shame were core to the public reality of the day…just like I would argue they are today in our culture at some level.
When we ask question about good news in the news, when we talk about fake news, when we bring up issues of faith and politics, we are asking, like those in Jesus’ day did, how ought we assign honor and shame publicly?
Which brings us back to the Beatitudes. Now, there is one thing that we haven’t talked about so far. When you look at the Beatitudes, what word do you seen more often than any other? “Blessed.” That was not accidental. Jesus could have approached the Beatitudes differently. He could have said “you ought to be poor in spirit.” Or he could have said: “the Kingdom of Heaven is made up of the poor in spirit.” But he didn’t. He used the word blessed. And that was most likely intentional.
After all, the culture to which he spoke was an honor/shame culture. It is no accident that what Jesus is using here is honor/shame language. When Jesus uses the word “blessed,” he is saying that there is a new basis for honor based on the values of God, not the values of society. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbraugh, Biblical scholars who look at the context and societal norms behind the Scriptures, have this to say about the Beatitudes:
“The language used here, i.e. ‘blessed,’ is honorific language….Contrary to dominant social values, these ‘blessed are…’ statements ascribe honor to those unable to defend their positions or those who refuse to take advantage of or trespass on the position of another. They are not those normally honored by the culture. Obviously, then, the honor granted comes from God, not from the usual social sources.”
What Jesus is doing here is making an intentionally political statement. But he isn’t aligning with one political party or another. He isn’t taking up with the Pharisees or the Sadducees. Instead, he proclaimed honor on a new group of people. The poor in spirit. The meek, like we talked about last week. The peacemakers. Their honor comes from God, not from the social sources around them.
So, look at verse nine as an example: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. When Jesus proclaims that the peacemakers are blessed, he is creating a counter-cultural argument. Then (and now), we ascribe honor to those who make war. Jesus claims that we should ascribe honor to those who make peace.
With permission, I repeat a story from Carolyn Carlson told on Wednesday night in the Two-way. If the week before we focused on meekness, this week it was peace and peacemaking that was the center of our attention. Carolyn told us how she made peace in the classroom where she once taught. From time to time, as children do, a conflict arose between two children. Say for example, a) Sally was mad at Johnny, and b) Johnny was mad at Sally. Instead of letting them hit each other or scream at each other, Carolyn would do what good teachers do: she would sit them both down in the middle of the circle of children, and ask Sally to explain to Johnny why she was mad. Meanwhile, Johnny had to sit quietly and listen to Sally’s concerns. Then, Johnny could explain to Sally why he was mad at her, while she sat quietly and listened. Neither could interrupt, and both had their say. At that point, Carolyn said, most of the time there was no more peacemaking to be done. Both of them had realized that sitting and talking about it was a lot less fun than going back to playing, which is what they usually did. In the end, both sides chose peace because it was the thing that they both really wanted. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Jesus tells us that it is the peacemakers who will be children of God.
What if instead of screaming at people who are different than us, whining about Fake News that disagrees with us, throwing barbs and calling names, what if we practiced patient listening to the other? There are a lot of media sources out there that love us to ratchet up the emotion and anger, but Jesus pleads with us to sit down in the middle of the circle, and make peace.
Be the first to sit in the circle.
Be makers of peace. Not cowards who stand outside of the circle and cry about “fake news” because we disagree with each other. Not agitators, those who lob more blocks into the chaos from a safe distance just to add to the mess. But makers of peace, proclaimers of peace, courageous creators of peace.
I shared the wisdom of Hugh Martin last week, a scholar from the 1950’s who wrote about the Beatitudes. He is wise here on peacemaking, as well:
“All human quarrels are at the bottom symptoms of a broken peace with God. The good news of the Christian message is that God, righteously angry with man’s flouting of the laws of justice and love, has nevertheless take the initiative in removing everything that made for estrangement. In Christ, in His life and teaching, and in His death when love and sin met in ultimate conflict, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not reckoning their trespasses against them. God has made peace, and Christians like ambassadors are sent to beg men to accept peace at God’s hands and on His terms.”
Jesus teaches us to be makers of peace. God has given us the tools to be makers of peace.
Once again, we turn to Lincoln and the way he modeled peace. Goodwin’s title of the book demonstrates what made Lincoln so special. Before Lincoln was elected as the Republican representative to run for president in 1860, three men were considered front-runners for the spot: William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. None of them thought Lincoln had a chance, or even thought that he had much to offer to the conversation. He was an afterthought. But after all the political wrangling was over, the country lawyer from Illinois emerged as the winner, to everyone’s surprise. It would have been easy for Lincoln to rub it in their faces. But in fact, he did the complete opposite. He formed his Cabinet, not with friends and supporters, but with his rivals, including Bates, Chase, and Seward. Not only did he stack his Cabinet with the best minds in his own party, but he even invited Edwin Stanton, who was actually a Democrat. Can you imagine that happening today? Another of Lincoln’s most profound supporters, it was Stanton who stood by his bedside at his death and proclaimed, “now he belongs to the ages.” Lincoln created in this Team of Rivals a group that would balance the needs of the country when it was at its most divided. He knew what it was to be a maker of peace.
May these be our role models. May we spend less time decrying Fake News and more time yearning for peace. May we be the first in the circle, as ambassadors of Christ’s peace. May we be called children of God.