Only One Job


Please note:  This essay has taken me three months to write, and much prayer and study has gone into it.  Thanks to my dear friend, EE, (you know who you are!) for helping me to think through this and to edit it.

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We’ve all seen the memes on the internet called “You Only Had One Job”.  A sign is misspelled; a product is mislabeled or misshelved; laughter ensues.  How could anyone bungle a job so badly?  One hopes the mistake was a one-off and that the hapless employee learned from it and never made the same error again.

What a tragedy when an entire group of people, who have only One Job, consistently make the same mistakes over a period of two thousand years. Body of Christ, we only have One Job!  How can we have bungled it so badly?

Perhaps we as the Body of Christ have not understood our One Job properly.  What is this singular task we have been given by our Head?  Jesus instructed us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)  And again, He adjured us: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV)  So we are to make disciples (followers of Christ) by being witnesses to all the world, and then to teach those believers everything Jesus commanded us to do.  And that’s all. (Please note that this essay addresses only our relationships with unbelievers.  Our relationships within the Body are also based on love, but also mutual accountability, and are a discussion for another essay.)

We are to be witnesses, testifying about what we have seen and experienced.  But all too often, I am afraid, we as a church have not been satisfied with staying in the witness stand and have placed ourselves in the jury box or even, God help us, have clothed ourselves in the Judges’ robes.  Self-righteousness and a desire to control others have been the consistent errors which the church has committed over the centuries.  Instead of wooing the world into the kingdom, we stand in condemnation of it and, with our arrogant attitudes, drive away the people God loves and desires.  Instead of focusing on increasing the kingdom of heaven, we spend our efforts in trying to make earthly kingdoms look more like heaven.

Nowhere in the Great Commission, or in any of Christ’s teachings, is the church instructed to take control of governments or nations and legislate Christian behaviour.  Nowhere are we told to show hatred or vent anger or disgust toward any individual or any group of people in any way; not through ugly picket signs, sarcastic Facebook memes, self-righteous diatribes, or systematic ostracization.

Beloved Body of Christ, our emphasis is too worldly and too selfish.  We are not meant to make this world into a paradise where everyone acts like a believer and behaves themselves as we would like.  That is NOT our Job.  Forcing people to act as if they believed in Christ is worse than useless.  Pushing people away from the door to the kingdom with our self-righteous attitude is the opposite of our Job. (Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”)

Trying to make this world a more comfortable place for us to live in is diametrically opposed to God’s plan. Believe me, no one has ever entered the kingdom of heaven because someone ranted against their lifestyle in a public forum.  No one has ever repented of their behaviour because a stranger told them to.  No one has turned to the truth of the Gospel because a friend or family member turned his back on him because of a decision made or a lifestyle chosen.

Remember, we are to be witnesses ONLY.  Juries convict, judges pass sentence.  Witnesses are only allowed to tell what they know of their personal experience.  We are not allowed to condemn, and we are not allowed to try to bring others to conviction.  Conviction of sin is the Holy Spirit’s job, because He is the only one who is able to do it.  When we in our overweening pride try to take over the Spirit’s job, we drive people away from Him in droves!

And we are not policemen.  It is not our Job to enforce God’s laws, and certainly not to hold others to those high standards.  That authority is given to governments, not to the church. (I Peter 2: 13-17)  We cannot ourselves live righteously even with the help of God Himself; how can we even imagine that nonbelievers can live holy lives without His help at all?  It’s time to climb down off our high horses and follow our Lord’s example of riding humbly through this life on the back of a donkey’s colt.

So how exactly are we to do our One Job?  Well, we need to stop using worldly tactics, for one thing.  The world bullies, pushes, legislates, ostracizes, name-calls.  But we are meant to be like Christ.  And He told us quite clearly how we were to “make disciples” and “be witnesses”.  “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39 ESV)  We all know from the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbours are everyone—both those with whom we agree and those with whom we strongly and vehemently disagree.  Notice that God says loving our neighbour is like loving Him.  We must treat others as we would treat Jesus Himself.

Loving our neighbour as ourselves must include all the world, not just those who agree with us.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45 ESV)  If we are to love our enemies, aren’t we also to love those who are not our enemies but simply do not believe as we do?  If we are to behave as children of our Father by loving others, we must do as He does:  He gives good gifts to the righteous and the unrighteous (rain is a gift, by the way, necessary for life), and so must we.  Providing for the needs and protection of widows and orphans, for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the victims of violence, regardless of their personal beliefs and chosen lifestyle—that is our Job, Body of Christ.  In this way we open the door to the Kingdom.  Any other behaviour blocks the door and drives others away.

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:46-48 ESV)  We are to be perfect as God is perfect.  And what is the definition here of perfection?  Loving our neighbours as ourselves, regardless of who they are.

How do we do this?  Again, Christ has shown us the way.  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. “Matthew 7:12 ESV) This is called the Golden Rule for good reason:  it is the essence of loving our neighbour.  Do you want others to revile you, to cry insults at you because of your chosen way of life?  Do you want to be publically condemned and ostracized?  Then don’t behave this way.  We are to act like Christ, and He did not publically condemn any unbelievers in His ministry on earth.  The one and only group of people He criticized in public for their unrighteous behaviour were the religious leaders of His day — the believers who ought to have been God’s hands and heart on earth but were not doing their One Job.

Yes, Jesus condemned the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees, but how did He treat ordinary sinners?  Let’s look at his treatment of Zacchaeus.  We’ve turned him into a comic character in our Sunday School stories about him, but this wee little man was a criminal on a scale that would have some demanding his execution if he were in America today:  a traitor, collaborating with the enemy, having turned his back on his own people and risen in the ranks of their oppressors so that he was directing other traitors as well; an extortionist who grew rich on the suffering of his neighbours.  But when Jesus encountered this heinous miscreant, what did He do?  He said, “Let’s have dinner.”

No wonder those who saw this exchange grumbled!  But Jesus’ kindness won Zacchaeus into the kingdom as no amount of accusation would have done.  It’s significant to note that there is no record of Jesus ever telling Zacchaeus that his way of life was wrong or wicked (although it was!).  Jesus Himself allowed the Holy Spirit to do the work of conviction, while limiting his words and deeds to love.  Working in collaboration with the Spirit of God is always best!

Another example is the sinful woman of Luke 7: 36-50.  The Pharisees were scandalized that Jesus allowed this woman to touch Him.  Jesus not only did not condemn her, He told the very religious man in whose house He was a guest, “You should be more like her.”  And then and only then did He offer her salvation.  Jesus taught us how to witness by His example on earth.  He healed the sick, fed the hungry, even raised the dead, without asking the people He was helping whether they believed in Him.  He only offered salvation AFTER He blessed them.

We cannot hope to bring the Gospel message to an unbelieving world through our words alone.  We can only love people into the Kingdom of God through our deeds and our attitudes.   We only have the right to speak into others’ lives when we’ve earned it through our loving actions.

Another false teaching in the church today is that we must make it clear to the world that we disagree with their lifestyles.  No, dear Body of Christ, that is not in our Job description.  Again, it is not for us to convict of sin—that is the Holy Spirit’s Job, and He does it quite well enough without our help.  Here is our Job as Jesus described it: And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.” (Matthew 10:7-8 ESV)  In other words, help people, without strings attached.  If they want to know our God, they will ask.  They will not want to know our God if make ourselves obnoxious or show ourselves to be unloving.  They will not be able to ask about our God if we are unapproachable.

The idea that we must make a stand against sin is certainly true—but Jesus’ example and the examples of the apostles show us that we are to stand against sin in our own lives and help our fellow believers live righteous lives—not unbelievers.  Paul’s lists of behaviours that will block people from the Kingdom of Heaven are written to believers to warn them not to live that way anymore. They are not written to be used as bludgeons with which to beat unbelievers.  Our lives within the Body of Christ have different rules with a different goal, and would take an entirely different essay to discuss.

This loud objecting to various behaviours of unbelievers makes Pharisees of us all.  And to them, Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5 ESV)  That log is self-righteousness, the only sin that Jesus saw fit to rail passionately against in His ministry on earth.

By carrying on publically about others’ unrighteousness, we pretend that our sins are not as repugnant and objectionable to God as everyone else’s.  We may say that sin is sin, but we act and speak as if some sins are worse than others.  Jesus says in Matthew 5:22 that God sees anger and insulting others as exactly the same as murder.  He states that a love of money is a hatred of Him (Matthew 6:24 ESV).  And here is Paul’s list of behaviours he declares are only exhibited by those who do not acknowledge God: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Romans 1:28-32 ESV)

If we have done any of these things, we have huge logs in our eyes which need dealing with! We certainly have no right to go about objecting to others’ specks, or even others’ logs.  For myself, it’s all I can manage to try to live my life free of these behaviours—I certainly don’t have the time or energy to point out the wrongs of anyone else.

But most of these sins are not objected to in public forums by Christians. When is the last time you heard a believer rail against haughtiness, heartlessness or ruthlessness?  How about gossiping?  Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37 ESV)  Why does this not rule us every time we open our mouths to speak or sit down to comment on Facebook?  Why does this not terrify us?  How can we stand in condemnation of others when we have so much to answer for ourselves?

So our Job is love others with God’s own love, to bless them by providing for their needs as God does, and to treat them as we wish to be treated.  The world is not ours to change or to rule.  Other people are not ours that we should dictate their behaviour.  We only have One Job, Body of Christ:  we must love our neighbours as ourselves, and thus show them the true character of our God, Who “is good to all and has compassion on all He has made.” (Psalm 145:9 ESV)

 

 

 

 

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Reason


One of the joys of teaching literature as a Christian is in finding the Biblical, spiritual truths expressed in the works of secular writers.  The stories of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov are a case in point.  Asimov, the son of Jewish immigrants, was a professor of biochemistry with a doctorate in the same; a prolific author of both scientific texts and science fiction, as well as many other works of many different genres; a humanist, a rationalist, and an atheist.  But he pursued truth all of his life, and so he was bound to come across it.  Because, as all fans of science fiction know, “The Truth is Out There!”

The short story I was recently reading to my Freshman Literature class was called “Reason” from Asimov’s “I, Robot” collection.  In this story, the premise was that Earth and its colonies on Mars depended upon energy beamed from collection stations near the sun to survive. While two humans manned each station, most of the work was done by robots.  It was a lonely post, though, and so a new, improved robot was developed to take over for the humans so that the station could be fully automated.  The story opens with this new robot, called QT, questioning its makers’ claim to have built him.

“For you to have made me seems improbable,” QT says.  “Call it intuition.  That’s all it is so far.  But I intend to reason it out.  A chain of valid reasoning can end only with the determination of truth.”

No amount of evidence from the humans can move the robot from its certainty that what it sees and experiences are all that exist.  QT has never seen Earth—therefore, Earth is a fantasy.  It has never seen other humans—therefore, the two humans it knows are the only ones in the universe.  It considers the humans to be inferior, rendering it impossible that they were capable of creating anything as complex as a robot.  Eventually, QT chooses the most powerful thing on the Station—its entire world– and deduces that it must be the Creator.  Its chosen Higher Power, ironically, is the Energy Converter the robots had been created to service.  QT begins teaching the other, lesser robots its newly-found religion, and they all begin to worship “The Master”, as they call the Converter.  The humans are put aside into a locked room where they can’t interfere in the new world order.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the robots believe.  Their worship of the Energy Converter means that they actually do their jobs extremely well, fortunately for the billions of humans dependent upon it for their lives.  And so they are left to their false beliefs and the humans leave them and go home—although QT is convinced that The Master has deemed them as no long useful, and has absorbed them into the wastes of space.

Why am I telling this amusing story?  Obviously, Asimov’s point is that religious fanatics are intractably devoted to their beliefs regardless of any evidence to the contrary.  But here’s the bit that grabbed my attention and made me want to share it with my class. One of the humans makes this observation:

“[QT] believes only in reason, and there’s one trouble with that . . . . You can prove anything you want by coldly logical reason—if you pick the proper postulates.  We have ours, and QT has his.”

In my mind, this one quotation turns the entire story on its head.  All belief systems depend on a foundational assumption.  The Christian postulate is that Christ and the Scripture are the bedrocks of truth.  A humanist, a rationalist, a secular scientist, on the other hand, assumes that the human brain’s ability to interpret our own scientific observations is a firm foundation for truth.  He also assumes that our observations of the world are complete enough to draw valid conclusions, ignoring the rather obvious fact that we are finite and cannot even know whether we know everything we need to know to discover the truth (if you can follow me).

Now look at QT.  He uses the positronic brain which the humans have installed in his human-made skull to decide that his intellectual abilities outstrip those of his makers.  He believes that the eyes and other senses they built into him are so superior to theirs that he is more capable of determining truth than they are.

I do realize that secularists are not (perhaps) consciously looking their Maker in the eye and denouncing him as inferior to their intellectual abilities.  But that is basically what they are doing, isn’t it?  We humans use the brains God gave us to try to prove Him non-existent, or at least, irrelevant.

That sounds like true Science Fiction to me.

 

 

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“Small Things”


My husband and I were taking a much needed weekend away.  It had been hard few weeks.  It had been a hard few years, actually.  And it had been a long time since we’d had a chance to spend any time alone together.  It was time to regroup, refit our souls for the battle we who follow Christ must wage against the spirit of evil in the world.

The drive through the countryside was beautiful.  Picturesque farmland and then statuesque mountains, all dressed in their late-October finery.  The autumn hues were at their peak— deep crimson and russet and gold.  But the sun was hidden behind heavy cloud-cover and the colors were muted and softened in the dim light.  A hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico was affecting the weather even as far away as the Cumberland Plateau where we were traveling.  It effectively mirrored my own mood—my joy in the journey eclipsed by the gloom of events that had nothing to do with the weekend we had planned.

Losing ourselves in the woods, we set up our little camp, far away from any civilization.  Off-road camping is the only truly effective way to escape the world in modern America—we found a logging road in a state natural area and followed it until we couldn’t hear traffic noise any longer.  We had hauled in our own food and water and facilities—completely self-sufficient, entirely alone.  It was wonderful.

And yet, I could not leave the world behind.  It was in my head, and the things that grieved us and had driven us out into the wilderness would not be left behind—events beyond our control, tragedies and troubles that burdened us.  Prayers that had not yet been answered.  My wonderful husband grilled steaks and fried up potatoes and onions for our dinner while I gathered wood and made a campfire, feeling aggrieved that these enjoyable, simple pleasures could not make me forget our difficulties for even one evening.

“God, give me back my joy!” I cried aloud.

I had given up asking for solutions to the problems that plagued us.  I just wanted relief from the relentlessness of the sin of this world.  For so long I had cried out with the prophet Habakkuk: ‘How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.’ (Habakkuk 1:1-3)  Now I just desperately wanted to forget the unrighteousness of the world and enjoy my weekend.

The next day I awoke to a golden sunrise in an azure sky, clear with just the perfect number of wispy, white clouds to make the blue even more stunning.  My amazing husband was frying up bacon and eggs and had already stirred the campfire back into life for me before I even rose from my bed.  I sat by the crackling, heart-warming fire and smelled my delicious breakfast cooking and watched the sun set the tops of the trees ablaze, changing the leaves in to sparkling, jewel-toned reds and oranges and yellows and greens.  And joy was there.

But, being me, I wasn’t satisfied with joy—not yet.  I prayed, “Father, why do you give me these small things, these simple pleasures, instead of the big things I desire so much?”

And He said to me, “I don’t give you the small things instead of the big things; I give you these things that you think of as ‘small’ to help you get through the big things.”

Of course, I had really known this already.  But God is patient with me and doesn’t seem to mind reminding me of things He’s already told me a million times.  We live in a fallen, sinful world.  There will always be injustice and wickedness, death, illness, financial difficulties, suffering of family and friends to endure, until the end of time.  God doesn’t take the hard things in life away, but He is faithful to give us ways to get through them.

But what struck me in what He told me that day was how ungrateful I was in calling these blessings He had given to me “small things”.  Because they certainly are NOT small!  Was it a small thing for Him to redirect the giant, hurricane-driven weather pattern just to give me a bit of sunshine?  Was it a small thing for Him to have made these trees around me grow for dozens, even hundreds, of years, knowing that one morning I would need to see them here?  And fire—the miracle of chemical reactions that combine somehow to form a pleasing pattern for the eye, a soothing sound for the ear, and a comforting warmth for the hands and feet—a small thing?

And then there was my sweet husband, still faithful and committed after almost 35 years of marriage, still cooking my breakfast and loving me for who I am.  In this day and age of disposable relationships, do I dare call that a “small thing”?

And then there is joy itself–no small thing!  I realized I had not lost joy, but had pushed it away deliberately, because to feel joy felt like turning my back on reality.  It seemed that to be joyful was somehow betraying the severity of the things that caused me and my friends sorrow and pain.

Now I understand that joy, far from being a denial of the cruelty and wickedness of this world, is actually a shield against it.  Joy is more akin to faith than to happiness, and the shield of faith turns aside many of the enemy’s fiery swords.  One still feels the brunt of the heavy blows that strike, but the sharp points and cutting edges are turned aside.

And so I can truly say, again with the prophet Habakkuk, Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no produce; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:  Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon high places.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Consuming the Media Wisely: Part Four


This subject has fascinated me for years, and writing these blog posts concerning the news media has been a great experience for me.  I apologize for taking so many words to express these ideas.  This will be my last entry on this subject!

 

WITNESSES PROVIDE THE LEAST RELIABLE EVIDENCE

It’s emotionally satisfying to read quotations from people in any news article, and the emotional impact of these witness statements tempt news writers to rely on them for filler in their news stories—especially when there is a great lack of actual information to report.  Recently I read what was probably the fluffiest news article I’ve ever seen in a supposedly serious newspaper.  The birth of the new princess in the U.K. was kept so carefully under wraps that the poor reporters were at a loss to provide any information on the subject as they waited for the official press release.  Unable to gain access to anyone who would actually know anything, one reporter filled his article with quotes from a random woman he had selected from the crowds on the street before the hospital where the baby was being born.  This woman had no connection with the royal family or with anyone who had any connection with the family—she knew no more about the blessed event than I did, a perfect stranger from across the pond.  But her every opinion was treated as seriously as any official statement.

This was an obvious attempt at filling out a sparse article with . . . something!  But so many more serious events are also padded with interesting but completely superfluous quotations from persons who have no actual knowledge of the incident in question.  It is human nature to want to experience the intense emotions of a tragedy at a remove—but is this news or exploitation?  Interviewing family members of a crime or accident victim or of a suspect of a crime gives the news consumer a rush of emotion, but does not actually convey truth.  No friend or family member will ever admit to the prying public anything but good about their loved one, even if they secretly know better; and using their grief to sell news is deplorable.  Such sentiments help to muddy the waters of truth and can shape public opinion more firmly than any cold, hard facts can do.

But even eye-witnesses to an incident are not really reliable conveyers of truth.  When my husband investigates an accident or a crime, he might interview dozens of witnesses to the event, but he inevitably gets dozens of different stories, many of them conflicting one another.  There is a reason more than one witness is required for the Old Testament law to convict someone of a serious crime.  Any one witness sees only one facet of an event from only one vantage point.  And it is a fact of human psychology that when information is missing in what a person experiences, the brain fills in the blanks as best it can.  The witness is not deliberately lying—he or she honestly believes what they are saying.  But an experienced investigator learns to take anything a witness states with a grain of salt, comparing accounts to find common factors.  Test this for yourself—ask someone who lived through a traumatic or emotional experience with you to describe the event and take note of how differently he or she remembers it.

Moreover, investigators know that forensic evidence is more truthful than anything a witness may say.  DNA samples and blood spatter and fingerprints and skid marks can’t lie or forget or fancify the facts.  But these pieces of cold, hard evidence take time to collect and analyze accurately, and the press and the public have no patience with it.   Building a picture of the truth can take months of careful work—and don’t we want investigators to do their jobs properly?  We should desire truth no matter how long it takes to discover—but the media wants sensation and wants it now.

Here is an example of a news article based entirely on eye-witness accounts of an incident which was completely inaccurate in every detail.  We can all remember the shock and fear that followed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  So imagine, just few days after commercial flights were allowed to return to normal, the sensation of a news report of a Middle-Eastern terrorist who forced a flight to land in Pennsylvania after a “violent altercation with the flight crew”.  The man was arrested upon the plane’s landing and taken quickly away, leaving only a stunned and terrified group of passengers for reporters to glean information from.  The airline refused to comment on the event other than to commend its crew for responding correctly to the incident, and the crew itself was not allowed to speak to the press.  The man in question was not named in the article, but a picture was taken of him and published with the article.

Two years later, my husband and I found ourselves the hosts to this unfortunate man, indeed a very large and imposing-looking Middle-Eastern male, who had just been released from a mental institution and was lost, unable to understand what was happening to him or what he should do next.  This “Middle-Eastern male” was, in fact, an Israeli immigrant, and so simple-minded and sheltered from society that he did not understand how money worked or how to find his family.  Moshe had literally been raised in a synagogue in Tel Aviv—we took him to a park for a picnic one day, and he admitted he had never spent any amount of time out of doors.  I asked him what sorts of trees grew in Tel Aviv, and he didn’t know—he couldn’t remember having seen any!  His mother had always taken care of him, bringing him with her to Florida when she emigrated.  But then she died, and her friends put the poor guy alone on a plane to send him to relatives on the other side of the country.  Moshe had never traveled alone before and was petrified.  He had a panic attack and tried to open the door to escape his terror—hence the “violent altercation.”  He had not harmed anyone, but had been difficult to control, and so the pilot had prudently landed at the nearest airport in order to get Moshe into the care he obviously needed.  He was compliant as a lamb as the police took him gently into protective custody and transported him to a mental institution.

It is completely understandable that the passengers on that flight were afraid of Moshe, describing him as hostile and dangerous.  He had been loudly vocal in his terrified panic, but since no one could understand his words they were interpreted as threats rather than pleas for help.  I would have been frightened in their place.  But the passengers did not have any of the facts—they had only their feelings.  And poor Moshe was decried as a terrorist on their word alone.

Which brings me to my last point:

 

OPINIONS ARE NOT FACTS AND OUTRAGE IS NOT A VIRTUE

Knowing intimately how investigations work, my husband and I refuse to form opinions on any newsworthy event until all the evidence is presented.  But reserving opinion in today’s world is considered a lack of empathy or some sort of anti-social behavior.  However, there is no merit in forming an opinion on any subject until all of the facts are known.  The press drives the emotions of the public to a frenzy with quotes from persons who were not present at an incident at all, or from eye-witnesses who nevertheless have no first-hand knowledge of the truth.  The public seems oblivious to the fact that observing an event at a remove, with no knowledge of the persons involved or of the events leading up to the incident, is fairly useless in getting at the truth; they seem equally oblivious to the fact that statements from persons who were not even present at the event are completely irrelevant.

It’s a sin in today’s emotion-driven world to have no opinion on a matter.  Worse, it’s a sin not to be outraged by events that the media deems worthy of outrage.  Persons who remain cool-headed in the face of an explosive event and try to discern actual evidence logically are perceived as trying to defend an alleged perpetrator whom the press has already tried and convicted, or as being coldly indifferent to the sufferings of the alleged victims.  But there seems to be no passion left for the truth itself.  When the forensic evidence contradicts the conclusions the media had already herded the sheep-like public into, the outrage increases.  Truth is no longer important—the perceptions formed by the press, drawn before there had yet been time to properly investigate the truth, becomes reality to the rage-drunk consumers of media.

And why?  Because outrage sells, and so the media eagerly milks every possible reason to create outrage.  And the consumers drink deeply of it, because being outraged feels like doing something important and joining the outrage of others feels like being a part of something bigger than oneself.  It becomes almost a religion.  And yet, no matter how much it feels like doing something, it actually accomplishes nothing of merit.  Outrage is a violent and mindless destructive force, lashing out blindly, harming everyone in its path.  And when its emotional impact is spent, the press finds some other event to exploit.

Has the media ever reported simple facts without fanning the flames of emotion to get the public response it desires?  I don’t know.  But if we want to use the media wisely, we must constantly be seeking truth, not sensation.  And truth is sometimes very hard to come by.

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Consuming the Media Wisely: Part Three


In my last post, I discussed the unreliability of the press as journalists rush stories to print without checking facts and invent “facts” when truth takes too long to uncover.  Often this is simply sloppiness and impatience—sometimes it’s something much more damaging and calculating.

But untruths in the press are not always entirely the fault of the reporters and fact-finders.  Sometimes it’s the powers-that-be who are at fault, providing press releases for media that are less than veracious.

 

PRESS RELEASES:  THE OPPOSITE OF INVESTIGATION

“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression,” read the headlines of the Washington Post on August 5, 1964.  As a result of this reported attack on our navy in Tonkin Gulf, President Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes on North Vietnam.  But the report was not true—there had been no attack on our navy in the Tonkin Gulf.  Relying entirely on Government press releases, the media spread deception designed to escalate the war with the full acquiescence of the American people.  It later came to light that journalists of the day had considerable information which contradicted the official accounts, but this information was never used.  It wasn’t until December of 2005 that the documents outlining the truth of this incident were officially declassified and made available to the public.

In this case, the media was not to blame for the dissemination of false information, although had they drawn from other sources than the official ones some truth might have been made known.  Asking pertinent questions might have helped to alter events—who knows, perhaps public outcry might have brought the war to end much sooner.

But not all press releases have global consequences.  Sometimes there are consequences only for one average American family.  Here’s a personal account of how the media completely misrepresented a terrifying accident in my own family.

My husband works at an airport and is trained to be both a police officer and a crash/fire/rescue emergency worker.  While most of his week is spent in law enforcement, once or twice a week he is assigned to a truck in the fire hall and responds to aircraft emergencies.    One night, responding to a potential crash site, he drove his 40 ton truck out of the fire bay and as he turned onto the runway it began to tip and groan; and then, off-balance, it crashed on its side, its momentum nearly causing it to roll completely over.  Every bit of glass in the structure shattered even before impact, and if my husband had not been wearing his safety belt he would have been flung out of the side window and then crushed to death as the twisted metal landed on him.  As it was, he suffered internal injuries from the safety belt and from stress of impact, but was treated in the ER and released the same day.  I received that phone call from the chief that every wife of police officers dread, but for bad news, it was better bad news than it could have been.  We felt blessed that the accident had been no worse.

And then the morning paper came out.

The upshot of the article stated that my husband had been the driver in a single-vehicle crash, destroying an immensely expensive piece of airport equipment.  “Officer Ross has tested negative for alcohol; the drug test results are pending.”  And that was it.

Sounds pretty condemning, doesn’t it?  If you read that article, you’d have no doubt in your mind that the accident was due to recklessness on my husband’s part, probably the result of drug-use on the job.  It wasn’t entirely the fault of the reporter who wrote this damning bit of news—police officers are not permitted to speak to the press, and so the reporter had to rely on the airport’s Public Relations Department for information.  And the airport was very happy to allow my husband to take the blame for the accident.

A little digging, however, would have provided just enough additional information to at least allow a bit of doubt to be cast on my husband’s culpability in the incident.  Alcohol and drug testing are standard procedure in any accident and regulations required the tests be done—but no one at the airport ever even considered that my husband might actually have been under the influence of anything.  Furthermore, the video camera’s footage from inside the truck itself showed that it had been proceeding at only 14 miles per hour at the time of the accident—hardly reckless driving.  The resulting investigation into the accident showed that the airport had (against the manufacturer’s warning) enhanced the vehicle with a  two-ton boom for spraying fire-deterrent foam, making the truck top-heavy and increasing the weight on the suspension—but did not reinforce the suspension to accommodate the increased weight.  Naturally, the suspension weakened and eventually collapsed, nearly killing my husband as it did so.

It was difficult enough as a family to deal with an accident which could so easily have been fatal, without also having to ward off accusations of culpability in the accident.  Our children were old enough to understand what was happening, and it was very upsetting to us all.  The press is very happy to assume that a police officer is at fault when an incident occurs—and it is not inclined to take the time to investigate the possibility that someone else might have been at fault.  Journalists also never seem to take into consideration the families of police officers and how false reports might affect them.

 

STATISTICS:  MARK TWAIN WAS RIGHT!

Numbers and graphs always seem to lend an element of veracity to an article—after all, numbers don’t lie. Mark Twain would disagree, and he famously quoted Benjamin Disraeli to prove it:  “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  Anyone who actually deals with statistics for their livelihood or who teaches statistics classes in university agrees that one can make statistics say anything one wants, whether it represents truth or not.

The fact is, statistics exist for the purpose of estimation—they were never meant to be taken as literal fact.  Stats track trends and help businessmen and governments make educated guesses, but they are never actually true.  Take a census for example.  In 2014, the population of the United States was reported to be 318,857,056.  Was that number ever at any point of time literally true?  Probably not, given the number of births and deaths that take place every moment of every day, and taking into account the number of uncounted, displaced persons on the streets; not to mention inevitable errors made by census takers.

Here’s another way to make statistics say two very different things.  Doctor A and Doctor B both work in the ER at the same hospital.  Forty-six percent of Doctor A’s patients die under his care.  Sixteen percent of Doctor B’s patients die under his care.  Which doctor would you rather have treat you if you have to go to the ER?  What if I told you that Doctor A is an expert in severe injury cases, and so all of the worst accident victims are placed under his care; the patients are dying when he gets to them, and yet 54% of them live because of his expertise.  Doctor B is new and inexperienced; he is given the easiest cases to treat, and yet 16% of his patients don’t make it.  Now whom do you want to be your doctor?  Numbers can only tell you just so much—the most important bits of information cannot be quantified with statistics.

One often sees two very different things compared in the press to make points, but false comparisons don’t represent reality.  For example, here’s a news report:  there are twice as many vehicle-related fatalities in the U.S. in one month than the U.K. sustains in an entire year.  Are drivers more careful in Great Britain?  Is it safer to drive there than it is to drive in the United States?  The fact is, there are 254 million vehicles registered in the United as compared to only 34 million in the U.K.  This reflects the great difference in the population of the two countries:  319 million in the U.S as opposed to 64 million in the U.K.  Estimated per capita, drivers in the U.S. are actually much safer than those in our mother country.

We’ve all seen those weasely advertising scams that say “up to 99% success rate” or “nine out of ten” whatever experts agree.  Hardly anyone considers when reading these stats that every percentage point from zero to 98 is “up to 99%”.  And as for the “nine out of ten” experts—who are these people?  How many experts were polled? Where did they live? How were the questions worded?  Was every response counted, or just the ones the pollsters liked?  So many variables!  How can we take such information seriously?

Frankly, numbers and statistics are fairly meaningless as they are normally used in the media.  The truth cannot be reduced to a number—reality is always so much more complicated than math.

 

Sorry—this project has grown into a huge production!  Part Four should finish this topic for me, and then I will rest easy.

 

 

 

 

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Consuming the Media Wisely: Part Two


I’ve lived a varied and interesting life which has given me the opportunity to get to know many different people of every possible social strata, political persuasion, and religious affiliation.  As assistant to one of the most high-profile lobbyists for medical reform in my state, I had many frank conversations with hospital administrators, high-end attorneys, state senators, and other “important” people in politics; as an educator, I’ve had enlightening conversations with grade school teachers, college professors, principals, and school administrators; as the wife of a law enforcement officer who also doubles as a crash/fire/rescue worker and emergency medical worker, I’m intimately familiar with a great number of police officers, EMT’s, fire fighters, parole officers, and other emergency and law enforcement personnel;  as an active member of our highly-diversified church and its outreach, I’m friends with persons of many different races, sexual preferences and political convictions, including former convicts, felons currently serving prison sentences, recovering drug addicts, social workers, immigrants from many different countries, professional musicians, important businessmen and women,  and just about anything else you can think of.  My husband and I have taken homeless people into our home and looked after them until they got on their feet and have taken poor children from the local projects on doctor’s visits, camping trips and other outings.  In other words, I have a fairly all-encompassing outlook on life in America and have been privileged to have had conversations with people from just about every possible walk of life.

 

You might think that there is very little that all of these people would have in common, and you would be mostly correct.  But there is one thing that every person from every occupation and social strata with whom I’ve ever conversed can agree upon whole-heartedly:  Every incident in which any of these various people have been involved and has been reported in newspaper or television has been completely misrepresented by reporters.  You might think I’m exaggerating, and I certainly wish I was.  But it is unfortunately true that whether I am speaking with a liberal lobbyist or a conservative businessman, a police officer or a convicted felon—they all complain about how any incident in which they have personal knowledge has been twisted in the press.

 

There are many reasons this may be true.  One would be a lack fact-finding on the part of the reporters.  Pressing deadlines and a demand for scoops on breaking news  cause reporters to take short-cuts and does not allow for the fact that it just takes time for truth to be uncovered.  Often, if the story is minor, there is no follow-up story to correct the mistaken assumptions and incorrect statements made in the initial report.  Another reason for haste is the popular idea that reserving judgement on any subject is some sort of mental or moral fault.  Opinions must be served up hot, in spite of the lack of any solid evidence upon which to base them.

 

Another reason is a dependence of reporters upon official releases from the heads of businesses and governments concerning an incident.  Naturally, these official releases seek to put the entity in question in the best light, and so many details are left out or even falsified, and “weasel words” are employed to this end.

 

A third reason is the over-dependence on “man-on-the-street” interviews instead of relying on factual evidence in an incident.  This lends the personal touch to any story, but usually gives a false impression of an event or simply fills a report with irrelevant information rather than simple truth.

 

A more subtle reason is the reliance on statistics and other numerical facts.  “Numbers don’t lie”—or do they?  Readers tend to take numbers at face value without questioning where these statistics came from and what they really mean.

 

Last, but most insidious, is the apparent need of today’s press to create outrage on every possible subject.  One can no longer simply read the newspaper or watch a news program on television—one must be pumped up with emotion about it, and the cheapest emotion to pump is anger.  Outrage sells!  Get people worked up about the news and they will buy it.

 

I would like to explore each of these phenomena with examples.  The hardest part about this is choosing which of the countless examples to use!  This is the reason it has taken me so long to write “Part Two” in this series!

 

IN GREAT HASTE TO FORM PUBLIC OPINION:

“Genius detective proved to be a fraud.  I read it in the paper, so it must be true.  I love newspapers.  Fairy tales.  And pretty grim ones, too.”  If you are alive and aware of modern culture at all, you will recognize this quote as being from the super-criminal Jim Moriarty on the BBC television show “Sherlock”, spoken just before the defamed detective was forced to plunge to his death in disgrace.

 

Why was the general public so willing to accept a false report? Sherlock himself explained: “Everybody wants to believe it, that’s what makes it so clever.  A lie that is preferable to the truth. . . . He’s got my whole life story.  That’s what you do when you sell a big lie—you wrap it up in the truth to make it more palatable.”

 

But does this happen in real life?  According to my sources, I’m afraid it does!  In fact, it’s an American tradition that goes back to pre-Revolutionary times– to spin events in such a way as to form public opinion in a manner most suitable to those in control of the press.  Take, for example, the Boston Massacre.  Every school child knows that this tragic incident occurred when the evil Red Coats shot down innocent civilians for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  It’s in the newspapers of the day, so it must be true!  There’s even a woodcut by Paul Revere showing the events of that fateful day.  Never mind that Paul wasn’t present at this event—a picture is worth a thousand words!

 

The newspapers of the day reported this incident immediately, without benefit of any evidence other than the reports of a few obscure “witnesses” who later, it was proven, had not even been present at the time.  It was reported that the British soldiers had over-reacted to a few boys who were taunting them and throwing snowballs at them and shot into a crowd of innocents with that rather ridiculous provocation.  It was also reported that someone shouted “Fire” and that the soldiers then began to shoot into the helpless crowd.  Americans, already outraged by the presence of British military in “their” colonies, were quite ready to believe this actually quite unbelievable account.  And many American “patriots” egged the story on, wanting it to be true—after all, it made a perfect rallying point for their cause.  “See!  The British are evil and we must be rid of them!  They have no business being in America.”

 

Fortunately, not all of the patriots in the American colonies were so rabid in their cause that they could ignore the facts of the case.  John Adams, who later helped to write the Declaration of Independence and eventually became our second president, volunteered to represent the British soldiers who had been arrested for the murder of the five colonists who had died in the Boston riot.  He had a vested interest in stirring up the colonists against the British, but refused to compromise his integrity in that cause.  When he visited those soldiers in jail, he saw not a rabble of wicked murderers but a group of boys far from home, who had tried to do their jobs as best they could.  They had been tasked to guard the Customs House and were not permitted to leave their post for any reason.  Adams’ investigation uncovered a plot by a group of Americans—the city bells rang at 8:00 to rally about 100 men, who planned to attack the soldiers with clubs and sticks.  They found a single soldier guarding the Customs House and began throwing chunks of ice at him and hitting him with sticks and clubs.  He endured their attack without retaliating, but did call for reinforcements.  Twelve soldiers arrived to his defense and were also attacked with clubs and sticks.  And yes, snowballs were also thrown as reported!  And the word “Fire” was also uttered, it is true—it was an American sailor, one of twelve,  who shouted it, and his full sentence was “Why don’t you fire, you bloody backs?  Fire and be damned; we know you dare not!”  This, while beating the soldiers bloody with a club.

 

“Would it have been a prudent resolution in them, or in any body in their situation, to have stood still, to see if the sailors would knock their brains out, or not?” Mr. Adams asked in his final speech at the trail.  “Their clubs were as capable of killing as a (rifle) ball. . . .”  As you may imagine, all but two of these unfortunate soldiers were acquitted, and those two who were sentenced were convicted of manslaughter with mitigating circumstances and received a minimal sentence.

 

But this was not the way the trial was reported in the papers.  A riot started by American rabble rousers was consistently termed a “massacre”, as if the shootings had been unprovoked by unarmed men rather than self-defense on the part of the soldiers.  Even today, it’s very difficult to find the truth of these events because of the twisted and insidious way the newspapers handled it, and the use unprincipled patriots made of it—one of whom was John Adams’ own cousin.  Sam Adams took advantage of the public outcry to his own ends, speaking with authority on the events of that fateful night in spite of the fact that he had not been present at the time.  One must go to the transcripts of the trial itself, and to the private journals of those involved, to get at the truth.

 

And so began our American tradition of journalism, I’m afraid.  It really doesn’t get any better than this.  But sometimes it really isn’t the journalists’ fault that untruths are presented in the press.  On to Point Two in Part Three of this series!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Consuming the Media Wisely


I have been teaching writing courses to high school students for many years.  There are many things about this job that I enjoy–well, come to think of it, there are really no aspects of this job that I don’t enjoy!  But one of my favorite units to teach is journalism.

Naturally, we spend some weeks analyzing news articles and learning the basic structure and techniques of news-writing.  Then I give them an assignment:  they must write their own newspaper article in proper form on an issue that deeply concerns them.  They may interview as many people as they like, but they must interview at least one person.  They must research their subject and give me their sources.  They usually pick a subject that they are passionate about and it’s always fun to read what they come up with.  Because, unbeknownst to them, there is a Part Two to this exercise.

After the students have handed in their papers and I have graded them, we talk about in what ways their biases on their subjects show through in their articles.  And then comes my favorite part.  I assign them to write another news article on the same issue, using the same interviews and the same research,  but from the opposite position.  I assure them that half-hearted attempts will not do–they must truly try to convince me of the opposite point of view.  Their reactions are always marvelously amusing!  They are certain that I’ve given them an impossible task.  I am the meanest teacher ever!

A  recent example is an Eagle Scout who had written of the virtues and importance of the Boy Scouts as an organization.  He had come up with some great examples and persuasive arguments as to Scouting’s vital role in helping to prepare young men for adulthood.  His article easily convinced me that the Boy Scouts of America is a wonderful institution.  So I had to grin at his crest-fallen face when I informed him that his next article must convince me that BSA is the very worst organization in the history of organizations! I had my work cut out for me to talk him out of his deep despair.  But after about twenty minutes of brain-storming together, he was actually excited about giving this assignment a try.

The second articles are inevitably better written than the first, obviously because the students must put a great deal more thought into the subject.  But the amazing part is, most of my students find this assignment great fun once they get over their initial panic.  Picking through the research to find facts that back their new point of view and taking their interviews apart to find quotes that agree is challenging and it makes them feel as if they have really accomplished something when they’ve finished.

Why do I give my students such a heinous assignment?  Well, obviously, to make them better writers, above all else.  But this exercise is designed to also make students better consumers of the news media.  From the time they take my class, they can no longer simply accept anything they read or hear in the news at face value.  Because, after all, if beginning students can turn the facts in either direction they choose, just think what a fully-trained professional journalist can do!

I am not a journalist myself, but I was trained in journalism in college and I am friends with persons who are or have been professionals in the news media.  Part of the learning process in writing in any news media, whether newspapers, magazines, television, or internet articles, is how to sift through the enormous amount of information available and pick out the bits that will support a particulate slant.  That news is biased is a given–it has to be!  How can any half-page news article or three-minute news story possibly cover all the available information?  How can a reporter possibly include every quote from every one of the dozens of people he or she interviewed? How can a news story cover every point of view available and still remain a reasonable length? It’s just a fact that the news must be filtered and cut down to a manageable size before it can be published or broadcast.  That’s just part of good writing:  keeping the news story from becoming unwieldy and unreadable and making certain it is both cohesive and coherent.  The only question is, through what viewpoint is it being filtered?  Once one knows the point of view, one can avoid being herded along into believing whatever the reporter in question wishes the consumer to believe.

But most Americans do not receive this training.  I’m dismayed by the passive acceptance by most of the population of whatever the news source of their choice feeds them.  Naturally, most Americans choose to receive their news from a source that agrees with their general outlook and with their politics.  It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they are receiving news that is tailored to their worldview.  This is true whether one watches Fox News or listens to National Public Radio or reads the Wall Street Journal.  The points of view are different, but they are necessarily there. I am not saying that this is a bad thing; it is, in fact, entirely necessary. But  the consumer needs to be constantly aware of it.  This is doubly true for sources on the internet.  At least in the newspaper business, there is (supposed to be) a code of conduct and a general consensus of standards the reporters are expected to follow.  But on the internet, anyone may write whatever they like about anything without fear of consequences.

How are we ever to get at the truth of an issue, given that the information our news sources feed us are incomplete at best ?  First of all, one must resign oneself to the sad fact that we probably won’t get at the whole truth of any current events in this lifetime.  Not only are the news media biased, they are relying on sources that are biased. The governments and businesses and individuals who give them official statements and quotations each have their own agendas.  And unfortunately, as we follow the career of a certain well-known newscaster, we must realize how easy it is for the reporters, on whom we rely  to give us accurate information, to lie to us.  I know–this is not helpful!  But isn’t it better to face the truth than to simply swallow whatever anyone wants to feed us without careful examination?

My suggestion is to consume our news from a wide variety of sources with various biases and pick out the areas in which they seem to agree.  If two opposing viewpoints concede that “x” is true, it may possibly be actually true!  I also suggest reading news from other sources outside of America.  Other countries’ media will be biased as well, but their biases will be different from an American’s bias.  Persons from outside our country often see our country’s issues in a clearer light, since they are not personally involved.   Conversely, it’s a good idea to get the news of a foreign country directly from a someone who actually lives in that country rather than relying solely on the viewpoint of a visiting reporter.  Finally, I suggest holding any “facts” presented in the media loosely, whatever the source.  Yes, this is a cynical viewpoint, but who has not read an article disproving a previously established “fact” which everyone believed for years and which is now proven false?

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it.  I am, I freely admit, biased in my opinion.

Coming soon:  Part Two–a more detailed rant–I mean, discussion– about specific news-reporting techniques!

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