Mark’s Gospel lesson today shows us how propaganda works. Set the terms of a debate by labeling your opponent first, and attach them to something abhorrent. Here is how Jesus’s opponents do it. “You are in league with Beezlebul.” You’re working for the devil, aren’t you, that is where your power comes from! We see variations of this regularly. Since 9/11, an effective smear is to say your opponent is supporting terrorism. This works well against pro-immigration policies. “We can’t just have terrorist flooding in from Muslim countries! And drug dealers and murderers too.” New NRA President Oliver North recently took this strategy to new heights, calling Parkland student gun-control activists “terrorists.” Imagine how North can say this with a straight face, after famously trading with a US designated terrorist state of Iran, sending anti-air and anti-tank missiles to Iran,; then used the payment to send arms to the Contras in Nicaragua, who some would also label terrorists. Now he runs the NRA and advocates unlimited weapons for everyone-to fight terrorists, who may just be high school students advocating gun control, who are in league with Beezlebul.
Patriotism and the flag are also good propaganda tools. If you don’t stand and salute the flag at a football game, maybe you shouldn’t be in this country. If you are offended by something I say, you are a snowflake. If someone is critical of you or your party, say they are on a witch hunt.
Here is the disturbing truth. Propaganda works. Goebbels famous statement “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” This is how people believe that President Obama is a Muslim, though he is a long time member of the United Church of Christ, and can sing “Amazing Grace” like he means it.
How does Jesus handle these charges of working for Beezlebul? His first move is to change the language away from the more charged word to something more descriptive. He does not repeat Beezlebul, opting for Satan instead, which is more general. Why? Beezlebul is a charged taunt to the Canaanite god Baal-zabel, which literally means “Lord of the Flies.” 800 years before Jesus, Beezlebul was a terrible charge, when Israel an Canaan were mortal enemies. Jesus might have noted there was really no such thing as a Canaanite anymore. What makes propaganda work is delving into the antipathy of past hurts, injuries and prejudice and comparing it to present day people.
This is why I’m wary of comparing people to Nazis, which seems to be a go-to insult across the political spectrum. If you stand up for women, you are a “femi-nazi.” I’ve seen so many little toothbrush mustaches photoshopped on everyone from Trump, to Obama, to Roseanne. If we immediately go to the Nazi comparison, we lose sight of the real horror of Nazis. And besides, real Nazis know better, and have rebranded themselves as Alt-Right. As tempting as it may be to compare things to the 1930s, we are better served to study autocracy works. Read Orwell and Huxley, or current writers like Masha Gessen, Richard Snyder or David Frum. If you have real fears about democracy and authoritarianism, then you owe yourself intellectually vigorous examples and rich language. Don’t just reach for Nazi.
After redefining terms, Jesus applies some logic. “How can Satan caste out Satan? Does this make any sense? To make the point clear Jesus repeats some truisms. “A Kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Therefore the logical conclusion is if Jesus is working with Satan, then Satan’s Kingdom is divided and he cannot stand. Jesus has just unpacked the false statement that he is working with Satan and is not a threat, and now he is going to say where he stands, through a parable.
“But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”
In other words, not only does it make no sense that Jesus is working for evil, he is actually tying up the evil doer and bringing down his power.
Let’s look at an example of how this might work. The year I entered seminary was the first time there were more women than men. Gender language about God was the hot button issue. When someone would use the pronoun “He” or “Father” for God, someone would immediately correct with a “She” or “Mother,” Perhaps, adding a speech about how sexist the language was and how it affirmed patriarchy and furthered the exploitation of women. The strategy worked at one level. People did change their language and behavior. But did it create the hoped for mutuality and respect?
I arrived at seminary as a liberal from an Evangelical world, considered myself open to feminism, though it had never occurred to me to call God “She.” No one had ever done that in my church. I read at a church prayer meeting at my field education site, and the Associate Pastor, a women, approached me and said, “Todd, you read very well, I enjoyed it.” I was about to employ one of my typical Midwestern deflections of a compliment when she said, “I would have enjoyed the reading even more if you had used inclusive gender language for God. As a women, people often deny my right to be a pastor, including my home church and family, so if you use neutral language or female language, it really helps me feel included and doesn’t create any barriers between me and God while I pray or worship.”
This won me over immediately. Why did it work? First, she avoided charged language and used a positive term that invited me to join her. If she had told me my language was sexist, I might have been immediately defensive. What do you mean I am in league with patriarchy and Beezlebul? Instead, she invited me to be inclusive of her. She logically told me why it mattered to her. There was no blame or judgement, just simply stating her experience and how my choices affected her. This created space for a real conversation. It doesn’t mean this strategy always works like magic, but it does avoid the immediate polarization that creates a division and an argument.
Let’s look at the next thing Jesus says. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” This is Jesus really calling out the scribes for their propaganda. Here is my paraphrase:
You are going to make mistakes. Sometimes you will say things that are incorrect, incoherent, maybe even hurtful or stupid. What you say may be heard as heretical, blasphemous, even racist or sexist. You can be forgiven, especially if you are willing to work on your language, your attitudes and learn something.
But here is what is not forgivable. Blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? Blaspheme is often defined as speech disrespectful or degrading of God, like swearing. The Greek root for the word “blaspheme literally means “injurious speech.”
Jesus has put his opponents on notice. It is one thing to disagree. It is quite another to intentionally use charged language, injurious speech, that damages the very fabric of community. Language matters and labels should not be thrown around lightly. Think about how these terms land. How did “basket of deplorables” work for Hillary Clinton? How about “Bible-thumper”? Though I think biblical literalism is a form of heresy, and cringe at misuse of the Bible, “Bible-Thumper” diminishes the value sacred texts at the core of our faith.
I appreciate the use of satire as a way of unmasking injustice, but there are limits. I am a big fan of Trevor Noah, The Onion and The Borowitz Report, and some things need to be mocked. But there is a line. Samantha Bee crossed it using a slur about Ivanka Trump. So are insults about peoples’ appearance, calling Trump “Cheetoh” or posting pictures of his hair blowing in the wind or an unflattering shot of his muffin top while golfing. Then we are just joining the race to the bottom in our civil discourse. I try to ask myself, is this making my point or is it just gratuitous mocking because I’m angry. How is it affecting the wider community and civil discourse?
Jesus lived in the real world where people used propaganda, innuendo and libelous speech to discredit him. He was robust in his response, not shy about calling out lies and logical fallacies. He used logic, told parables that made people think, and he also constantly invited people to a better place. Jesus spent much more time calling people in than calling people out. His consistent message was not “you are a sinner so get your act together” but rather, “What is the reign of God like? Live in a way that brings God closer.
The most “liked” meme on my Facebook page this week is:
“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light so lovely that they want with all their heart’s to know the source of it.” Madeline L’Engle
Our civil discourse is shadowed by angry storm clouds. Call out what you must, but always ask, “Am I sharing the good news?” Let your light shine!