“For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” –Jeremiah 6:13-14
Everything you are about to read in the following essay is true. No “fake news” here. I’m serious. No. Really! I’m not lying! You can trust my words.
But will you?
That may be the question for these strange times, when so called “fake news” is ascendant in the culture and the media. Fake news: created by the greedy to make money. Used as a derisive put down by politicians and pundits to deny news stories that make them look bad. Confusing to the rest of us, who rightly wonder and worry: “Well if there’s all this ‘fake news’ floating around, just what news can I trust?”
A year ago the phrase “fake news” described seemingly “real” news stories that might appear on your Facebook page or Twitter feed, with headlines like “Pope Francis Endorses Trump for President.” These “clickbait” links are designed to bring you to another website, and thus generate revenue for whatever shady outfit first created that tall tale. Think old school National Enquirer type hoax stories: “Michael Jackson Still Alive in Secret Oxygen Chamber!” “Noah’s Ark Discovered in Tennessee Parking Lot Behind Wal-Mart!”
But late last year after the election, some in government and media adopted the term “fake news” to also connote any story from any news organization that contradicted one’s outlook or ideological convictions. Don’t like what a journalist writes or reports about you? Label it “fake news.” Even stories from mainstream news organizations like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, once routinely trusted, are now dismissed by some as “fake news.” This phenomenon has migrated from the weird, dark edges of the web and culture, to Presidential news conferences, White House press briefings and, most tellingly, to main street: to conversations at church coffee hour, at the local diner, and around the dinner table.
It’s tempting to imagine that “fake news” has never been seen before, but the truth is that such falsehoods have been used by the powerful to confuse and rule people since humans first came together in community. Take the ancient Hebrews, citizens of Jerusalem in Judah, in the years leading up to 587 BCE. That year the city was invaded and destroyed by enemies from outside the kingdom, the people enslaved and then exiled.
But you’d never have known this, apparently, from the news reports coming out of the palace and from the pulpits of the priests. Even as Babylonian soldiers massed at the border, apparently, the news was still “good.” The poor well cared for; orphans taken in; widows given shelter; aliens welcomed and religious practices followed faithfully.
“All is well!” was the day’s top news story.
Or not. Not at all, at least according to the prophet Jeremiah. He accused those newsmakers of saying, “Peace! Peace!” when there was no peace, when the echoes of war drums could be heard in the distance, when the infrastructure of the kingdom was crumbling under the weight of corruption and faithlessness. “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly!” protested Jeremiah.
If he was alive these days, Jeremiah might be one of those annoying reporters at a news conference who refuses to sit down until her question is really answered. Or a tenacious investigative journalist whose report is labeled “fake news” by those in power. He might even be a preacher, trying to figure out how to share God’s good news in a time when the news out of Washington D.C. is unrelenting, frequently upsetting, and so nasty in tone and tenor.
Is the news true? False? Fake? Who knows!?
In twenty-eight years of preaching, I’ve never practiced my craft in a more unsettled, anxious time than the one we are living in. It’s hard enough to preach when the folks in the pews are as divided politically as the rest of the country. It’s overwhelming to figure just what to talk about week by week, with the pace of cultural change coming so fast: on immigration policy, health care, the environment, the Supreme Court, etc. Add into this mess the question of who is telling the truth and who is lying and the task seems impossible.
And yet for me, I’m discovering the work is still the same as it was before the election, after the election, and in the years ahead. To preach God’s truth to power. To preach moral truths and not get ensnared in day to day dust-ups about “fake news.” To paraphrase Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon people of faith: because God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”
Thank God that some truths never, ever change. The poor still need compassionate advocates, partners and friends. Aliens still arrive at our borders and need a gracious welcome. The sick still need health care and for society to treat them with mercy. Perhaps our job then, as the faithful, communities of faith, in such a time as this, is to preach God’s good news. And to keep on keeping on, until the kingdom comes.
There is nothing fake or false about that call. God’s truth can always be trusted.