The media, violence and partnership

Recently we saw a pitiful demonstration of the power of the Internet, coupled with the way global media corporations love to promote religious extremists. Why did the media seize on the words of an obscure, sectarian pastor of an unknown Florida church with less than 50 members and broadcast it to the whole world, knowing that it would inflame Muslim passions? The same media are largely silent when scores of churches are burned down and hundreds of Christians killed in places like India, Nigeria or Indonesia. There is an obvious bias to the media’s religious reporting. Who holds CNN or the BBC morally responsibility for fomenting violence? If one gives whiskey to an alcoholic, knowing he is an alcoholic, isn’t one morally culpable if he gets drunk and kills someone?

I recall the words of Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the UK:

“In January 2001 the then Archbishop of Canterbury convened a gathering in Alexandria, Egypt, of the leading Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious leaders in the Middle East. They signed an agreement, the Alexandria Declaration, committing themselves to non-violent conflict resolution. It was potentially one of the most important steps towards peace in decades. The coverage in the Western press was almost non-existent. This helped to confirm the suspicion in the minds of politicians in the region that there is no role for interfaith dialogue in any peace process- as Track 2 diplomacy, for example. This is a terrible mistake. What it means is that the image of religion in the media is one of conflict, hate, violence and terror. We should not then be surprised if that is what religion becomes. Perception shapes reality.” (The Home We Build Together, Continuum, 2007, p.70)

On a related matter, many of us struggle to make sense of the angry backlash in some parts of the US following President Obama’s spirited defence of the right of Muslims to build a mosque close to Ground Zero in New York City. Those of us who work with thoughtful non-Christians, and especially in academic settings, have to constantly battle the jibes at “evangelicals” in the US. They are automatically identified with the right-wing of Republican politics, as well as with anti-evolution, anti-secularism, pro-Zionism and “Islamophobia”. These perceptions are constantly fed by a cynical international media, including prestigious American and European newspapers, who enjoy parading the most outlandish and extremist “evangelical” voices on the world stage.

We who are familiar with the complexity of American church life and the best American theological scholarship know that those who are presented in the media in this way are far from being typical of American “evangelicals”. But, given the paucity of mainstream evangelicals who interact with the secular media and the way that global Tele-evangelism, the mass-market evangelical publishing world, and many US-based mission organizations do indeed propagate a Christian mirror image of Islamic fundamentalism, it is understandable that so many non-Christians in the academy have little patience with “evangelical” Christianity.

I wonder: who among the well-known authors and mission agencies in the US have issued public statements expressing agreement with President Obama? Surely it would be hypocritical for any Christians to advocate religious tolerance and liberty around the world and not practice such tolerance and liberty in their own backyard. There were many Muslims who also died in the WTC attacks on 9/11. And one could also generously interpret the building of the mosque as an attempt on the part of American Muslims to distance themselves from such violence. Public support for this project by churches and Christian organizations would go a long way, not only in healing the terrible state of Christian-Muslim relations in the US, but also in being a great encouragement to those of us who are in the ministry of building bridges between peoples and nations.

Surely, this is what global partnership in mission entails. Sadly, partnership language has become reduced, in many church circles, to sending money and people overseas. Looking at oneself through the eyes of others in the Body of Christ is not. Exercising a prophetic voice in one’s own city and country, especially in a global superpower like the US, has worldwide ramifications. Remember Martin Luther King and the growth of Civil Rights Movements all over the world? That was evangelical mission, so powerful in its global impact because of its local authenticity, long before the days of the Internet and the mobile phone.

Lilliputian Democracy

Imagine that you live on the lovely island of Lilliput. Like its namesake in Gulliver’s Travels, Lilliput is inhabited by a small people: mostly small in stature and mental outlook, small and insignificant in the world of nations. Your island, too, as in Gulliver’s Lilliput, is ruled by a self-styled emperor. But, since your Lilliput is also a constitutional democracy, this emperor is compelled to hold national elections to secure another term as head of state. This he does successfully, retaining power with a handsome majority. He invited a few international monitors to observe the polling process, wined and dined them sumptuously, and they all had a wonderful holiday on Lilliput at local taxpayers’ expense. They returned to their homes and wrote glowing reports of how peaceful everything had been and how democracy was flourishing on Lilliput.

But you who live there know this is all eyewash. The emperor had already shredded the Constitution of Lilliput in his first term as head of state. There are no more independent commissions in Lilliput. The Chief Justice and the Elections Commissioner are the emperor’s appointees. Every law under the Lilliputian Election Act was violated by the emperor’s supporters in the run-up to the election: public funds were utilised for his advertising campaign, the state-controlled media were dominated by the emperor and rival candidates excluded, government officials and the police were employed as the emperor’s private employees, mobile phone service providers were compelled to transmit his campaign messages, and journalists who criticized these abuses of power were intimidated and physically assaulted by goon squads.

On the day of the election itself, the emperor declares on TV that his main rival is legally disqualified from the race: a lie that the Elections Commissioner is compelled to correct later. In parts of Lilliput known to be hostile to the emperor, public transport is withdrawn on election day and a series of explosions early in the morning deter some from trekking to polling stations. Two days after the emperor’s victory, the campaign office of his main rival are raided by army commandos, without any search warrant, computers and files are taken away and campaign workers arrested. The emperor alleges that they were plotting a coup, although computers and filing cabinets are poor substitutes for guns and rocket launchers. An opposition spokesman claims that the motive was to forestall the collection of evidence to prove that the election count was rigged. Another vicious crackdown on journalists and critics has begun….

Gulliver fell out of favour with his emperor, after having helped him win a war against his neighbour. He had to flee Lilliput for fear of execution. In your Lilliput, ironically, the same fate awaits the failed opponent of the emperor.

How do you feel? And what can you do? What would you like your friends and other governments to do? Whether or not the election was rigged is unclear, and may prove impossible to demonstrate. But the multiple violation of Constitutional safeguards and election laws are blatant. They are surely enough for this election to have been declared null and void. If it is not, the message that has gone out all over Lilliput is this: he who breaks the law, wins.

The failure of democracy in Lilliput is thus much more than that: it is the loss of respect for the rule of law, which is more fundamental than democracy. Indeed, democracy can only flourish in societies where at least two things are in place. Firstly, citizens must have access to information. Where the media are tightly controlled by the state, and other voices suppressed, citizens (especially the majority poor) are deprived of the right to be properly informed of what is happening in the nation and the choices before them. Illiteracy, ignorance, and willful misinformation undermine democracy.

But, secondly, and most importantly, democracy assumes that the majority of citizens cherish freedom: freedom of thought, of worship and of expression. Indeed, that the majority of citizens have a moral outlook, willing to resist tyranny even when it costs them. All dictators can only succeed because they have millions of “yes men” and “yes women” to do their bidding. Some of these are bureaucrats or highly-paid professionals (such as those who design websites and marketing campaigns). Schools and religious institutions, even universities, promote passive conformity rather than conversations about freedom, justice and truth.

Isn’t it an illusion to think that we can have a democratic society based purely on laws and “procedures”, without paying any attention to the moral formation of individual citizens? The kind of people we are -and become- shapes the kind of society we have (though it is also true that the kind of society we live in shapes what we become). Honesty and integrity are the presupposition of public life, not their product. The parties to an agreement must already have a sense of what is right, and a willingness to abide by it, even when it is in their own interests not to do so. A contract is no contract at all if it is kept only when it is convenient to do so. Also, if elected representatives, and officials, cannot be trusted to be concerned with our interests, faith in democracy will wither.

This is a deep challenge to Western liberal democracies too. Versions of political liberalism that hold all morality to be purely a private matter, not to be taught through public education, are vulnerable not only to the charge of incoherence, but also to challenges from an increasing population of egoists who care for nobody’s well-being but their own.

Source: Vinoth Ramachandra