Jesus and the Spin Doctors

Verla--head onThe 2012 Primary and Caucus season is barely underway and the mudslinging is already so heavy the candidates need waders. The candidates, their PACs and Super PACs, reportedly spent $16 million dollars in Iowa alone (Rick Perry backers spent the most–$475 per voter. Rick Santorum spent the least–$19 per voter, with the other candidates falling somewhere in between.)

Now the push is on in South Carolina, a make-or-break state for candidates and a state where politics is a contact sport. More millions spent. Attack ads increasingly ugly.

I’ve been watching all this with special interest since I spent many years as a journalist covering local and state politics in Chicago. I also worked on the other side of the equation in public relations, where reputation management, “impression engineering,” and corporate positioning is an art form practiced on behalf of clients.

One of the sad things I learned in both journalism and PR was that often the truth isn’t nearly as important to people as their perception of what is true. Thus, in politics, if a politician and his or her handlers feel threatened and can’t make a convincing case for themselves, they will try to change your perception of their opponents. Truth may be a casualty.

The Pharisees were the reputation management experts in Jesus’s day. To make sure that only “their kind” gained any position of authority, they had hundreds of rules for what it took to be a Pharisee-in-good-standing. They were notorious for going on the attack to discredit anyone who didn’t “get with the program.”

Then along came Jesus, who didn’t give a rip about all their posturing and silly rules for putting people in their place. He cared about people and the condition of their hearts. The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus. He challenged their position in society, so they crafted a disingenuous plan to undermine his reputation. (Sound familiar?)

They brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery and tried to drag him into a legal debate about how the woman should be punished.  They weren’t interested in justice, the correct application of the law, the woman or Jesus’s answer. They just wanted to trap him and hurt his credibility.

Jesus didn’t take the bait (which is a valuable lesson all by itself). With a simple observation, he re-framed the whole discussion. After the Pharisees had blown off their steam, he calmly said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” In other words, “Hey, you with the holier-than-thou attitude, take a look in the mirror. It isn’t pretty.”  As the truth soaked in, one by one the Pharisees slinked away.

Then–because Jesus is always more interested in the truth than in taking sides–he turned to the woman, who had her own issues. Gently he told her he, too, didn’t condemn her, but she still needed to face her own junk, her adultery. He urged her to use her reprieve as an opportunity to live differently in the future.

Every day we–as individuals and collectively as those in the family of faith–are being ranked and evaluated by family, peers and the “rule-makers” in our culture. Sometimes they tell the truth about us and sometimes they promulgate a faulty perception that has little to do with the truth. Jesus promised they will be held accountable.

However, the guilt doesn’t stop there. In an effort to protect our position or reputation, we attack, undermine or distort the character or behavior of those who aren’t “like us” or who don’t follow every rule we deem critical–in politics and in life.

Again, Jesus comes along to reframe the discussion. Be careful at whom you throw stones. I know the truth about all of you. He invites us to measure our actions and words by his standard, take the forgiveness he offers and live differently in the future.

If you think I’m trying to make some kind of subtle political statement about a particular candidate or party, you’re wrong. What’s happening in the political arena simply illustrates the true condition of the human heart when not reformed by God. Building up our own image or tearing down someone else’s comes more naturally than we care to admit.

God said he made us in his image. It’s the only image that should matter.

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