Friday, 26 January 2018

What Pope Francis just said about Fake News and why it matters

By Isaac Withers

I got way too into the 2016 American election. Unlike our own elections here in the UK, Americans have two full years of campaigning before the final nominees are picked. I basically watched that whole process - both because it was entertaining and because I thought something morally troubling was happening on the world stage. I watched all three debates (none of my housemates wanted in) and I argued passionately with friends about why certain language used by certain people wasn't ok, when we as a Church always hold strongly to the dignity of the human person. That ultimately was why I was interested. Basically, I was the annoying guy at the house party.

And then, it all went more than a bit sideways, and I had to stop observing as it's safe to say it wasn't entertaining any more. But when I did check back in with what was happening, the conversation was no longer about issues, it was about the conversation itself, it was about truth. Did we need experts any more? Were we in a post-truth age now? Is there such a thing as unbiased news? All this was swirling around because suddenly the most powerful people in America were saying things that were factually untrue no matter what your political bias was. People were no longer just disagreeing with policies, but with what was real or not.

The Washington Post reported a couple of weeks ago that since becoming President, Donald Trump had made 2,001, 'false or misleading claims in 355 days, according to our database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president. That’s an average of more than 5.6 claims a day.However, that only matters if you think The Washington Post is legit news in itself. That's the sting of all this, if you can't agree on what's true and not, how can you ever have a mature political debate again, or work towards solutions? It creates a stalemate.

Post uni, I landed a great job in communications and have a friend who says 'fake news' as a joke so often, that I picked up saying it a bit. But apart from it being a joke, it seemed this conversation of truth had dulled down a bit. Well, this week the Pope made his World Communications Day Statement, and guess what it was all about? Here's what he had to say about fake news. 

Snake News

What most of the news reported about the Pope's statement was that it made a big claim: that fake news was biblical and therefore nothing new. Putting it in the context of Genesis and the lie that Eve was told, the Pope says this:

‘The strategy of this skilled "Father of Lies" (Jn 8:44) is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.’

He mentions mimicry a few times, suggesting that fake news is succeeding because it is always close enough to the truth to make it believable. He then draws another parallel between fake news and the serpent: they tell us what we want to hear.

' grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.’

Pope Francis goes on to say that this is the same in Genesis with the serpent playing to Eve’s insecurities, ‘So she heeds his words of reassurance: "You will not die!" (Gen 3:4).’

The human consequence

The heart of this letter however, is something that I hadn't thought about too much and that the news hasn't talked about too much either: the human consequence. Pope Francis likes to quote people from outside the Church and he selects a really startling section from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov II to make this point.

'"People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others. And having no respect, they cease to love, and in order to occupy and distract themselves without love they give way to passions and to coarse pleasures, and sink to bestiality in their vices, all from continual lying to others and to themselves.” (The Brothers Karamazov, II, 2).'

Using Dostoevsky's words, the Pope has called out fake news for what it is: lies. When we create this sub genre of news and call it 'fake news', we're really making it sound like something new, whereas when we acknowledge it as a lie, we realise that there's nothing new to it.

The link between being on the receiving end of lies and being unable to love was news to me though and I think it's super interesting. Again, it comes back to the fundamental lacking of a middle ground, of what is reality and what is not. How can you help someone if you can't agree on the truth?

The letter continues to be very strong on the human consequences of fake news, stating:

there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; 
on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences.’ 

Ultimately, he states that this cycle will rob us of our interior freedom.'

So what's the solution?

Pope Francis is pretty blunt about how to treat this very twenty first century issue. His solution is a human one, and a radical one.

‘The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: 
people who are not greedy but ready to listen, 
people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language.'

But, I mean, he's also the Pope, so he's not gonna say we can fix this mess on our own, he's not gonna not bring Jesus into this.

‘The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth. In Christianity, truth is not just a conceptual reality that regards how we judge things, defining them as true or false...
Truth involves our whole life... 
The only truly reliable and trustworthy One – the One on whom we can count – 
is the living God. 
Hence, Jesus can say: "I am the truth" (Jn 14:6). 
We discover and rediscover the truth when we experience it within ourselves 
in the loyalty and trustworthiness of the One who loves us. 
This alone can liberate us: 
"The truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32).’

Because the Church's definition of truth is this, the revealed person of God in Jesus, it means that this isn't just something journalists should sort out, or something we should leave to Mark Zuckerburg. Pope Francis says to everyone:

None of us can feel exempted from the duty of countering these falsehoods.. 
Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed 
from without as something impersonal, 
but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, 
from listening to one another.’

So the next time you're that person at the house party, maybe keep those parameters in mind: that there's nothing new to lying, but that if Jesus is the truth, we've got something unique to add to the conversation. Just after we've listened to each other. A lot.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Courage to Say Yes

By Theresita Joseph

For as long as I can remember, decision making has always been my biggest weakness. My mind flicks back to several moments in my teenage years when my dad would agonisingly wait in shops with me as I contemplated whether or not to buy or return an outfit, to only to later sit in the car and wonder in the drive back whether it was the right decision. Of course, the maturity of my decisions have slightly progressed since then (my dad will probably disagree), however the same chest tightness and anxiety quickly returns whenever a new problem finds its way into my life.

Over last Christmas, I became pretty overwhelmed trying to make some big decisions about the next few years ahead, ranging from relationship matters to those with pretty massive academic and financial changes. Whilst trying to turn these decisions to prayer, I still experienced the restless and often numbing emotions of fear, confusion and worry. However, I started to think about why as humans we tend to get so stressed about the process of decision making, and realised it comes down to three main things:

1) Fear of failure or the ‘wrong decision’,

2) Fear of the Unknown, 

3) Fear of disappointment from ourselves, and from others

All three are linked together by an inability to trust in ourselves, and perhaps the more challenging aspect of wholeheartedly trusting that whatever we choose and no matter the outcome, God will remain by our side and won’t let us down.

Luke 1:26-56 - An angel appears to Mary

Reflecting on Luke’s Gospel during the final Sunday of Advent before Christmas, it was the first time I properly appreciated the gravity of the decision that Mary was presented with when angel Gabriel visited her at the Annunciation.

To those that want to be re-acquainted with this moment, here is the Bible passage below:

'26 During Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin. She was engaged to marry a man named Joseph from the family of David. Her name was Mary. 28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings! The Lord has blessed you and is with you.”
29 But Mary was very startled by what the angel said and wondered what this greeting might mean.
30 The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary; God has shown you his grace31 Listen! You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of King David, his ancestor. 33 He will rule over the people of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.”
34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you. For this reason the baby will be holy and will be called the Son of God36 Now Elizabeth, your relative, is also pregnant with a son though she is very old. Everyone thought she could not have a baby, but she has been pregnant for six months. 37 God can do anything!
38 Mary said, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let this happen to me as you say!” Then the angel went away.'

Let’s try to put this story into context. Imagine going about your day, when an angel appears out of nowhere and tells you that you have been chosen to become the Mother of the Son of God right now, irrespective of where your life/work/relationship status is currently at. That should change your day, and the rest of your life, by a more than just a bit. There must have been so many questions running through Mary’s head: ‘Why me? Why now? What will my family say? How can I explain this to Joseph? How will society react? What kind of life will the Son of God lead? What impact will this have on my life? What about my plans? How is this all even possible?!’ Yet, unlike other major figures in the Bible, such as Abraham or Moses, who first hesitated or refused before finally saying ‘yes’ to God, Mary did not waiver, and humbly surrendered to God’s plan, placing all her trust in Him despite the countless uncertainties that now laid before her.

Accepting the consequences, trusting the goodness to come

Mary’s acceptance to do God’s will doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t have experienced periods of doubt or fear during her life. Indeed, whilst the process of decision making is challenging itself, often the hardest part is accepting the turbulent consequences that can come about. Many times, our decisions do not turn out the way we planned, and we can find ourselves in new difficulties, often looking back and regretting not choosing another option. It is in these times that we can lose hope, both in ourselves and in God, and lose sight of the opportunities ahead. Mary herself must have felt several of these emotions during her personal journey as the mother of Christ; right from the start of travelling for miles with Joseph by donkey through the night to eventually give birth in a Bethlehem stable, to finally having to watch this child that she bore and raised to be tortured, crucified and killed before her eyes. During these moments, Mary certainly must have had the overwhelming doubt of what the point of it all was, as many of us do in the low times of our lives.

Yet, if Mary did not go through any of those devastating hurdles, we wouldn’t today have the opportunity of such a personal relationship with God through Jesus. The salvation that Jesus was going to bring us all wouldn’t have even been imaginable as what God’s plan truly was during her life, yet though she did not know, she trusted in God from the start. Thus, Mary teaches us how to believe in God during our own personal battles, even when we don’t understand them, as she remained anchored to the faith that God was using these moments in her for His own bigger and better plan.

“It’s the faithful ‘yes’ that heals disobedience, the available ‘yes’ that flips the selfishness of sin”
 Pope Francis
Indeed, during the feast of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December, Pope Francis explained that Mary’s response was the ‘most important ‘yes’ in history’. Specifically, he explored the contrast of how Mary’s ‘yes’ reopened the path for God to be amongst us, which had been closed since man’s first downfall from choosing ‘no’ at the Garden of Eden. Through Mary’s commitment to become the Mother of God, we can celebrate both the beauty of Christ’s life on Earth and the freedom that his death and resurrection brought to us all. Equally, just as Mary carried Jesus, we too can nurture God’s word within our own hearts and use it to strengthen others, so that Jesus can continue to be brought into the lives of his brothers and sisters.

Do we say yes to God in our lives?

So, during this New Year, take time to dwell on the exceptional surrender of Mary to God’s mysterious plan that allowed Jesus to enter into our world. Use her ‘yes’ as an inspiration to renew your own commitment to God, and say ‘yes’ to Him in the different ways He reveals His plans for your life. This ‘yes’ might itself be the act of faith in believing in God, or opening your eyes to the love and influence He already has had. Mary’s decision can challenge you to be braver in saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to certain options or temptations that you might find yourself presented with this year. Equally, it might prompt you to pursue a desire or calling that you have wrestled with in your heart, and let go of the fears that stop you from trusting in them.

Reflecting on the past year, what aspects of your life have made you a better person and helped you feel closer to God, and what things took you away from Him? Contemplate on what changes or choices you want to make, and for those that you are unsure of, take the opportunity to invite the Holy Spirit into your heart for the gifts of courage, wisdom and peace to help you discern what is best. Be open to the different ways in which this may be revealed to you; be through a friend, a post, a new opportunity or even a strong feeling; but trust the timing of what you experience, for as we’ve learnt; God works in mysterious ways. There may also be an element of accepting that there is not always a right decision; but having the faith that in whatever path you choose, God will be behind you, will provide the confidence that there is always goodness waiting to come out of any situation.

'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.'

Proverbs. 3:5-6

Since first writing this post over Christmas, God has worked absolute wonders over the past few weeks in gently answering all the questions and decisions I had been battling with. I would have never expected for the way my situation is slowly and miraculously turning out, and whilst I am processing even bigger changes for this year than I could have imagined and an incredible amount of unknowns, I have confidence that God won’t let me down. I’ve come to realise that faith isn’t about trusting what you can see, but trusting the strength within yourself that God has placed. I truly hope that all of you reading this may have the faith to place your own heart and life with God and see where He takes you, as once you start your walk with Him; you are never alone.

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