There’s a trick to propaganda: an insidious layer that we don’t pay attention to.
On the one hand, propaganda is about convincing you of a lie.
The North Korean government has spent generations cultivating a cult of personality around its leaders. They teach that Kim Jong-il could walk and talk before he was six months old. And that Kim Jong-un is an artist and composer whose works are celebrated around the world.
The Russian government has spent weeks shutting off access to non-state media and feeding the people an official state line about the war in Ukraine. They say that Ukraine is a Nazi state intent on exterminating ethnic Russians within its borders.
American history textbooks have spent generations creating alternative narratives about the Civil War. They teach students that it was about states’ rights, or a conflict between northern industrialization and southern agrarianism, or anything but slavery.
On the one hand, propaganda is about convincing you of a lie. And, sometimes, that works. Sometimes, people believe the lie.
But just as often, people don’t. There are North Koreans who believe that their leader is all-but-divine; and there are North Koreans who do not. There are Russians who believe that their leaders are the good guys; and there are Russians who do not. There are Americans who believe that the Civil War was about something other than slavery; and there are Americans who do not.
So, on the other hand, propaganda is about sowing doubt. It’s about getting people to say,
I’ve heard the official story, and I don’t believe it. But I’ve also heard the mainstream media, and the alternative media and the social media, and I don’t believe it, either. I don’t know what’s true. I can’t know what’s true. Maybe there is no truth. The world is a confusing place. So instead of trusting in truth, I will trust in power. And in a world of lies, Kim Jong-un, or Vladimir Putin, or some other strongman has the power to protect me.
There’s a trick to propaganda: an insidious layer that we don’t pay attention to. The purpose of propaganda is to turn people away from truth… and toward power.
It is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and we are now deep into Jesus’s…
Well, it’s not exactly a trial. There are no charges. There are no lawyers. There is no evidence. There is no inquiry. There are just the religious authorities and the political authorities… trying to figure out what to do with this… Jesus.
The religious authorities—the Jewish authorities—want him dead. But under Roman law, they don’t have that authority; and under any law, they don’t really have a case. So they have brought him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the Roman province of Judaea… the local representative of imperial power… the local representative of their own dispossession and occupation… and they have said, more or less, “This Jesus must die. Find a reason.”
So Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Claiming the title would be a direct challenge to imperial authority. It would be a reason to kill him.
But Jesus responds, “I am a king. But my kingdom is not of this world. And my followers are not trying to prevent any of this.” Which is another way of saying, “I’m hardly a threat.”
And Pilate replies, “So you are a king.”
And Jesus tells him, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
And Pilate asks a famous rhetorical question, “What is truth?”
It is a profound question. It might seem a little silly on the surface, but people have wrestled with this question for millennia: What is truth? What makes something true? What is the truth?
But for Pontius Pilate, it is a dismissive question. Because he knows that truth does not matter here. There are no charges, there are no lawyers, there is no evidence, there is no inquiry. There is only power.
Pilate has power over life and death… and Pilate might not know it yet, but the sentence has already been decided… this Jesus will die… and this little exercise is not about a search for the truth… it is about figuring out a reason for the execution.
And what is truth in a place like this? What is truth in a place where only power matters?
We are Christians. We worship at First Congregational United Church of Christ. We follow Christ. It’s right there in the name.
And Christ is the way… and the truth… and the life. So we have to take the truth seriously; and we have to know that we have nothing to fear from the truth.
I’ve talked about the first one before; I’ve written newsletter articles and social media posts about it. I may have even mentioned it in a sermon before. Because I know how easy it is to share a social media post, or rerun a news story, or repeat a set of talking points…
I know how easy it is to hear some story… some factoid… some tasty bit of testimony… and think, “That fits my preconceived notions, that confirms my biases, I so badly want that to be true”… and say, “I will treat it as truth”… without ever stopping to ask those three important questions:
Is this from a reputable source? Does this add love to the world? Is. This. True?
But the second one is also important. Because so often, the reason that we readily repeat the things that we want to be true… the reason that we unthinkingly share the things that confirm our biases… is that the truth can feel frightening.
The truth can challenge the stories that we tell. The truth can challenge the histories that we treasure. The truth can challenge our understanding of the world.
The truth can challenge our sense of our very selves and demand that we change. The truth can demand that we change to become the people who we thought we were. The truth can demand that we change to become the people who God is calling us to be.
And in the face of that…
It can be so easy to cling to stories, and write histories, and live in reassuring illusions. It can be so easy to turn away from truth… and toward the comforting lies that power offers.
Pilate might not know it yet… but his power… is absolutely meaningless.
He is the Roman governor of the Roman province of Judea. He is the local representative of imperial power. He is the local representative of dispossession and occupation. He commands troops. He appoints high priests. He mints coins. He hangs shields and banners proclaiming that the Emperor Tiberius is the Son of the Divine Augustus. He holds life and death in his hands.
And none of that matters. For all of the bluster and propaganda of the Roman Empire… the seat of earthly power in the ancient Mediterranean world… that empire will fade away.
And all of the evidence of Pilate himself will amount to some coins that he minted that can’t buy anything… an inscription of a stone that was part of a building that no longer exists… and a dozen or so mentions in other people’s writings, many of which are about the man who is standing in front of him right now.
The thing about power—the power of nations and empires, the power of kings and potentates—is that, sooner or later, it fades away. Sooner or later, it crumbles to dust and ashes. Sooner or later, the wind carries it away.
And, sooner or later, the reassuring illusions and comforting lies that power built around the truth—that power built as a tomb for the truth—are revealed for what they are… and the truth emerges.
And the truth can feel frightening. The truth can challenge our sense of our very selves and demand that we change. The truth can demand that we change to become the people who we thought we were. The truth can demand that we change to become the people who God is calling us to be.
But here’s the thing:
The truth… the uncomfortable truth… the hard truth… the disturbing truth…
…that challenges our stories and our histories and our understandings of the world… that challenges our reassuring illusions and comforting lies… that challenges our sense of our very selves…
…that invites us to become the people who we thought we were and the people who God is calling us to be…
…sets. us. free.
It sets us free from the reassuring illusions and the comforting lies. It sets us free from the ‘isms’ that distort the world. It sets us free from the vain designs of mortal power.
It sets us free to see each other… to hear each other… to understand each other… to love and to be loved by each other.
It sets us free to be the people who we thought we were… to be the people who God is calling us to be… to step into the life that Christ is offering us even now… a life grounded in truth that will never fade away.