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Michael Jensen: Sincerley yours in public life


Part I
In the middle of the 2010 federal election campaign, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s team realised that they weren’t making much headway with voters who were already angry about her government’s removal of Kevin Rudd, and who were just not responding to her stage-managed body language and carefully scripted speeches. Her “Moving Forward” slogan was just too easy for the media to caricature and too obviously a focus-grouped crafted stratagem.

What, are we all idiots?

There was only one thing for it. Gillard announced that from now on, we were going to get the “real Julia”. What that principally meant, as far as I could see, was that she was going to speak without notes. This apparently looks more “real”. As someone once said, if you can fake sincerity, you got it made.

It was, in hindsight, not very successful, but it was just enough. The “real” Julia was no more convincing than the “fake” Julia or, more importantly, the “real” Tony. But what the emergence of the “real” Julia revealed was how much we as the voting public yearn for reality and authenticity from those who wish to communicate with us.

It’s not that we’re sick of spin. It’s just that we’ve come to expect it. We know that there is no such thing as a disinterested party. We survive by tuning out the thousands of advertising messages we receive every day. And we are well used to the prevarications of politicians. We have cultivated the habit of suspicion and now it is deeply ingrained. “Don’t believe everything you read” could be our motto.

That’s the conundrum that a public figure finds herself (or himself) in. She knows that what we want is honesty, directness and reality. We want to know that she means what she says – that in some way what she thinks inwardly agrees with what she thinks outwardly. But how can she get this message through? Everything she says, no matter how fine it sounds, advances her interests.

It’s like that with corporations who contribute to charities, too. Perhaps they are motivated by purity of heart and a desire to help. But we all know that it is actually in their interest to give to charities, because it makes them look benevolent.

John McCain (front right) with his squadron. His story is a useful lesson for Christians about being genuine.

Part II
Here’s the problem: we don’t have access to the inner world of the public figure so that we might check their sincerity. They might be genuine. But we also know that they have practised the skill of looking genuine. So how can we know that they are?

This is a difficulty for anyone who wants to communicate in public speech – for church leaders as much as for other public figures. Churches look as if they are defending their own interests at every turn. So can we believe their gospel? Don’t preachers want us to believe them so that we will attend their churches and they will look good and get more money in the plate? Don’t they speak of a world to come and of sacrifice, and yet seem to enjoy quite nice lives here?

I certainly feel this as a theologian sometimes. If I write a piece for the secular media, the comments that come in inevitably take the line of, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

And I would, wouldn’t I?

So what are we to do? Can a way of guaranteeing honesty and integrity be found? Can there be a convincing way of syncing our inner and outer selves?

This is where the New Testament concept of the suffering witness comes in. The testimony of a person who will give their life for the truth surely has a ring of authenticity about it.

Part III
In his famous essay “Up, Simba” which he delivered during the 2000 US Election campaign, American writer David Foster Wallace tells a remarkable story about the Republican candidate John McCain. Travelling with the media entourage following McCain’s election, Wallace’s cynicism is confirmed at every turn. Is it possible to ever know the real John McCain? Is he the honourable man he appears to be right through to the bone, or is he a shrewd and calculating political operator with a hollow centre of self-interest?

At one Q&A session during the campaign, a lady named Donna Duren confronted McCain with something that had happened to her young son Chris. Chris had idolised Vietnam veteran McCain as something of an all-American hero. But a push-poller from the George Bush team had rung the Duren household and browbeaten the young boy with claims that McCain was a liar and a cheat, and – worse – un-American. Donna was now asking McCain, with tears, could anything be done to restore this young boy’s faith in the system?

Wallace carefully observed McCain’s reaction, which was one of visible concern. He offered to call Chris personally and apologise to him in person and explain that, yes, politics is still a worthwhile process despite everything and that there are people worth believing in. And so McCain does call Chris Duren, insisting that it will be “a private call between this young man and me”. Only the TV cameras were allowed in to observe the first ten seconds of the call. It’s private, but a pretty public private.

So, Wallace asks, was this genuine or not? Or was this the perfectly calculated way to respond? Was McCain genuine, or just good at looking genuine?

It is impossible to tell. But there was one moment when the integrity and courage of the man could not be doubted. When he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, McCain had been offered an early release. However, he refused to take it on the grounds that the US POW Code of Conduct says that POWs should be released in order of capture, and there were other men who had been imprisoned longer than he. As a result he spent four extra years languishing in prison, most of them in a dark solitary cell.

At that moment, McCain had a chance to show that he could act out of something other than self-interest. And he took it. Whatever cynicism one might feel towards his speeches as a politician, it is at least true that in this case we could glimpse the real character of the man.

Part IV
The McCain story is a useful lesson for Christians about being genuine.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hinted the moral complexity of acting altruistically. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”, he says. It’s hard to guarantee your sincerity when you broadcast your goodness to others.

At the same time, Jesus told us to, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven”.

How can it be both? How can I be a visible reflection of God’s glory without also broadcasting my goodness with trumpets? Aren’t I simply caught in the McCain/Gillard bind all over again?
Given Jesus’ teaching about the inclinations of the human heart in these same verses, it would seem a tricky balance to strike.

But it seems to me the example of his life tells us at least this: that the person who speaks and acts as if God is the only important judge of their words and deeds is the person who we know is genuine. When there is no possibility that you will benefit from what you say – indeed, when you make yourself vulnerable by what you say – then you can see something of the truth. Not that truth-speaking is made impossible by self-involvement. But it can’t be guaranteed.

This then ought to be the pattern for Christian public speech, if we are to cut through the world-weary cynicism of our times and say something that is really real, and known to be really real. We should seek opportunities to speak the truth in times and places and in a manner that shows that we don’t have self-interest as our primary motive; or, at least, that we would declare this truth even if it would cost us to do so.

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