The news is often written in code. The news is a foreign language that calls on us, wherever we are in the world, to translate it.
When I was in the classroom teaching theology and ethics, I often brought newspapers into the classroom as a teaching exercise. I gave students a copy of an article from the day's news, and asked them to decipher it — to read the text behind the text and explain that real text to me.
I asked them, in other words, to translate the daily news for me.
This was a revealing exercise in which I myself learned a great deal. Most of my classroom experience teaching undergraduates (I'm contrasting that with my experience teaching graduate students) was in historically black colleges and universities, where my students had distinct culturally formed perspectives based on distinct experiences of racial oppression and socioeconomic marginalization.
These students often saw right through the distortions and downright lies in headlines and news stories. They could read the text inside the text with acuity. They translated the news well.
Here are some news stories I've read online today that seem to me to cry out to be translated:
1. At Think Progress, Esther Yu-Hsi Lee reports on how the Ku Klux Klan is now seizing on hysteria about immigrants to gin up the social fears and resentments on which the group has long thriven. Lee quotes Robert Jones, Imperial Wizard of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who tells VICE News,
We’re starting to reach out more to the African-American community and talk to them about the same issues, and they’re agreeing with the Klan that illegal immigration needs to stop.
Translation: it never was exclusively about race with the Klan, just as it was not exclusively about anti-semitism and anti-Catholicism. It's about pinpointing the group within American society at any given moment that elicits the most fear, dread, and loathing — as a potentially infectious agent from outside that is threatening to undermine the purity of the inside — and targeting that group fiercely. If this requires the Klan to try to make common cause with people it previously targeted in the very same way, then so be it. The cause and not the particular group targeted— ginning up fear and hatred in a society — is what matters.
2. At Americablog, Mark Thoma reports on the growing hysteria around the Ebola virus. Thoma states,
In the US, I’ve seen posts where the authors have confused Ebola with AIDS, made wild statements: Ebola is mutating to an airborne form. I[t] IS already airborne. Ebola mutates faster that the flu. US government wants to decrease population. . . . Then other posts obviously just made up from fear and trying to spread fear. It’s 90% fatal, it will kill all of us. It’s God’s punishment for "homosexism" in Liberia.
Translation: see point #1 again: It's about pinpointing the group within a society that elicits the most fear, dread, and loathing at any given moment — as a potentially infectious agent from outside that is threatening to undermine the purity of the inside — and targeting that group fiercely for reasons that have little to do with the group being targeted, or with reality, or with truth (e.g., immigrant children are not, in fact, spreading diseases through the U.S., as right-wing ideologues are claiming).
3. The reference to "homosexism" and Liberia in Mark Thoma's piece implicitly points to a report John Aravosis published at Ameriablog a few days ago. Aravosis points to a statement just made by various religious leaders of Liberia including Catholic archbishop Lewis Zeigler, regarding the Ebola outbreak in their nation which opens with these incendiary observations:
God is angry with Liberia, and . . . Ebola is a plague. Liberians have to pray and seek God’s forgiveness over the corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexualism, etc.) that continue to penetrate our society.
Translation: ditto again. Did you notice the interesting allusion to homosexualism "penetrating" Liberian society?
4. The hysterical language about Ebola and the attempt to smear gay folks by linking them to an infectious disease that has nothing at all to do with them in its etiology or transmission is also now on full evidence among American religionists of the far right. As Brian Tashman reports at Right Wing Watch, right-wing talk-radio guru and Baptist pastor Rick Wiles recently announced in one of his "Truenews" transmissions that
Now this Ebola epidemic can become a global pandemic and that’s another name for plague. It may be the great attitude adjustment that I believe is coming. Ebola could solve America’s problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography and abortion.
Translation: ditto again. Apparently no news is such good news to a certain segment of Christians as disease and death. The bad news of disease and death appear to confirm, for some Christians, that the good news of Jesus Christ and his gospel is all about an angry, punitive male God who itches to strike sinners down, and who is willing to use infectious diseases that do not distinguish between the moral and immoral to accomplish His goal of proclaiming unrestricted love for everyone by wielding a whip.
5. At Think Progress, Jack Jenkins reports on the growing protests of some evangelical Christians about evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle's Mars Hill megachurch. Driscoll has long been under fire for making ugly, dismissive statements about women and gay folks. Last month, Warren Throckmorton unearthed 100+ pages of comments that Driscoll made in 2000 at a Mars Hill forum, Midrash, in which he logged in with the username William Wallace II.
These comments include laments that America is becoming a "pussified nation," that gay folks are "damn freaks," and that a woman pastor should quit her job and repent (that is, she should repent of being a woman in rebellion against God's command that women keep silence in church and subordinate themselves to men).
As Jenkins reports, there have been persistent complaints that Driscoll is an outright bully when it comes to gay folks and to women. Evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans decries the example he sets for young men in his church when he makes it appear that gays are fair game for bullying. Jenkins links to a Christian Post article in which Luiza Oleszczuk cites statements of people who claim to be former Mars Hill congregants, who report that Driscoll practices shunning of dissident church members as a bullying tool to reduce them to silence and submission.
Translation: Driscoll's notion of God and the gospel is all about bullying. It's about bullying of women and feminized men. It's about proclaiming male supremacy and female subordination as the good news of Jesus Christ. Churches rooted in such an understanding of the gospel quite naturally spawn bullies among their leaders. Those bullies are the predictable and expected outcome of the theology grounding such churches.
What do you think?