Seeking truth among the ugliness

Saturday, November 4, 2006

The other day I was waiting to renew my driver's license. The person ahead of me in line began to get into an argument with the clerk:

Customer: "You called me a liar!"

Clerk: "You can't cuss in this office!"

For those of us waiting, it was a time of feet shuffling and looking away. Since there had been no accusation of lying nor any profanity uttered, it was clear these two ladies had a previous encounter that did not go well. The clerk absented herself and another quickly appeared to handle the transaction without further incident.

Personal ugliness of which you are a spectator often feels like you were hit by the backsplash of someone jumping in a swimming pool. For weeks now, we've been exposed to ugliness when we turn on our television sets. The political commercials, I mean.

If there is a closely contested election or referendum for which the outcome is in serious doubt, the tone of the ads become dark, the music sounds menacing and the narrator's voice turns grim.

Ads for candidate A portray candidate B by means of a black and white photo shot from an unflattering angle to emphasize the "evil" of candidate B. And at the end of each such attack ad, we hear the words, "I'm _ and I approve this message." Well, I don't approve. It's more backsplash from the pool.

Why do politicians do this? Why do they allow these commercials to air with their names attached to them?

Because they work.

If a contest is up in the air, if you desire to convert the undecided, you'd better create some backsplash. If you don't, your opponent will.

Why do the ads work? Maybe it's because we're predisposed to believe the worst about people. Maybe the ad-makers count on the fact that we won't take the time to find out if the attacks are true.

As this election cycle draws to a close, my thoughts turn to a beaten and exhausted Jesus standing in front of Pontius Pilate. It is early morning and Jesus is brought before the man who can spare his life or have him executed.

The conversation they are about to have is crucial to Jesus' survival. Pilate gives Jesus every opportunity to go on the attack to save his life.

"Are you the king of the Jews?" he asks.

The question is a trap -- only Caesar is recognized by official Rome as a monarch. Instead of becoming defensive and going on the attack -- which would have been understandable -- Jesus simply asks if the question about kingship comes from Pilate or from others.

Pilate dodges this -- he must keep the upper hand. The accused don't ask questions. Pilate ups the stakes. "What have you done?" he demands.

Again, another chance for Jesus to shred his accusers. Attack and live! Jesus again avoids the route of creating backsplash, merely saying he is no threat to Caesar's authority.

Pilate gives it one more try, a try worthy of a persistent Tim Russert from NBC's "Meet the Press": "So, you are a king then?" Jesus still won't take the bait. "You say that I am," he said. Jesus then finishes this section of John chapter 18 by telling Pilate his business is the truth.

"What is truth?" Pilate asks.

When Tuesday comes, Pilate's question ought to ring in our ears as we vote. Have we been able to blot ourselves dry from the backsplash in order to see the truth? Or is water still in our eyes?

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies, and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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