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Monday, June 16, 2014

How to Fight a Smear Campaign

In social circles we call it gossip. In the courts it’s slander or libel, depending on the media used. In political circles it’s referred to as mudslinging or swift-boating. On the web it often manifests as cyber-bullying.

Whatever; it’s a good old-fashioned smear campaign.

Use of the technique can be traced back several millennia at least, and may be as old as mankind. The motivations behind smear campaigns differ but you can bet that, more often than not, there’s more than just mean spirits or the sheer fun of maligning someone in play.

Most of the time, somebody wants something. The smear campaign is a means to an end.

So how do you fight one? Good question.

eHow suggests the following strategy may be effective:
1.  Act fast
2.  Respond with a circumspect defense
3.  Recruit and intimidate
4.  Make the accuser into the accused
5.  Continue relentlessly
Seems reasonable. Presidential candidate John Kerry, accused of puffing up his military record of heroism and attacked for his subsequent antiwar activities, responded by accusing his accusers. Though, as we know, he didn’t win the presidency, his counterattack succeeded in defusing the media frenzy. The Swift Boat Vets who accused Kerry were successfully demonized and still wear the bad-guy label today.

At worst, there’s a good chance one or more of these techniques may move the needle on public perception at least a little. At best, maybe your problems are over.

The writer of Psalm 119, however, employs a different strategy:
“The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts.” (Psalm 119:69)
Say what, Psalmist? That sounds more like a NON-strategy.

In addition, it’s a bit of a non sequitur. The first statement seems to have little or nothing to do with the second. It certainly doesn’t seem to follow logically or naturally from it.

Could it be that the two clauses are not connected at all? Maybe, except that the translators of almost every conceivable version of the English Bible pair the two statements consistently, almost always in the same sentence. 

So that explanation won’t do.

Well, much of Hebrew wisdom literature is structured by way of contrasting statements, restatements or amplifications of one’s initial proposition. So perhaps the writer intends to establish a contrast, or a series of contrasts: insolence vs. wholehearted faithfulness, smearing others vs. obedience, lies vs. precepts. Maybe lies vs. wholeheartedness. Or possibly he’s trying to set a general attitude of aggressive, active harassment against the concept of humble dependence.

Could be.

But if we assume that the second statement actually follows from the first, which I believe it does, the Psalmist’s reaction to being smeared here is, well, more of a … non-reaction.

Perhaps it has something to do with this. Speaking of the Lord Jesus, Matthew says:
“… when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.” (Matthew 27:12-14)
Fair enough. If declining to respond in kind was the Lord’s strategy when falsely accused over and over, we can be fairly sure it was an appropriate one.

And if we are tempted to think that the Lord, being perfect, was capable of exercising self-control in ways that we frequently are not … well, that’s certainly true. And yet Peter gives this instruction to believers generally: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”

The words “to this you were called” make it clear that the Psalmist’s response is actually normal, expected Christian behavior. And the apostle Paul agrees: “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”

In our Psalm the writer enthused that “with my whole heart I keep your precepts”. What seems a bit of a non sequitur actually makes a lot of sense in light of the teaching found in the rest of God’s word and the example of the Lord Jesus. Because, under fire, and probably under great pressure to respond with an “eye for an eye”, the Psalmist has elected to pursue a response strategy in character with a Saviour he only knows from law, prophecy and the witness of the Jewish sacrificial system. The information we need to please God in the church age is there, too, for the believing Jew, if somewhat coded and fully entered into only by faith.

Which kind of does away with the natural, easy option, doesn’t it.

I’m afraid, for the believer, eHow’s list of strategies seems to be off the table.

There are a couple of reasons given for this. The most mercenary, some might say, is the incentive Peter adds to his instructions: “… that you may obtain a blessing”. But I’m not sure we can exactly call wanting to be blessed by God ‘mercenary’ in the traditional sense. Seems to me more like a combination of good common sense and the natural outcome of genuine belief.

The other incentive is laid out for us by Paul:
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:19-21)
It couldn’t be more counterintuitive or in more diametric opposition to my own nature, but according to Paul, here’s a five-point response plan for the believer:

1.      Never avenge yourself
2.      Leave it to the wrath of God
3.      Go out of your way to be kind to those who smear you
4.      Do not be overcome by evil
5.      Overcome evil with good

Now that’s how to fight a smear campaign!

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