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Living in the truth: responding to propaganda

Thursday, 17 May 2018  | Peter Corney

The truth will set you free.

- Jesus

The question of truth versus propaganda is a major issue for us all today. But it is particularly so for those Eastern European countries liberated from Soviet control since 1989 and impacted by the collapse of the old Soviet Union. After all, it is only 28 years since that iconic moment when the Berlin wall separating East and West Germany came down.

Most of the current generation of Western young adults outside of the EU, who have grown up in places like Australia since 1989, are completely unaware of the ongoing struggle these people face in rebuilding their countries on democratic principles and shaking off the old Soviet mentality. In some cases, they also face ongoing interference in their new sovereign governments from Putin’s Russia. Remember that Russia is involved in a war with Ukraine and has unilaterally annexed part of its territory; it also has been involved in conflict with Georgia on whom it continues to apply pressure; and there is growing evidence of its interference in other post-Soviet countries.

It has been crucial for the leaders of the early freedom movements in those countries recently liberated to continue to educate their people, as they put it, to ‘live in the truth’, because for so long they lived under the clichés, lies and deception of constant communist propaganda from ‘The ministry of Truth’, as Orwell satirised it in his novel 1984 about the Soviet regime. Anyone over the age of thirty in these countries lived all their formative years shaped by communist propaganda. The level of control and the stifling of freedom, individual initiative and creativity fostered passivity, inertia and apathy as well as dissent. People needed to be set free in their minds and hearts to effectively embrace their new political freedom. Two other legacies from their immediate past are the tension between their renewed nationalism and their membership of the EU, and the tension between the liberalism of the West and their cultural conservatism.

In a recent issue of ‘New Eastern Europe’ (no. 5, Sept-Oct 2017, 115), the editors ran a very interesting section on the Legacy of the Reformation in Central and Eastern Europe. They interviewed two Lutheran Pastors who had been deeply involved in the pre-1989 struggles for independence from the Soviet Union.

Markus Meckel is a German Lutheran pastor and was one of the leaders of the East German pre-1989 movement for freedom from Soviet control. He also became a minister in the first post-1989 democratically elected East German government. In the 1980s he and other Christian leaders started groups meeting in Churches to teach people what was needed to have a free and open society. He says: ‘It took years of our work within these groups to prepare people to say ‘No’ and be encouraged to live in truth’. They continued this work while under threat and pressure from the old regime (New Eastern Europe, no. 5, Sept-Oct-2017, 115). This work continues today.

Another Lutheran Pastor Juris Rubenis, a Latvian who helped organise some of the largest anti-Soviet demonstrations in the 1980s in Latvia, is now working to help Latvians overcome their post-Soviet mentality through spirituality and meditation. He says:

External freedom is only one part of total freedom. It is impossible to properly utilise external, political freedom if people do not have enough internal freedom. So I understood that the main effort against totalitarianism in the years to come would not happen in the external world but in the internal world. How do we become internally free?’

This led him to build a meditation centre and to conduct retreats to teach people meditation and contemplation. His contemplative practice is shaped by his Christian tradition. He says ‘it’s like shock therapy for people who have been educated in communist rationalism……meditation corrects the false notion that earthly happiness is easy, quick or simple’ (New Eastern Europe, no. 5, Sept-Oct-2017, 140-141)

The so called ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Prague that precipitated Czechoslovakia’s liberation in 1989 took the motto of the Charter 77 Movement as their rallying cry: ‘Truth prevails for those who live in truth’. The vast crowds that gathered in Wenceslas Square to listen to the inspiring speeches by Vaclav Havel, the poet/activist who later became President, chanted ‘We are not like them [the Soviet regime]! They are people of lies and propaganda. We are people of the truth’ (quoted by Os Guiness in Time for Truth, 2001, 9-10).

The issue of living in the truth and how to become internally free is thrown into sharp relief for Eastern Europeans because of their recent experience, but it is also a critical one for us all in our contemporary world that is saturated with commercial and marketing, as well as political, propaganda. Yet today propaganda is not just the province of commercial interests and mainstream political parties and governments. The internet and social media has made the dissemination of information, opinion and protest cheap and easy. This has a positive side in a democracy but it can be and is abused. The information that is used by minority political and activist groups to push their cause is often deeply biased, exaggerated or false. Sometimes this is a cynical strategy as the end is seen as justifying the means, at other times it is just passion for the cause distorting or being blind to the facts. Living in the truth is not so easy in the world of contemporary communications.

Richard Flanagan, the Tasmanian author and winner of the Man Booker prize for literature in 2014, recently wrote an insightful piece on the theme of Progress Freedom and Truth:

Progress and freedom are not necessarily joined… truth is the precious hinge that holds freedom and progress together. China’s advances are, after all, the proof that if all that matters to you is progress, you can have progress without freedom. But there will be a void, and in that void a great darkness will arise. Truth is the only force we have, the one light strong enough to combat such darkness. And if we can be persuaded that the truth does not exist, the light goes out and we are condemned to the darkness. (‘The corrosion of truth in these strange times is terrifying’, The Australian Guardian, 31/10/17)

How should we respond?

  1. Practice personally living in the truth. That means beginning with our selves by being scrupulous in not lying, even in small matters and not exaggerating. Being honest with ourselves. Living an examined life, reflecting on our own weaknesses and then actively trying to change. Seeking to admit and apologise when we have hurt someone and to seek forgiveness. Making time for reflection and quiet in our daily prayers to allow God to speak the truth to us about our attitudes and behaviour.
  2. As a Christian, regularly review your core values and ask yourself: are they determining and controlling your ideas, opinions and actions or are they your cultural prejudices in charge?
  3. Be aware of your political prejudices and biases and your tendency to reinforce them. Seek out balanced information. Remember that all governments and political parties engage in propaganda at some level in attempts to sell their ideas, policies and programs and so the citizen must be constantly alert for the truth and seek out balanced reporting on important issues. This is why freedom of speech is such a critical value in a democracy. All media outlets have a point of view and many have a strong ideological bias. The same goes for public think tanks - most have been set up by particular political party interests and you should be aware of their bias. Having said that, their information and opinion is often well-researched and worthy of study as long as you balance it with other studies.
  4. The other alternative is to be indifferent, to have no political views, to be so apathetic or cynical that you have given up any sense of responsibility for public truth. This is to forfeit your part in the cause of the common good.
  5. All commercial marketing is an attempt to sell us something so we must treat it all with a degree of scepticism and do our research before we buy. There are many sources of information on the internet that are designed to assist in this process – ‘don’t impulse buy’ is a good motto.

To ‘live in the truth’ is a challenge to live an examined life and a responsible life for yourself, your family and the common good of others. For the Christian, the words of Jesus provide the clear direction:

If you hold to my teaching you really are my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31-32)

Peter Corney
is the Vicar Emeritus of St. Hilary’s in Kew, a leadership mentor and a commentator on Christianity and cultural issues. He blogs at www.petercorney.com.


Andrew Kulikovsky
May 17, 2018, 11:40PM
I appreciate and agree with the sentiments in this article. However, living the truth implies that you know the truth. To know the truth requires hard work: diligence in research and deep thought. Too many people (including Christians) are not prepared to put in the required effort. They would rather 'seem' good than BE good... It's much easier and much more appealing to click 'Like', sign a petition, or post on Facebook or Twitter with a hashtag... and yet repeatedly demonstrate a complete misunderstanding or gross oversimplification of the issues, nor do they appear to have any grasp of the possible and/or likely consequences of the ideas they propose.

In the end, it's all just 'virtue signalling' and it's not just the young that are doing it. I fear that far too many Christian leaders are going down the same route...
Ian Hore-Lacy
May 19, 2018, 5:23PM
Andrew's comments are apt, in an era when public policy is more than ever populist and based on half-truths and wishful thinking.

Look at the total mess re energy policy, particularly on electricity. It costs.

Both levels of government have let us down, being driven more by public sentiment than anything like truth.

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