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Theology and Wikileaks

Tuesday, 1 February 2011  | Gordon Preece

Hardly a day passes without headlines derived from the latest WikiLeaks revelation. WikiLeaks reached a new level in late November when it began releasing 250,000 US State Department documents, made more available and thus vulnerable post 9/11 as an antidote to various US intelligence organisations not sharing information that might have helped them link the dots and identify the plotters. Views of WikiLeaks vary substantially depending on how close you are to having your diplomatic underwear hung out for the world to see or whether you’re in the crowd enjoying seeing emperors, or their servants, without clothes. This article seeks to put a theological perspective on the issue.

Many have found their cynicism that politicians and diplomats are serial liars confirmed by the leaks. Some see Julian Assange as a digital, 21st century Ned Kelly, thumbing his nose at authorities. Yet neither supporters nor accusers like PM Gillard are right to see him as a thief. He has committed no crime, except possibly in Sweden (though that seems a set-up like in a Stieg Larsson novel or movie). Others see him as recklessly indifferent to the political and human cost of his revelations, including possible costs of human lives. But ex US spy Valerie Plame's memoir, later movie Fair Game makes one cynical about such concerns voiced by the U.S.

A Melbourne historian, who has worked with diplomats, told me such leaks do untold damage to the more veiled, behind doors nature of diplomatic discourse, let alone ordinary social intercourse. Who’d want our passing quips about others, our every email available for every ear to hear? Yet others, particularly linked to the partnering media who have released the documents, note that not all documents have been released willy-nilly. On normal journalistic grounds, some have been kept back, others have been released on grounds of public interest and presumably headline-grabbing or voyeuristic potential.

Alison Caddick’s recent Arena magazine article traces something of the wider technological background and challenges the idea of truth as raw data, un-interpreted, de-contextualised information. The loss of diplomatic face is perhaps of a piece with the Facebook generation and its insatiable appetite for personal revelation and indifference to privacy now moving into the political sphere – the political is personal. All of us, some say, must be prepared to be bared before the new media. As Dylan once sang: ‘even the President of the United States, sometimes must have to stand naked’. This seems to me a great picture of Judgement Day and one to take seriously, particularly when we are tempted to rejoice when someone faces a secular version ahead of time.

A theology of truth forged in the dark days of World War II and the Cold War has something to say here. Bonhoeffer’s daring life or death involvement as a people smuggler of Jews out of Germany to Switzerland and in Hitler’s assassination plot raised the stakes in his discussion of secrecy and truth. In his Creation and Fall, Bonhoeffer wrote that the utopian ideal of naked, intimate communication is impossible post-Fall. That is why we experience shame and why God clothes us, because we cannot bear to be naked now, in the twilight world we’ve entered. The attempt to be open and intimate with everyone, to tell the truth naked and unvarnished, without reticence, is naieve about our radical fallenness. I was once in a T group, the T standing for transparency. A facilitator encouraged strangers to be very transparent and then tore into them when he didn’t like their transparency. It could’ve only happened in the silly 70s. True transparency arises in covenant-like contexts of commitment and formal and informal conventions that over time build up trust.

Bonhoeffer tells in his Ethics about a teacher, who, perhaps out of concern for a student’s welfare, asks a young boy in front of the class, whether his father is a drunk. The father is a drunk, but the young boy says no. Bonhoeffer commends the boy for being truthful or loyal to his father, who is his nearer neighbour, not a relative stranger like a teacher, or a whole class, not owed the truth. Truth and troth are closely related.

Theologically, during the era of Cold War diplomatic secrecy, the great theologian Karl Barth argued that if Christ is the light of the world, then there is no place for secret, dark diplomacy. In a great piece of what theologians call over-realized eschatology (as if heaven is already here), if all truth has already been revealed in Christ, then all diplomacy should be conducted truthfully and openly.

Reinhold Niebuhr nailed Barth’s alleged naievete. Twice Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, and advocate of theological realism, he saw the world still saturated in sin, and the best that we can hope for is approximate justice. Niebuhr’s eschatology is under-realised in assuming that little of Christ’s and heaven’s light has shone in the darkness yet. Barth’s statement should be taken as a Christian and independent Swiss protest against the idolatry of Cold War ideologies, their religious nature shown by being confined to realms of silence, secrecy and mystery. Yet Niebuhr reminds us of the one empirically proven reality of sin.

Biblically we need to hold the tension between ‘the now’ and ‘not yet’ of the coming Kingdom of light and truth. The truth needs to be used in love, not bluntly and without discretion like a truncheon. Wisdom depends on timeliness. Some WikiLeaks disclosures seemed timely and significant, like those of US soldiers indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians. Others may have been less timely and necessary. To be true is a quality of relational reliability, that fits the relational context as a door fits or is true to the door frame. Some contexts demand greater secrecy and diplomacy, some greater intimacy and directness. For everything to be open can be as totalitarian as for everything to be secret. There is no one-size fits all approach.

Dr Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity & Society and Priest-in-Charge of Yarraville Anglican.


Byron Smith
July 13, 2011, 2:38AM
Have just come across this. Thanks Gordan for a well-balanced piece on this. The hysteria (from sources who ought to know better) about the indiscriminate release of hundreds of thousands of documents is hyperbole and bluster (unless WikiLeaks decide to release their "insurance" code, of course...).

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