With the Christmas season upon us and the election and Ebola seasons behind us, I am thinking about the roles of the first and fourth estates of society in broadcasting the news.
The medieval notion of the four estates of the realm included the clergy (first!), the nobility, the commoners, and the press. Nowadays we might say that the four estates include the church (or religious communities), the government, the public, and the media.
Church, first. What is our role in society? We exist as communities of faith under the conviction that God exists and plays an active role in the affairs of the world. Christmas signals that active role of God-with-us. How God is with us, however, is also signaled by this babe born in a stable. God engages the world gently and humbly, coming among us from within us — wooing the world with love rather than warring against the world with wrath.
Angels are divine bearers of news who invite us to embrace the truth that is too good not to be true. Their message to shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night: “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all the people.”
The word angel comes from the Greek for messenger. Angels only speak what they are told. And whenever they show up proclaiming good news, they begin by saying, “Do not be afraid.”
The church hears this word and then speaks it likewise. Our responsibility to the world is to be heralds of good news that begins with a call to fear not.
In the recent Ebola scare, this was a role our church and other churches played. We called on people to stay calm, not to allow unreasonable fear to overtake them. It’s hard to embrace the good news when you are full of fear.
The fourth estate also played an important role in telling the truth about what was going on in this time of Ebola. The media is under pressure to find ways to get our attention, just to stay in business. That sometimes leads to failures of omission and commission. But I found most print, TV and radio journalists to be honest truth-tellers during this period. They want to get the story right. And when they do, they are allies in fighting the kind of fear that either immobilizes the public or inspires our worst attitudes and actions.
Someone recently stole the infamous sign over the gate of the Dachau “labor” camp outside of Berlin. It read Arbeit Macht Frei (freely translated, “work sets you free”). Nazi lords used propaganda to hide the truth instead of telling it. Inside those “death camps” people were worked to death and starved, then systematically killed. There was nothing life-giving or liberating about them.
Only the truth sets you free, Jesus said. The media plays a role in keeping us all honest and promoting transparency in our dealings with one another. The church and all other religious communities have that charge too, but we have the added word of good tidings of great joy to share as well.
The news is not always good day to day, but Christmas tells us that good news wins the day at the End of Days. And so, we need not be afraid.