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Decisions are increasingly influenced by the fleeting diktat of popular opinion
At the Jubilee Centre, we are constantly engaged in working out what it means to think biblically about public life today. It is good to be wise to the trends which are shaping public life, and as I look ahead to 2018, two dilemmas around public leadership concern me.
The first is the contrast between what is popular and what is right. Populism has been on the rise in Europe and the US for a few years, baffling pundits and contributing to ‘surprise’ election results. But populism doesn’t only apply to politics. Social media, often considered to be a more democratic and participatory kind of media, and measured through ‘likes’, is being given more and more weight in all kinds of decision-making. Surveys and polls proliferate, offering a quasiobjective sounding of the public mood.
Yet we know that internet likes are easily manipulated, ‘fake news’ abounds and the online public is notoriously fickle. Somehow we have ended up in the thrall of social media, and decisions are increasingly influenced by the fleeting diktat of popular opinion. It’s never been easier to know what’s popular, never been harder to know what’s right.
But who is to say what ‘right’ is? The biblical narrative provides a rich moral and ethical framework of what constitutes right and wrong, both for individuals and society. It also explains why people sometimes make choices – even ‘popular’ ones – that are not good for them or society. Yet in a culture ruled by individualism, there is no foundation for leaders to critique popular opinion, since we lack an agreed higher authority to appeal to.
So our challenge is to keep finding ways of expressing biblical wisdom to a secular, liberal society that doesn’t accept divine authority. This is why we find Relational Thinking so valuable in Jubilee Centre, since the framework and language of relationships is both true to biblical revelation, and also makes sense to ordinary people.
The other issue I’m concerned about is the way we regard the past behaviour of individuals, both public-facing and private. Over the last few months, a flood of accusations of sexual harassment have been made against celebrities and public figures, often going back decades. The internet has the power to amplify such allegations at a phenomenal speed and scale, with the result that people can become instantly toxic to their colleagues, businesses and organisations.
Positively, the #metoo hashtag has given courage to a huge number of women to speak up about ways they felt used. However, there is a downside to ‘Trial by Twitter’. It can quickly discard the hard-won human right to be considered innocent until proven guilty and encourage a vigilante culture, where the accused may face instant real-world repercussions.
Nonetheless, I find myself more deeply troubled by the way that these cases demonstrate how the idea of repentance is being steadily removed from our cultural vocabulary. The assumption is that people’s beliefs and values don’t fundamentally change. If you made a deeply offensive comment on Facebook as a teenager, it’s assumed you still have the same basic attitudes a decade later. You may apologise when you’re exposed, but the lack of a narrative of repentance – and a mechanism to wipe the online slate clean – means that you are defined by your past and tarnished for life.
Of course, criminal offences must always be brought to justice, but we must extend grace and give all people room to change their minds and hearts, renouncing character flaws, immature attitudes and foolish behaviour. For without repentance, there can be no gospel, nor any hope of enduring change and transformation.
Jonathan Tame, Director of the Jubilee Centre (Cambridge, UK).
This article first appeared on the Jubilee Centre website and was republished with permission.