Sermon for January 28th, 2018
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Faith & Film VI: The Post
Three Minute Film Synopsis
The Post is based on the real life events of 1971, as the classified government documents known as the "Pentagon Papers" were leaked and published by several major Newspapers, among them the Washington Post.
Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) is the publisher and owner of the Washington Post, a regional paper aspiring to become a national force. The paper was originally acquired and published by her father, then passed to her husband, and its leadership fell to her after her husband's death. Throughout the film, we watch Graham struggle to find her voice, to be taken seriously as a woman leading in a male-dominated industry.
The editor in chief of the paper is Benjamin Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) who is referred to more than once in the film as an opportunistic, no-holds-barred "Pirate," but we can't help but admire his steadfast loyalty and commitment to the principles of the first amendment and the freedom of the press.
When Graham and Bradlee come into possession of the leaked documents, they race to publish them, but their rivals, the New York Times beat them to press. The Nixon White House successfully wins an injunction preventing the Times from publishing any more documents, and at this point, the Washington Post faces the difficult decision of whether to risk their very existence by defying the White House and going to press, or on the other hand, risking their journalistic integrity (and their opportunity to become a major player in national news) by allowing the government to silence them.
Against the advice of her lawyers and business advisors, Graham makes the bold decision to publish, landing both her paper and the New York Times in front of the Supreme Court, which ultimately decides in their favor, setting the stage for the golden era of journalism, the Washington Post, and the downfall of the Nixon presidency.
The Power of the Word
The opening scene of the film takes place not in a newsroom, but in the dark jungle of Vietnam, as American soldiers prepare to engage with their enemy. We see the soldiers putting on camouflaged face paint, loading their rifles, weapons everywhere. And then in the midst of all those weapons, we see...a typewriter. It belongs to Daniel Ellsberg, who tags along as an "observer" and later famously (infamously?) is the one to copy and leak the Pentagon Papers to the press.
But he juxtaposition of a typewriter in the midst of the weapons of war is quite intentional, right at the outset of the story. We all know the old saying that the "pen is mightier than the sword" and this film makes the point over and over: The printed word, the press, is powerful. It can stop wars, bring down governments and presidents, and change the course of a nation.
The evangelist known to us as John also begins his story with the image of the Word, which he equates with nothing less than God himself: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being."
This is also a reference back to the first chapter of Genesis, where God creates the entire world not with hands or tools or explosions...but simply by the force of his words: "And God said, let there be light. And there was light."
Prophets and Kings
The film highlights the courage and bravery of Katharine Graham and Benjamin Bradlee in standing up to the President of the United States. At one point, Robert Macnamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and a close friend and advisor to Katharine Graham, warns her that if she publishes the papers, Nixon "will muster the full power of the Presidency, and if there's a way to destroy you, by God, he'll find it."
Interestingly, the Pentagon Papers were written before Nixon was elected President, and their most damning revelations were not against the Nixon White House, but against the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations that came before. This made Graham's choice particularly difficult, as her family were close personal friends with the Johnsons, and (although only alluded to in the following clip) Bradlee himself had been close friends with the Kennedys.
Where does one draw the line between allegiance to one's friends, one's country, and the chosen leader of that country?
This is a familiar dilemma for the Kings and Prophets of the Old Testament. The Prophet Samuel anoints Saul as the first King of Israel, and urges the people to listen to their new King, saying "there is no one like him among all the people." When Saul turns away from God, Samuel is devastated and cries out to the Lord all night, before finally rising to confront and denounce the King he had once served.
The prophet Nathan is a court prophet, part of King David's inner circle of friends and advisors. But it is Nathan who confronts David over his affair with Bathsheba.
King Hezekiah consults the great prophet Isaiah, and values his counsel. Isaiah prays for Hezekiah when he becomes ill, and asks God to heal him. But then Hezekiah is succeeded by his son King Manasseh, who, according to tradition, executes Isaiah by placing him in a log and having the log sawn in half.
Like the journalists and publishers in The Post, the Old Testament Prophets had to work with the rulers of the land, dining with them and getting to know them. But at times they also had to confront them, expose them, and hold them accountable, remembering that their first allegiance was to justice and truth, making their profession a dangerous, but valuable one.
There is a scene in The Post, late at night, after Katharine Graham has made the difficult decision that publishing the papers was the morally right thing to do, and we see the enormous machinery of the printing press roar to life, causing the offices above the press to shake and rattle, as a sea of freshly printed newspapers flows up and down the conveyor belts.
In this powerful scene, I couldn't help but hear echoes of the prophet Amos, who knew a thing or two about speaking truth to power. Amos said (5:24), "Let justice roll down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The Light Shining In the Darkness
On the front page of every issue of the Washington Post, right under the paper's name, appear these words: Democracy Dies in Darkness. It's a good motto for a newspaper, and a theme that resonates through both the movie and our scriptures. If democracy dies in darkness, the implication is that what saves a people is bringing things into the light of day. There's a word for that in the Bible, in Ancient Greek: ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis). It's where we get the word "apocalypse" which contrary to modern usage, does not in fact mean "the end of the world." It means "uncovering" or revealing; revelation. Or perhaps, thinking of our next clip, it could mean, "unboxing."
When the journalists of The Post first gather in wonder around the box containing the Pentagon Papers, I think that's also a subtle reference to Pandora's box in Greek Mythology. Once you let the truth out of the box, you can't put it back in again. It's also worth remembering that while all of the things that came out of Pandora's box caused great trouble...at the bottom of the box, Pandora found one more thing: Hope.
There is indeed great hope in bringing truth out of the darkness and into the light, even if at first, all it causes is trouble.
In the second half of our scripture passage today, we read that Jesus, the word made flesh is the "light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
We live in a world today where the very notion of "truth" is being called into question. If the 70s taught us to be skeptical of politicians, presidents, and government institutions, then the 2000s and the advent of #fakenews have taught us to be skeptical of newspapers, publishers, and giant media conglomerates (like the Washington Post). So if you walked away from The Post believing that good newspapers and good reporting are the answer to all of our problems, I'm very sorry to disappoint you.
Words are powerful, and can be a powerful force for good. But as I often reminded my high school freshmen in my teaching days, just because you see something in print (or hear it on the radio or watch it on television) doesn't necessarily make it true. And these days, we are sophisticated enough in our writing and speaking that something can be completely true but arguably false; partially true but mostly false; mostly true but not completely, or completely false but arguably true. What a mess!
That's why I really like the metaphor of light and darkness. When you shine a light in the darkness, that light does not create the truth, or create anything for that matter. It simply illuminates what was already there, so you can see it better. So you can evaluate it better for yourself--you still have to use the eyes, the brain, and the heart God gave you!).
Lies are harder to defend, and truth is harder to obscure when everyone sees the same things in the same light. Sometimes we still come to different conclusions, but that's okay. That's part of what it means to be a democracy, to be a community.
I don't believe that Jesus came to tell us definitively, once and for all, exactly what we should believe, how we should behave, to what church or political party we should belong.
I think Jesus came to turn on the light; to BE the light; to help us see things more clearly with our own eyes, brains, and hearts.
I think Jesus came to inspire us with the kind of bravery it takes for each one of us to lay everything we value on the line, to flip the switch... to open the box... to tell the story... to overcome the darkness and fill the world with hope, and love, and light.