Image courtesy of emw at Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons license
With Sunday night’s Oscar win for best picture, “Spotlight,” the movie about the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic child abuse by Catholic priests, provided renewed validation of the press’s role to hold the powerful accountable in our society.
It also offered a strong statement about the magnitude of public outrage when the people and institutions professing to provide spiritual refuge violate their sacred trust and prey upon the vulnerable.
It’s not uncommon to hear people lament the predatory predilections of the press, that it is too consumed with playing “gotcha journalism” and wantonly smearing the reputations of public figures. I’m not going to argue that doesn’t happen.
But would we rather have no one standing watch for exactly the kinds of heinous abuses of power that the Globe’s investigations uncovered? Would we rather defer blindly to the established authority of such figures and institutions, the way Boston and many other communities did during the years these victims suffered in silence?
For me, failing to protect the vulnerable is a greater sin than the needless sensationalism displayed by some media outlets and individual journalists. And if we are going to allow the press, broadly speaking, to scrutinize those holding or seeking power, then we have to accept that it, too, will at times fail this public trust. So let us hold the press accountable as well.
We all need accountability. We all need authority. Our leaders need to know they answer to us. Those who would slip secretly through the shadows, stealing innocence and scarring hearts, must be on notice: not on our watch.
On my drive into work this morning, I was listening to a podcast of Francis Chan speaking at the Urbana Student Missions Conference in December. He spoke on how the message of godly authority has become lost and misunderstood in our modern society. We may be attracted to the protection and provision of Christ, but we buck at the commands of his authority.
Because too often we have seen authority abused, because it has been a vice of the corrupt to oppress and exploit, we have difficulty understanding that God’s authority springs from his eternal love. It is not selfish; it is selfless. He does not coerce us into submission; he offers the opportunity to follow him. As Chan described, the one who calmed the storm and cast out demons invites us to come and learn from him. If we heed his authority, we are not confined by his control but rescued by his grace.
Let us also then recognize that as Christians we hold a particular accountability before God to be his faithful representatives on Earth. Our charge to bring hope and healing to a hurting world means that we are entrusted to treat the broken, the vulnerable and the searching with special care. Jesus said it would be better to tie a millstone around your neck and throw yourself into the sea than to cause one of these people to lose faith in him.
Our words and actions leave lasting impressions. The world looks at us to see how we will represent God’s authority. Will we shine his light of love and justice with honor and humility? Or will we seek our own selfish desires, regardless of the destruction to others?
Beyond all their cynicism, deeper than their wounds and their jaded pasts, people are longing for the true love of Christ. It is how we are made. Sin has separated us from relationship with God, and only Jesus can reconcile that debt. There is no greater violation of the human soul than to exploit the good news of the gospel for our own sordid gain.
The father has given the son all authority, and he has invited us to be ambassadors of that authority. Let us meet this responsibility with obedience, reverence and awe. People are watching.
Jeff Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, where he teaches courses in newswriting, feature writing, multimedia journalism and literary journalism. His research has examined the role narrative and literary journalism can play in broadening our understanding of various issues and experiences life brings our way, from identity formation to environmental ethics. He has also studied how youth journalism programs, where young people tell their own stories and those of their peers, can help strengthen local communities. He is currently working with local non-profit outreach organizations to build a youth journalism program called Tampa Youth Voice. Prior to entering academe, Jeff worked as a writer and editor for various publications in and around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a case manager and resource development specialist for the Florida foster care system.