Jonathan Bartley

Let he who is without spin...

By Jonathan Bartley
March 11, 2010

If the Bible's accounts are to be believed, God had spin doctors too. In the Hebrew scriptures, it was the prophets who were charged with delivering the messages of the Almighty. Often resorting to visual displays and stunts, their interventions were also highly political.

Their example highlights that the biggest spin happens around agendas, rather than simple distortion of the facts and figures employed to support a particular position. Their interventions often involved changing the very terms of debate, refusing to accept the agenda on which political life was constructed – which usually involved furthering the interests of the rich and powerful.

Samuel warned against the centralisation of power which would turn the tribal confederacy into a monarchy, as well as the resulting militarism. Jeremiah and Isaiah singled out the social and economic injustices which were hitting the poorest. In contemporary terms, they displayed a remarkable ability to stay on message. They subverted the political perspectives of their day, speaking instead for the interests of the powerless. In an age when empirical data were lacking, they brought with them a different set of priorities, and asked a different set of questions.

It is within this tradition that Jesus Christ also falls. When, for example, he was asked a question about taxation, he didn't accept the framework around which the debate was constructed either.

The political landscape on the issue was shaped by two political groups of the time. There were those in bed with the Romans, believing it was acceptable to pay taxes to Caesar. Others of a more revolutionary bent believed it would be collaboration. But when asked whether people should cough up for the occupying power, Jesus didn't give a "yes" or "no" answer that we might demand from politicians on Newsnight today. Using a visual aid, like many prophets before him, he held up a coin and asked whose head was on it. It was of course Caesar's. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's", he said.

The story itself has been spun by many down the centuries (who have often been allied with Governments) as an endorsement for the payment of taxes. To the people of Jesus' day however, his response would have reframed the debate, highlighting deeper questions about allegiance and authority, and in whose interests the question was being asked.

To see spin as something which is just about manipulation of data, lying, malicious deceit, and stretching a point, is too narrow a view and limits truth to something purely propositional. In the recent debate about crime figures for example, the Tories may have manipulated data. But both sides were spinning. This was not just because figures were being presented in a certain way, but because of the policies around which their arguments were constructed. Both parties want to appear "tough on crime", employing a primarily punitive approach based on a model of justice which champions convictions. Neither was, for example, operating from an alternative model of restorative justice which sees reconciliation between victim and offender a priority.

We should not draw too hard a line between fact and value. Spin involves the assumptions that underpin a debate, and the way agendas are cast. Countering spin – or indeed using one's own spin – can be about pointing to new and alternative perspectives. It is not just that we all do it. There is great value in it too.

Let he who is without spin cast the first stone.


This article first appeared in the Guardian's Comment Is Free.

(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.

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