17 April, 2019

The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.

~ Isaiah 50:4 ~

The capacity to rouse a crowd is the desire of every speaker, every religious leader, every politician. From the time of the ancient Greeks it was believed that any person could be trained in rhetoric, the ability to argue a point. A ‘well-trained tongue’ was a tongue that could speak clearly, communicate ideas simply and win the assent of others.

New technologies today combine with ancient arts of persuasion to ‘sell’ things to all kinds of people. Advertising is an industry in itself. In public life, and in times of elections in particular, advertising is a central part of politicians’ campaigns to win over voters to their point of view. In political campaigning the aim is to get people to ‘buy’ one’s ideas, indeed through an election to ‘buy’ one party or candidate over another.

The Church coined the term ‘propaganda’, literally propagating its message during the missionary era through the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Latin: Propaganda Fidei). Today the term has a negative connotation – the passing on of dishonest or manipulative messages to make people believe a certain ideology, at worst a set of false ideas, at best a worldview that ordinary people are expected to accept.

Political campaigning has made propaganda an art used to simplify, and often distort, issues to present the communicator in the best light – and sometimes damn the opponents. Complex issues get packaged into slogans. Problems are simplified into simplistic alternatives: ‘us’ (=good) versus ‘them’ (=bad). The outcome is often election promises which cannot be kept because they are unworkable solutions to problems that haven’t been properly analysed.

South African politics has long been caught up in this kind of rhetoric. Under Apartheid the National Party’s strategy was a brilliant combination of distortions, delusion and fear-mongering: cultural difference was warped into a sense of no possible common ground (distortion), that Apartheid promoted equality and development (delusion) and that the alternative was atheistic communism (fear-mongering). Twenty-five years of democracy has also given in to its own propaganda: promoting inclusivism when needed, playing up race when necessary; embracing modern democracy and traditionalism; and pushing the myth that voting for the opposition is unpatriotic and the slippery slope to the restoration of Apartheid.

Isaiah and Jesus, in contrast, wanted to communicate a simple message – the grace and love of God that cuts through ideology. This is not about imposing ‘The Truth’ (an ideology) but instead an engagement with complex reality, which admits no quick-fix solutions. Starting from the truth of God’s love and God’s call to us to love, we are called to be humble in the solutions we seek, pragmatic in how we act for God’s greater glory and the good of others. When faced with electing leaders, we should examine the rhetoric of candidates and test their claims against reality.

Do we? Or do we allow ourselves to be seduced by simplistic solutions or scare tactics?


Lord, help us to weigh carefully the words and arguments of all who try to persuade us to their point of view. May we take the time to think, pray and dialogue about the issues. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to help us to enlighten our hearts and minds so we may be able to see the truth of a given situation. Amen.


Catholic Parliamentary

Liaison Office

Jesuit Institute
South Africa

Reflection prepared by and

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ entered the Society of Jesus in 2005 and underwent the usual course of studies in his formation, which took him to such varied places as Canada, France, Ireland, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Whilst working at the Institute, Matthew managed the background technical aspects of much of the Institute's work and was involved in the Spirituality work, completing the Advanced Spiritual Directors Training Course and the Spiritual Exercises Training run by the Institute. He is a member of Spiritual Directors International and was also a part-time lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is currently the Director of Communications for the Jesuits in Southern Africa, based in Lusaka, Zambia.

m.charlesworth@jesuitinstitute.org.za @mcharlesworth
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