Saturday, April 07, 2007

Jesus Knew Viral Marketing

Robert Wright, opining in today's New York Times, has been reading Richard Dawkins and John Dominic Crossan:

Jesus knew viral marketing.

In the Gospel of Mark, the disciple John complains that nondisciples are selling bootlegged copies of Jesus’ miraculous powers. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Jesus tells John to quit obsessing about the intellectual property and to focus on getting the brand out. “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus adds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Fast-forward two millennia. Weeks after 9/11, George Bush says roughly the opposite. His famous “You’re either with us or against us” means that those who don’t follow his lead will be considered enemies. The rest is history. Today, Jesus has more than a billion devoted followers. Mr. Bush has ... well, fewer than that.

The religious left — yes, there is such a thing — complains that Mr. Bush ignores the Bible’s moral injunctions. But leave morality aside. If he could just match the Bible’s strategic savvy, that would make a world of difference.

Consider a teaching of Jesus that seems on its surface devoid of strategic import. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Christians often cast this verse as innovative, a sharp break from Jesus’ Jewish tradition. But the same idea can be found in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), and here it is clear that the point of the kindness is to thwart the enemy: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads.”

Coals of fire? As the editors of the New Oxford Annotated Bible explain, submitting to this treatment was an Egyptian ritual that “demonstrated contrition.” (And how!) “The sense here seems to be that undeserved kindness awakens the remorse and hence conversion of the enemies.”

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s unlikely that sending Osama bin Laden a Hallmark card would induce paroxysms of self-doubt. Still, there are other ways that reining in hatred can hurt your enemy’s cause.

Suppose, for example, you were nurturing a nascent religious movement in the Roman Empire, and your antagonists welcomed excuses to harass you. Suppose, that is, you were the Apostle Paul. When Paul preaches kindness to enemies, he uses not the formulation found in the Gospels, but the one from the Hebrew Bible, complete with the coals of fire.

Of course, Mr. Bush is more in the shoes of the Roman emperor than of Paul. America isn’t a small but growing religious movement. It’s a great power threatened by a small but growing religious movement — radical Islam. But the logic can work both ways. Great powers, by mindlessly indulging retributive impulses, can give fuel to small but growing religious movements. If you want to deprive jihadists of ammunition, make it hard for them to persuade others to hate us.

Right after Paul espouses kindness to enemies, he adds: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Sounds like na├»ve moralizing until you look at those Abu Ghraib photos that have become Al Qaeda recruiting posters.

The key distinction is between man and meme. Yes, a great power can always kill and torment enemies, and, yes, there will always be times when that makes sense. Still, when you’re dealing with terrorists, it’s their memes — their ideas, their attitudes — that are Public Enemy No. 1. Jihadists are hosts for the virus of hatred, and the object of the game is to keep the virus from finding new hosts.

The Internet is fertile ground for memes, and jihadists are good at getting the brand out. One of the few things Osama bin Laden has in common with the Jesus of the Gospels is belief in the power of viral marketing.

The ultimate in viral marketing was Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Deemed a threat to the social order, he was crucified under Roman auspices. But the Romans forgot one thing: If you face a small but growing movement that threatens the imperial order, you shouldn’t attack the men in ways that help the memes.

Mr. Bush says his favorite philosopher is Jesus. One way to show it would be to spend less time repeat- ing the mistake of the Romans and more time heeding the wisdom of Christ.

Spot on.

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