Leaves from the Notebook of a Not-So-Tamed Cynic

Leaves from the Notebook of a Not-So-Tamed Cynic

I have a confession to make that won’t surprise people who know me well. I struggle with cynicism. But I think if you knew some of my life experiences with powerful people I should have been able to trust but who turned out to be totally unworthy of trust, maybe you’d forgive me. As I said, I struggle. I try not to give in, but I find it a daily task and rely on God’s love and grace and my wife’s unfailing cheerfulness about almost everything to keep me from giving in to a cynical view of the world.

My struggle with cynicism began very early—somewhere around fifth grade. A person I was supposed to be able to trust absolutely to look out for my well-being let me down in an act of shocking neglect that resulted in a very serious illness and lengthy hospitalization. After that, even though I forgave the person, I knew what Reinhold Niebuhr meant by “love everyone but trust no one.”

When I “graduated” from junior high school my fellow freshmen (ninth graders) voted me “most cynical” of them. I had a sneaking suspicion that what they really meant by “cynical” was “sardonic,” but they didn’t know that word. It’s easy to confuse the two things. Or perhaps they saw through my sardonic wit to my budding cynical interior.

Part of my struggle with cynicism is the sneaking suspicion that, in this world, anyway, one is not wrong to be somewhat cynical. There’s a lot to be cynical about! Especially when it comes to power and those who have it. And yet I know most people consider cynicism a vice.

Now what about cynicism and Christianity? Is cynicism a sin? Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear me say I don’t think so—at least not necessarily. Like all things normal cynicism can become sinful when taken to an extreme, when not tamed and controlled. However, insofar as cynicism is simply a kind of constant suspicion of powerful people’s motives and of the systems that dominate society, it seems to me it’s at least justified by two realities: original sin and the way things are.

My kind of cynicism is like defensive driving. I’ve avoided numerous automobile accidents simply by expecting other drivers to do the wrong thing. Where I live one should never “go” when the light turns green without checking to make sure other drivers aren’t running their new red light. It’s simply routine for people to keep on turning left through controlled intersections well after their green arrow has turned yellow and then red. Similarly, I simply expect insurance companies, for example, to try their best to avoid paying claims. When I get a clinic’s bill with unexpected charges because my health insurance company declined payment I never just pay it. I call my health insurance company to find out why. As often as not a bit of arguing gets them to see that they should have paid the claim. (I could give examples, but most people I’ve talked to know very well what I’m talking about and don’t need to hear my stories; they have enough of their own to tell!)

I think there’s a difference between hard core cynicism that arises from misanthropy and soft core cynicism that arises from belief in original sin and life experience. I don’t hate my fellow human beings, I just don’t trust them. I mean that I don’t trust their handlings of power or money. And I especially don’t trust institutions. My experience tells me that many very nice, well-meaning people become monsters when they get behind the wheels of their cars and that many very nice, well-meaning, even loving people do mean and unethical things in their positions of power in organizations and justify their uncharacteristic (for them) behavior as “just doing business.”

The other evening I had trouble sleeping so I sat up late and watched a movie on cable television. It was a black comedy and a very ingenious one. In fact, I’d say it was the best political satire I’ve ever seen. Perhaps you’ve seen it: “Wag the Dog” starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. Only a somewhat cynical person can really enjoy it! Whoever conceived the plot and wrote it has to be a master cynic. Of course, that’s only true insofar as one thinks it is meant to have a serious message and not meant as sheer fantasy! But during this second viewing of the movie (I saw it when it first came out), I became convinced by little things scattered throughout it that it is meant to have a serious message—for those who can handle it. I suspect many, perhaps most, viewers can’t handle the serious message beneath the humor.

Throughout the movie I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and ended up doing both! Hoffman’s performance is so amazingly funny one can’t help but laugh at some of his lines—such as when he rants “This is my show!” referring to the fake war he’s “producing” and, for example, the CIA’s attempt to “shut it down.”

My cynicism towards contemporary politics causes me to view the movie as more than comedy; it’s trage-comedy. We, the United States, have been almost constantly at “war” (whether an officially declared one or a war by another name such as “police action”) for as long as I can remember. Why? Because we are really defending our own national interests or weak and helpless people or because war takes people’s minds off what the politicians are doing otherwise? Even politicians who talk a good talk about civil liberties and human rights authorize or defend the government’s “right” to assassinate U.S. citizens, to operate “secret courts” and detain people without charges or trials indefinitely. The public falls for talk of “our freedom” when the countries we attack are no threat to our freedom at all.

Yes, I have lost faith in our government. Not in America, a great dream, but in its government that says one thing and does something else. It is more concerned with its own power than the common good or citizens’ rights. It uses fear of terrorism to gain the power to operate as a “national security state” (police state) if it wishes to. And fearful people permit it. And it doesn’t seem to matter which party is in power; the same behaviors apply.

I can hear someone crying “Traitor! Un-American!” but my answer is—no. It is un-American not to be suspicious of government power and not to demand that it be limited. Every true American ought to be demanding the dissolution of “secret courts” and blanket spying on America’s own citizens. Better yet, every true American ought to be just cynical enough to expect people in power to behave in such ways unless they are constantly monitored and checked.

If safety and security require a police state, or even the apparatus for one, then the idea of America is dead.

What’s the solution? The deeper cynical side of me says there is none—that isn’t eschatological. My “sunshine self” (not very vocal) says—vote for independents and third party candidates.

I probably shouldn’t watch movies like “Wag the Dog.” But one positive side effect of watching it was therapeutic—it showed me I’m not alone. Whoever wrote it thinks like I do.

I’m getting out from a bottom drawer my bumper sticker that says “If You’re Not Outraged You’re Not Paying Attention!” and putting it back where it belongs—in my car’s back window!

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  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    No need to apologize for being cynical about American politics. Ever since the Pentagon Papers and the Tower Commission, we’ve had more than enough reason to remain vigilantly cynical of all power in the US government. Three points:

    A: “Wag the Dog” IS a great piece of political satire–it came out, as I recall, around the time Bill Clinton was bombing somebody in the midst of the White House intern affair (as if to prove the point!).

    B: If you want a perspective in the public square, informed by both Christian faith and political experience, that is skeptical/critical of the US government yet not corrosively cynical, you could do no better I think than the journalism of fellow-Texan Bill Moyers.

    C: For help sleeping at night, I would recommend reciting the psalms–they’re plenty realistic about the dark side of human nature, but far more assuring about the loving loyalty of God than any Hollywood film!

    • Roger Olson

      I love Bill Moyers–a lonely voice these days (among political and social pundits and commentators who generally won’t let their guests finish a sentence without interrupting and ridiculing them).

  • SkipOKC (@Devo140)

    Wag the Dog was always one of my favorite movies. Guess I’m a cynic, too. Previously I had thought of cynicism as the negative end of skepticism. Skepticism can be healthy; cynicism not so much. But certainly by your description I qualify as a cynic, especially about the government. Eric Metaxas’ book on Bonhoeffer helped crystallize my thoughts on the role of government by quoting part of the Barmen Declaration:

    “II. Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church”

    8.22-5 “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17.) Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the Church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, god’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility bot of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

    8.23 We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.

    I believe, cynically I suppose, that it is inevitable that the state will move toward total control, and as the Barmen Declaration points out, that would include usurping the proper role of The Church. What disturbs me more in these times is that so many people are unaware, unconcerned, or worse, encouraging it.

  • Last election cycle, Relevant Magazine ran a story titled “7 Things Christians Need to Remember about Politics” (you can google it easily enough). Overall, it wasn’t too bad. But I had to wonder about this line: “We should spend more time honoring our leaders and less time vilifying them.” On one level, perhaps the author is right. But, at the same time, I had to wonder: If a leader is, in fact, a villain, is it not the Christian duty to “vilify” him/her by pointing out this fact?

    • Roger Olson


  • Bev Mitchell

    Who is the real cynic: the politician who claims to be in it for the people but thinks and acts essentially the opposite, or the voter who suspects this is all going on but does not have enough evidence to be sure?

    If you are up to another dark movie that is also funny try Brazil. It’s a 1985 British dark comedic fantasy film directed by Terry Gilliam. It was written by Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks, but I’m not sure I should feed my inner cynic that way. 🙂

  • Peter Kirk

    I think you are just like Jesus, who “would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people” (John 2:24 NIV). Was he cynical, or just realistic?

    • Roger Olson

      I do prefer to call myself “realistic,” but, the funny thing is, most people who know me well laugh when I say that. I guess they know that for me, “realism” (about today’s social world and especially the drift of American government toward absolute power and its practice of covering that up with talk of “freedom” and “security”) leads inevitably to cynicism. I tend to think many of them are like the proverbial frogs in the slowly boiling kettle. They just don’t notice the slow changes happening around them–especially in Washington’s increasing militarism and establishment of a surveillance society. Or they think “Well, so long as I’m not breaking any laws what do I have to worry about?” I consider that naive about a future government’s possible use of the surveillance apparatus being put in place.

  • David Lindsay


    Wag The Dog is a classic with such dark humor and an expose of the insanity of politics.


  • Don Bryant

    I have to keep reminding myself that I do not owe trust. Every time I forget that and think that love means trust without evidence, I become unwise. I don’t mean that I get burned so much as I end up not handling situations as well as I could have. My life is that of a Pastor, not a scholar. Parishioners expect immediate trust, or something like that. When I do that, I end up not pastoring them well and getting other people into trouble. After 40 years in full-time ministry, this lesson is always front and center.

  • Mike Anderson

    There is a time to be outraged, as Jesus was when he cleared the temple and accused the Pharisees in the seven woes, and then there is a time to forgive your brother for his crimes against you, and a time to submit to state authorities despite their corruption. (Romans 13 comes to mind here, but it’s likely Nero had not yet become such a tyrant when Paul advised the Roman church to submit to governing authorities.) When I struggle to find the right balance of submission or resistance, usually after giving up on a resistance strategy, sometimes I think of the prayers of the persecuted saints. Usually I can’t do a thing about their circumstances, since they are in closed counties, and it seems God alone can deliver them. But we can often do more than we think is possible, since we can still pray for them to be freed (Acts 12:5) or released from suffering, and actually many pastors in Muslim regions have been freed in part due to international pressure led by Christians. How many prayers of the hurting and persecuted have been answered through our actions? And if we don’t make an effort, at least to pray for our brothers, are we really entering into the love God has for them? This line of thought reminds me that I do have a say in what happens in the world, even if it’s only to say “yes” to God when he wants to use me to answer another’s prayer.

    Public shaming of the condition of our persecuted brothers still works as long as the power players are jockeying for moral high ground and the stink of their abuses can’t be covered over with disinformation and rationalizations. One of the most heartbreaking testimonies I have ever read was “I Will Die Free,” an account of pastor Humberto Alexander’s 22 years inside communist Cuba’s prisons. He was finally freed when his plea for help, for himself and many other political prisoners, was smuggled out of prison and into the hands of Jesse Jackson during his 1984 presidential run. The existence of the political prisoners had been denied by Castro, but pressure from Jackson allowed the release of several “plantado” prisoners who had exceeded the time of their sentences. How discouraging for Alexander to have to wait 22 years for his prayers to be answered!

  • steve rogers

    My life experience has taught me that what I should be most cynical about is my own motives and ethics. I learned early and well the political expediency that my mentors modeled. Institutions are not to be blindly trusted because they are run by people just like me who are always tempted to preserve personal dignity and protect institutional power at the expense of others.

    • Roger Olson

      Which I one reason I have always run as fast as possible whenever anyone has suggested I should take on an administrative role in an institution. Were I to be forced into that (a in the case of some popes in the early church such as Gregory I) I would immediately establish a small group of people whose sole job is to raise questions about my motives and decisions. I once had a new boss who said, during this introductory speech to his underlings, “You can question my decisions but never question my motives.” I knew right away he was a potential corrupt leader. Our motives are exactly what need questioning!

  • Van

    Roger: I agree with you one-hundred percent! As Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify.” I would have phone-called you with my supportive statement, but I was concerned that the national security agency might be listening in on our conversation. LOL

    • Roger Olson

      Oh, but given recent news reports it’s likely they are taking note of our conversation–here. How much attention they’re paying to it is questionable. But that’s beside the point. The point is that no government official has any business collecting information on people they have no reason to suspect of any crime. I know I’m preaching to the choir.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    John 2: 23Now
    when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many
    believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. 24But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, 25and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.

    I don’t know that Jesus would want to be classified as a cynic, but He seemed to be quite cautious when believing in mere people.

    I do think there are solutions (none of them easy). They involve a kind of citizen-government relationship where the liberty/responsibility of the citizen is maximalized and government interference and regulation is minimalized. If not in that direction, it would simply be a continuation of the grasping of the reigns of power for another special interest group. I’m not altogether sure that the end result would be worth the cost – there are more important things in life than opposing government growth.

    • Roger Olson

      Tim, I’m not so sure about that. I have studied Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s a lot. It has revolutionized my thinking–or at least caused it to be very different than most people’s. I do not assume, as I think most do, that “it can’t happen here.” I assume it can happen anywhere.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        It can and is. It was not eradicated by the end of WW2, it just takes different forms. Tyranny can be the oppressive rule of one or it can be the oppressive rule of many. You admit to seeing signs of the oppression in lots of places. The trajectory of our country and many others in the world is not encouraging.

  • John C. Gardner

    There is a saying in Scripture that we are to be wise as serpents but innocent as doves. This would imply that we must balance extremer cynicism against extreme naivete. I am cynical about motives but also know that motives, actions are often difficult to interpret and that a person may be sincere but also in error(including me of course).

  • labreuer

    Are you aware of Os Guinness’ A Free People’s Suicide (2012)? My boss, who is an atheist who respects the Bible, says: if you want to change reality, you must first understand reality. So, how can we understand reality better? I think doing the kind of theology you and Enns (care to add other bloggers to that list?) contributes an important part.