Persons of interest

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You may not be aware of a portentous US drama for mild paranoiacs called Person of Interest. The premise is fairly simple: after September 11, 2001, a mysterious and reclusive (you could be mysterious without being reclusive, I suppose, but the reclusive are typically more mysterious than average) billionaire computer genius called Harold Finch creates a mysterious computer system that surveils pretty much everything going on in the US with the aim of preventing further terrorist attacks. Discovering that the Machine also predicts more ordinary crimes, he recruits a mysterious, presumed-dead CIA field officer going by the name of John Reese to intervene in these crimes, receiving the social security number of those who are either a risk or at risk and then building up a picture from available data to enable them to prevent the crime in question. Finch's mysterious voice-over at the beginning of each episode in season one tells us:
You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You'll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number's up . . . we'll find you.
All very mysterious. Or not, now that we know that Machine exists, after a fashion. What is particularly interesting is that, at one point, Finch admits to creating Facebook as a means of gathering the data needed to fuel the Machine's calculations. The essential premise was that it is amazing how much information people will give if you ask, and it is much simpler than trying to extract or extort it by other means.

And that is what is vaguely laughable about the furore over the PRISM program conducted by the US government and probably dipped into by the UK government and who knows how many others: we gave them the information.

I am not suggesting that the companies involved are indeed just massive governmental facades for data-gathering (though just because you are paranoid does not mean that everyone is not out to get you), but it is not as if anyone forced us to offer the most mundane, specific or intimate details of our lives in a constantly updated stream of data. We were asked, and we gave, and gave probably far more and far more readily than the most insane dictator might have demanded. When people know that others are trying to get their information, they seek to hide it; when given an opportunity to share it, they do so thoughtlessly. I can imagine that a variety of representatives of dystopian totalitarian regimes past and present are now scratching their heads over their elaborate and expensive surveillance operations and saying to themselves, "You mean, all we needed to do was ask?"

So, we gave. But - on the assumption that it is not all a massive governmental conspiracy to obtain our information - the government took. We were not deliberately offering our data to them in order to be subjected to the surveillance program conducted with what were doubtless the best of intentions: after all, who would say that preventing terrorism is a bad thing? Ergo it is a good thing. Ergo we should do whatever it takes to prevent terrorism. Ergo PRISM is a good thing. Government employees and committees tend to work like that. And so sales of Orwell's 1984 skyrocket as we begin to realise that we may well be hurtling toward the age of Big Brother. We made our data readily available and nicely packaged, but the government took it unbidden, and in doing so crossed a line of sorts.

And there have been some trying to draw parallels between this process and the knowledge of God. But there are several critical differences, and we need to take great care with our analogies. First of all, we did not need to make our data available to God, and God did not need to take it. The God of heaven and earth simply has it. Possession of all knowledge, both actual and possible, past, present and future (as perceived from within the stream of time), is something that simply belongs to God as God. God is not Big Brother, or any approximation to him; he is God. Although sometimes language is used that accommodates God's knowledge to our understanding - "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good" (Prv 15.3) - God is not surveilling the world; he is God. God is not gathering information; God possesses it intrinsically. He is in all places, he knows all things:
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall fall on me," even the night shall be light about me; indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You. (Ps 139.7-12)
But furthermore, God is not Big Brother, because God is Father. The incarnate Son of God condescends to call us brothers (Heb 2.11-12) but that does not make him Big Brother. The Holy Spirit is not the Ghost in the Machine, taking up residence to spy from within. The Triune God already knows all things, and that knowledge is directed ultimately to the glory of his name and the good of his people: we are and always have been his perpetual persons of interest.

If we are the children of God, the knowledge and wisdom of God do not terrify us, not least because they are exercised by the God who is also loving, righteous, merciful and gracious. The fact that there is not a word on our tongues that the Lord does not know altogether (Ps 139.4) may act as a check upon our sin, but it does not take us into the realm of horror lest we should be overheard. It carries us into the realm of assurance because nothing lies outside of his understanding, and this is a God who cares for us.

The 1677/1689 Baptist Confession of Faith summarises the Scriptures sweetly by telling us that as the providence of God does in general reach to all creatures, so after a most special manner it takes care of his church, and disposes all things for the good of the church. God's innately-possessed knowledge is the knowledge of a heavenly Father who will accomplish all that is best and right for his children. It is the knowledge of the Good Shepherd who discerns all threats to and needs of his flock. It is the knowledge of the Comforter who understands altogether the being and doing of those to whom he ministers. It is the knowledge of the Lord of heaven who will defend his people against all his and their enemies and ultimately secure the downfall of those enemies.

We cannot rely on fallen men not to abuse their knowledge. To cobble together a couple of generally-acknowledged dicta, knowledge is power, and power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. But the incorruptible God simply knows, and his is the powerfully active and loving knowledge of a Father toward his children, and in that knowledge we may rest secure and happy.
Posted June 13, 2013 @ 5:32 AM by Jeremy Walker

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