Hey editorial writers in Pittsburgh: Do be careful when attempting to correct Jesus

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As a rule, GetReligion doesn't post critiques of editorials, columns and analysis pieces in mainstream media or religious publications. Now, we may quote them, from time to time. Also, I frequently point readers to "think pieces" that aren't really news, but are linked to important Godbeat topics.

How do you criticize bias in opinion pieces? They're supposed to be biased. How do you criticize advocacy pieces for a lack of balance? They're supposed to advocate a specific side of an issue that the writer or publication thinks is correct. However, we can ask editorials to to be accurate when it comes to facts and quotes. Right?

Thus, a religion-beat veteran sent me a note this week about a really interesting problem in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial that ran with this headline: "The noble gendarme: Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame gave his life for others."

I've been writing about news-media coverage of the Beltrame case all week, as in this post: "Sacrifice in France: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life ... ' " I also wrote my Universal syndicate column about religious themes in this drama in France.

The editorial in Pittsburgh was interesting, in that it attempted to steer around Beltrame's own Catholic faith, while praising his actions in secular terms. Kind of. Here is the opening of the editorial:

The French, who are under sustained attack by Islamist terrorists, have found a hero in French national police Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame.
On Friday, Lt. Col. Beltrame voluntarily traded places with a woman who was being used as a human shield during an armed assault by a self-proclaimed Islamic State “soldier.”

The piece then added more material about why this case was so important, while avoiding religious facts about Beltrame and his work, his marriage and his life.

Then, at the end, there was this leap into theology:

Look at Col. Beltrame’s picture. This is what a hero looks like. Think of him when you are losing hope and faith in the human race. Think of all the cops and soldiers who must be ready and willing to do what he did.
“Greater love hath no man than this,” wrote John the Evangelist, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Ah, but there is an even greater love, which in this case was also the greatest act of patriotism and courage -- to lay down one’s life for complete strangers.

Wait just a minute, said the concerned GetReligion reader. The email from this pro said:

I know that you don't critique opinion. But it's not the opinion I'm concerned about in this editorial. Overall, this is a fine tribute to a brave man (though it would have been nice to note that he was a sincere, active Catholic). My problem is with a biblical citation at the very end, in which a quote from Jesus is attributed to "John the Evangelist."
Is the PG saying that Jesus didn't say it? Would it attribute direct quotes in a newspaper to the reporter? ("I am not a crook," according to the Bob Woodword and Carl Bernstein). If they want to leave room for questions of biblical accuracy (which is fair enough), how about: "As the Gospel of John recounts the words of Jesus, "Greater love has no one than this . ..."
This should be nipped in the bud before it blooms into a trend.

All the people said: "Amen."

This really is a strange case. In fact, I am not sure what to call this kind of error. I do know that the editors at the Post-Gazette certainly should publish a correction. Pronto. Maybe in time for the Easter edition?

Is this a misquote? Not really, the quote is accurate. It's the attribution that's off base. Is it plagiarism? No. St. John isn't claiming that he wrote these words. What is this error?

For those who want to see context, here is the reference in St. John's Gospel, chapter 15:

These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.
This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

So, who is the "I" in this first-person quotation? The apostle John? No way.

In conclusion, let me note one other thing about the editorial's closing lines. As I said earlier, it's hard to argue with an editorial here at a news-criticism blog. Editorial writers get to say what he, she or they want to say, even if it means jumping out on a limb.

So let's note that the following was certainly an edgy, brave closing statement by the editors:

Ah, but there is an even greater love, which in this case was also the greatest act of patriotism and courage -- to lay down one’s life for complete strangers.

In other words: "Hey Jesus! You were wrong when you said, 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' Let us correct you."

Maybe that's why the editorial team tried to say this was a quote from St. John? I mean, who wants to correct Jesus during Holy Week. Right?

The moral of this story: Be careful when quoting the Bible. Lots of people own copies of that particular book and many newspaper readers are very familiar with its contents.

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