The Daily Office: The Christian Response to Conspiracy Is Not What You Think
The Christian Response to Conspiracy is Not What You Think
A couple of weeks ago, I learned that someone I know believes celebrities are catching coronavirus from a tainted drug they extract from tortured children. The whole thing has to do with secret cults, a deep state cabal… It’s a whole thing. The only hope, apparently, is the American president, who will defeat evil and usher in utopia.
It’s somehow linked to leaked emails with code words about pizza and a newly revived Satanic Panic of the ’80s with secret Disney child sacrifices or… something.
But wait, someone else I know says that Bill Gates is responsible for more than Windows 95 (where I last left him, personally). It was Bill who engineered the insidious coronavirus in order to sell a vaccine that’s even worse!
Huh, I thought.
Then I learned another loose acquaintance was arguing a combination of the two things? Or a mutation of them? I don’t know.
My wife told me that strange, frenzied ideas like these were spawning on the damp basement floor that is Instagram. Social media outlets, it seems, are the primary receptacle for these theories — a petri dish where they breed like bacteria.
Later, Christianity Today published an article titled: On Christians Spreading Corona Conspiracies: Gullibility is Not a Spiritual Gift. Relevant posted another in the same vein. Then Dallas News. Christianity Today came back with another.
I made a few dismissive jokes about all this in casual conversation and a well-meaning friend made a sincere observation. You of all people, they told me, claim to have a very low view of governmental power, a very cynical understanding of the for-profit news media, a very serious take on the reality of demonic power… Do none of these theories stoke suspicion or concern in you whatsoever?
I remember thinking about Matthew 24, one of Jesus’ weirdest sermons, and the dark alleys of philosophy.
More than two thousand years ago, Jesus said:
“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” Matthew 24:4–6
To be fair, Jesus wasn’t talking about American politics or conspiracy theories, but the sentiment with which Jesus approached burning questions about an ominous political horizon was “don’t be alarmed.”
The end is still to come.
If I weren’t a disciple of Jesus, I would be a nihilist. If I did not believe the story of Jesus, the next viable worldview for me would be accepting that life is without objective meaning or purpose of any kind. But nihilism overlaps and interacts with other philosophical disciplines, some of which are born from it, or as responses to it.
Existentialism, for example, many would argue, responds to the inherent meaningless of existence by suggesting it is incumbent on the individual and on humanity to bestow life in the world with a purpose of our own design.
But Algerian philosopher Albert Camus argued (with the author of Ecclesiastes) that the meaninglessness of life is absurd. We are, he believed, like the Sisyphus of Greek mythology, condemned to roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down, forcing us to begin the rolling anew.
Roll, repeat, forever.
All this stone rolling is ridiculously without purpose, says Camus, but in embracing the absurdity of it all, we revolt, and in that revolt, create a kind of meaning.
Anywho, I see interesting parallels between nihilism, absurdism, and the way of Jesus. To be sure, the former two are fundamentally incompatible with Christianity, but I notice a few things…
Though Augustine eventually argued for divine control and purpose in everything (including evil), for hundreds of years before Augustine no one believed this. Centuries after Augustine, much of Christianity still understands existence as replete with chaos.
We’ve kind of made a mess of things. And as a result of our God-given autonomy (and the autonomy of spiritual beings), there is evil in the world. Evil ripples, creating waves of unconscious, purposeless suffering.
(I’ve talked about it at length elsewhere.)
While many look desperately for a greater good — a divine significance — behind suffering, evil, and injustice, the Bible argues that the answer is decidedly less determined. God has made us free, and we’ve used our freedom to make a mess.
Makes sense why the author of Ecclesiastes begins his contribution to the wisdom literature by saying: Everything is a vapor. Absurd. Meaningless.
But, as virtually every article published on the influx of conspiracy theories during the global pandemic has already pointed out: We want answers.
Chaos is unsatisfying. An anticlimax. Shouldn’t there be some grand design behind all this madness, for better or for worse? Some answers? Conspiracy theories offer answers. So does the uniform dismissal of all narratives that deviate from the status quo.
What I mean is that chalking things up to a deep state cabal or Bill Gates is an answer. Rejecting any and every story that isn’t accepted by the general public is also an answer. Black and white. Easy breezy.
Someone reached out to my wife recently and said that while she agreed with my wife’s frustration with the new conspiracy herd mentality, this person also resented the blanket rejection of any and all deviating opinions as “conspiracy.”
I think she was kinda right, honestly.
But it’s easier to categorize people and stories. Categorizing people as us and them keeps us from the oh-so-inconvenient work of thinking, sitting in the irresolvable tension of chaos and unanswerable questions, making peace with that which we cannot control.
And we love control.
The Impenetrable Wall of Madness
The beauty of absolutist narrative (you’re us or you’re them) is that it creates an impenetrable wall built from an unsustainable logic.
You’re either a moronic backwoods hick, a flat earther, an anti-science nutjob, or you’re a leftist big pharma pawn, a child murderer, a corporate mastermind.
Conspiracy theories require us to think the world of systems and institutions. Though it sure seems like the powers-that-be are often clumsy and inept, really, they’re more criminally sophisticated than any super villain—orchestrating sinister worldwide plots that require more mindblowing calculated nuance than a Christopher Nolan bad guy.
The Conspiracy-haters require us to believe that anyone who questions the given narrative is an absolute buffoon. That Elon Musk guy sure seemed smart, but he doesn’t buy the narrative, I guess the angry Twitter mob is actually much smarter.
It’s just not that tenable a point of view, either way.
On one of the many conspiracy-related articles floating around in recent weeks, one commenter argued, “Everyone liking this post is either part of Big Pharma or a doctor getting a kickback.”
We’re being told everyone is one thing or the other, but really, only a small minority of people qualify for the extremes. They’re just the ones who shout loudest online.
But the wall is there to protect us from things we don’t like. So one party demands, “Wake up! Do your own research! Learn the truth!” (But only if the research comes from their approved outlets, only if that “truth” conforms exactly to what they tell you to believe.)
Stay on our side of the wall.
The other party warns us, if you think like them, you’re on the wrong side of history! You’re part of the rabble, the scum, the MAGA trolls, the religious wackos!
Stay on our side of the wall.
And these narratives protect us. If someone challenges you whatsoever, they must be one of them. Anyone who disagrees must be silenced, destroyed.
If you don’t believe Plandemic then you’re in on the con. If you don’t hate anti-vaxxers you’re one of them. If you invite frantic Instagrammers to calm down then you’re “trying to silence their voice.” If you don’t trust everything the news says, you’re anti-science.
And both sides absorb all pushback as proof of their own rightness. If people think you’re a jerk, it’s only because you’re courageous enough to speak the truth no one wants to hear! If someone’s reputation is called into question, it’s only because the powers-that-be want them silenced!
The entire infrastructure is built on pride, self-righteousness, close-mindedness, and an obstinate refusal to listen to anyone or anything that isn’t exactly what you want to hear. It is dangerously closed-off and disastrously self-absorbed.
And all of it is so wildly inconsistent that it instantly topples under the weight of its own hypocrisy.
The Tail of the Snake is Thoroughly in its Teeth
Recently, a pastor friend of mine was talking in a church video about the unpredictability of reopening. “We don’t even know when we’ll have a vaccine,” he mentioned casually, in passing.
This, it seems to me, is just an innocuous, objective truth. But the inference set the mob on fire! Outrage began to permeate the comments section. “How can you push your pro-vaccine poison on us?? So disappointing to see a church using its platform for this.”
But wait, wasn’t my friend doing exactly what these people had demanded? He’s a smart fellow. He reads thoroughly across a wide spectrum of science and sociology. He seeks the counsel of doctors, experts, philosophers, therapists, and other pastors and mentors.
In other words, he “did his own research without passively accepting a given narrative.”
Did any of these outraged commenters ask or wonder as to whether or not he had done his own research and come to his own conclusions? Well, no. Because theirs was not a plea for open-mindedness but a demand for submission.
What they’re really asking isn’t for an open mind, but to bow to groupthink. Buy our narrative. Think like us or be silent. Any narrative that deviates from ours cannot be tolerated.
In other words, these angry campers were pushing the exact venom they claim to have dedicated their social media lives to combatting. Isn’t that ironic.
And they claimed to be Christians. For a disciple of Jesus, why be upset about a guy mentioning a vaccine in a church video?
- I can’t control what other people think and say.
- Other people are allowed to think differently than I do.
- Mentioning a vaccine is not a detailed philosophical statement of belief about vaccines.
Even if someone feels adamantly against vaccines, they should be able to hear another autonomous adult mention them without being driven to outrage. Heck, if “doing your own research” is so crucial, shouldn’t they expect all kinds of people to come to all kinds of different conclusions?
After all, isn’t “thinking for yourself” one of the things we’re always hearing about from this camp?
But the contradictions don’t end there. Here’s the biggest one I see:
If you are genuinely distressed by corporate corruption and thought control, the very first line of action should be to delete Instagram and get rid of your smartphone.
5G, after all, is how they’re going to fry our brains.
Here’s a real story with the identifying details obscured. I know someone who claims to “fight for the truth” against the pharmaceutical machine. That fight is mostly localized on Instagram, where she has a moderate following. Meanwhile, her husband admits that her Instagram use has been a source of ongoing misery in their relationship — as she remains glued to a phone for hours every day, neglecting life and family in the process.
Maybe fight the machine this way: Put down your phone.
Or, if you are genuinely heartbroken about human trafficking and government-funded corporations pumping harmful toxins into the unknowing consumer, then your fight is probably against fast fashion and factory farms. There’s no big cover-up when it comes to these things, no debate, no secret agenda. We all know about them.
But most of the folks in this crowd that I know personally have not given up hamburgers or clothes made in Bangladesh.
It’s certainly true that all of us have blind spots in our ideologies, even when we’re trying really hard to get it right, but if you’re going to rant on Instagram — demanding others to “wake up,” you might want to put down the hamburger, take off the H&M jacket, and find some way to reach your audience that isn’t owned by Facebook.
And if you follow Jesus, I’m not sure ranting on social media is ever a good idea one way or the other.
Missing the Point
Here’s something no one wants to hear.
In theology, we have to grapple with a frustrating reality. There are mysterious things about God and the Bible that we can’t resolve once and for all. So we develop systems and perspectives to help us make sense of them.
At the end of the day, one may be convinced that their perspective is the right one (or else, why arrive there), but any theologian worth their salt must admit that they can’t claim with metaphysical certainty to have silenced the mystery once and for all.
No matter how dumb one finds the alternative perspective, they have to admit that the acknowledgment of mystery and the reality of diverging perspectives makes definitive answers an impossibility.
So we argue, debate, try to learn from one another. We do the best we can.
It may really eat you up inside that people don’t think exactly like you do about vaccines (taking them or not taking them), or about secret government plots (whether they exist or not), but if we’re being completely honest, we have to admit that however silly it seems to us, there are enough questions and different points of view that we can’t resolve these issues across the board at the moment.
So we shouldn’t come unraveled when people don’t think the exact same things as us.
Most of the published pieces on “evangelical” conspiracy theorists seem to occupy the same basic territory. “Hey, this is not great, stop doing it Christians. For those of you not duped, here’s how you can talk to those other people.”
But is anyone reading these articles to change sides? Aren’t the non-conspiracy-theorists reading them to pat themselves on the back, stoke the fire of their annoyance just a bit, and then share that article on social media to repeat the cycle?
Don’t the conspiracy theorists not really read the articles at all and just show up to do battle in the comments section?
Look, I’m not saying I can write a better piece of journalism. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a better essayist than me. But the approach leaves me wanting because it seems to miss the most important question:
That probably sounds too blunt. Let me nuance it.
Even if Hillary Clinton is eating babies in a pizza parlor basement, even if Bill Gates has unleashed a bat plague on humanity to push a vaccine on the unwitting public, even if all or some of these things are even semi-true… The Christian response would not be to shout about it on social media.
Don’t be alarmed. The end is still to come.
We aren’t passive about injustice, but we don’t confront it the way one might expect. Within the intimacy of our connections and communities (the church), we address wrongdoing candidly and with kindness, but beyond the church (i.e., “Big Pharma,” politics, etc.) we acknowledge that things are screwed up and that God has not asked us to judge that world.
As Paul wrote: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” 1 Corinthians 5:12
So ask yourself a couple of questions.
How many wise, gentle, experienced, long-time faithful disciples of Jesus do you know that are also tracking with and outraged by news coverage and possible conspiracy?
I don’t know any. I don’t know anyone that knows any.
Or, here’s another one:
If you do know people who are littering their social media outlets with outrage, conspiracy, political vitriol, how many of those people are also faithfully invested in the life of the church, serving, sacrificing, living with their lives open to those who care about them?
I don’t know any of those either. I don’t know anyone that knows any.
Given that the extreme personalities on both sides of the arguing claim to be compelled by justice and compassion, how many of them do you know spend more time doing active justice work — caring for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed — with action and finances to back it up than they do curating online content?
I really don’t know any of those either.
If you don’t claim to be a Christian, I don’t have much to say one way or the other about what you are or aren’t doing online. But given that many (if not most?) of this fighting seems to be carried out in quasi “evangelical” circles, it seems a conversation worth having.
Thing is, no one’s perfect and we all allow our weaknesses to creep in and commandeer the ship from time to time, but when one actually prioritizes prayer, intimacy with God, meditating on the Scriptures, serving and sacrificing for the life of the community… It doesn’t really leave a lot of space or felt-need to go bananas over Plandemic or to want to argue with anti-vaxxers in a comments section.
The disciple of Jesus confronts injustice through acts of self-sacrificial love. By caring for the needs of those in your community, by remembering the poor, the orphan, the widow.
The world into which the New Testament was written was rife with political oppression, rumors of uprising, and end times murmuring. And yet, strangely absent from the New Testament are any instructions to shout into an echo chamber about State corruption, to build for yourself a platform on which to invite others into obsession over those rumors or those murmurings.
They had other, more pressing things to worry about. In fact, in a world overflowing with State corruption, Paul tells disciples of Jesus on more than one occasion to, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business,” and that if you’re really bent out of shape about the corrupt powers-that-be, pray for them! “That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:11, 1 Timothy 2v2).
The aggressive online voices say they “speak for truth,” likely convinced of their crusade, but they speak their truth into an echo chamber of people they know already agree with them, or they viciously confront and silence anyone who doesn’t.
This is why the truth never goes forward through these outlets. They exist so the speaker can hear themselves, confirm their bias, celebrate themselves, silence anything they don’t want to hear and feed their outrage against the other.
The funny thing is that I actually know people who have changed their minds in dramatic ways about divisive topics, but usually quietly and peacefully in open conversation with gentle people who operate with humility and respect, slowly and over time.
A friend asked once if I, being an opinionated person, ever feel tempted to engage in the online arguing. I told him it seems a bit like passing an open septic tank. People are in there, covered in sewage, saying the most infuriating things you’ve ever heard. Your blood boils, you want to say something, but you’d have to climb down into the septic tank.
So you keep walking. Eventually, you don’t notice the open septic tanks as much anymore.
The Frustrating Grey Area
If you’re still reading (or skimming) this thing you’re probably waiting for me to deliver on the click-bait headline. So let me come out and say it:
I’m pretty cynical about government power and the news media. I tend to maintain at least low-level skepticism if not surface level distrust for both — whether it’s the democrats or the republicans, Fox News or CNN. I tend to think they’re all full of baloney.
I felt this way long before the post-2016 world of socio-political demonizing, long before the era of fake news, alternative facts, and relative truth.
So here’s another something no one wants to hear: There are probably at least elements of truth in both narratives, and there’s not much anyone can do about it.
And knowing this, we shouldn’t come undone by it.
I think, personally, that government is mostly corrupt. The for-profit news media has been and will be guilty of bias, embellishment, and fabrication. Corporations do profit from drugs and vaccines.
But I also think science is good, medicine is good. I go to the doctor and I take my kids there as well. I believe the mainstream media can deliver accurate and helpful information.
I am not anti-vaccine, but I chose a vaccine schedule and implementation for my kids that differed from others. Both of my kids got their vaccines and are doing great. I feel good about it. I might disagree with some people about vaccines, but I don’t feel the need to do battle with them.
The reason that the preponderance of online content on either side of this conflict feels so unsatisfying to me is that many of the articles can’t help but teeter into one extreme or the other, which only fortifies the self-made wall many have erected to keep one or the other out.
So they scan these posts for the terms that betray their allegiance then head to the comments section, outrage in tow.
But I categorically reject the narrative of extreme dichotomy. I am neither us nor them, and many people I know aren’t either.
Buying the absolutism gives us a hit of that sweet, sweet outrage. We love it. It sells articles, generates podcast revenues, drives up ad costs. We click on crazy. We click the heck out of it.
To hell with calm balance, we want to know that someone else is absolutely hysterical over what some politician said or did.
But that kind of consumer misery breaks a person down.
Aged by Anger and Anxiety
A close friend of mine told me this morning that he used to follow conspiracy theories very closely. From 9/11 to Sandy Hook to Chemtrails, he was curious.
Then his mom died. His dad shortly after that.
Doubled over with grief, he told me, “I just couldn’t make room for all that anger and outrage anymore.”
Notice, he didn’t say, “I saw the light and finally realized conspiracy theories were ridiculous.”
The things to which you dedicate your time and attention shape the kind of person you are becoming, and it takes a lot of time and energy and attention to maintain the crusade against the invisible villains of your preferred conspiracy.
It also requires that we buy into an idea antithetical to the teachings of Jesus: That our hope and future depend on what the government does or doesn’t do, whether or not we’re sick or healthy, whether or not secret agendas are exposed.
You don’t have to love vaccines or trust Bill Gates, you don’t have to be sympathetic to anti-vaxxers or watch Plandemic… But if you follow Jesus, you must obey his teaching: Do not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about itself.
Life is absurd. The end is still to come.
Our hope and our attention are elsewhere. We care deeply about evil and injustice, and this informs the way we treat other people, how we speak and behave, our vocations, the way we shop, the things we eat, our thinking and feeling. It’s the reason we put our smartphones away, reject the social media outrage, step quietly from the comments section.
When our concerns translate to more outrage, they are misplaced. When they equal more screen time, they are misplaced.
It’s a very youth groupy sounding equation, but I really believe it’s pressing:
Do you put as much time into your relationship with Jesus, the spiritual disciplines, the Scriptures, your spiritual formation, as you do in your social media use, or your battle against conspiracies?
If the answer is no, it’s time to consider a change.
I can’t predict if anyone reading will take me up on this advice, but here goes anyway.
Whether you lean conspiracy or anti-conspiracy, if you follow Jesus, try this experiment: First, take a look at what the ol’ Screen Time report has to say about your social media and web browsing. Got a number? Now, for a few days, go cold turkey from social media and the news.
Just a few days. Maybe five of them. Delete the apps from your phone. Don’t open the websites, don’t refresh the feeds.
At the end of the week or the five days or whatever, ask yourself: Which thing was better for your soul?
Do more of the better thing.
Do Not Answer a Fool
One time I got a citation for speeding and decided to take a driving class rather than paying the hefty fine. The one thing I remember about this class is the instructor warning us never to flash our high beams at someone who is obviously cruising around blinding everyone with theirs.
“That’s an impaired driver,” she said. “They are at best inattentive, and at worst something else. They’ve already blinded you, so blinding them only makes things worse.”
Agree or disagree with my driving instructor circa 1997, few things bring to mind the wisdom of Proverbs 26:4 like seeing people fight on social media.
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.”
There are people who have built those walls so high and so strong that any ambition to get through to them is kind of like asking an addict to “just try to stop.” They can’t do it. They’ve become so convinced of their own rightness, so assured of their messiah complexes and martyrdom that they genuinely can’t see anyone else or hear any other point of view.
My best advice in a world that seems to be, at times, brimming with outrageous online extremism is: Don’t look at it. Ignore it. Walk away.
Don’t participate in it, don’t engage with it.
Forget the conspiracy stuff, just look at your phone a lot less either way. There are a million reasons this is a great idea.
Maybe someone is actually right about some of this conspiracy craziness. Who knows? Or maybe the other guys are right and it really is complete nonsense. We can’t say either thing with metaphysical certainty, and what difference does it make? Life is absurd. The end is still to come.
Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
There it is. Now put your phone away and enjoy the quiet.