(With thanks to B and R, our friends and family in Christ, whose visit and conversation motivated me to post this blog.)
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Detrital: adjective. Disintegration, destruction, or wearing away.
Soup: noun. A liquid food…; an unfortunate predicament.
Evangelical: noun. One who shares the good news of Jesus.
Social media exploded recently with pictures of four police officers injured by rioters in Oregon. Except it was a lie. An investigation later identified them as Australian police officers injured at various places during the past decade.
Someone I know just re-posted a vindictive, one-sided article from an extremist Canadian group, then another posted a defiant post responding to a verifiably false internet story. Later still, a third person posted an exaggerated headline from OAN, a right-wing news organization that is more than willing to spread twisted truth and conspiracies.
In each case, nice christian people – innocently or intentionally – passed around false information.
QAnon, one of the largest conspiracy generators, appeared during the 2016 presidential race and has steadily gathered followers since that time. As if the lies it circulates aren’t bad enough, intelligence agencies also consider it a domestic security threat. Last week QAnon-inspired anti-mask protesters openly declared themselves to be “disciples of Donald Trump”.
A recent article in MIT Technology Review revealed that increasing numbers of church people are leaving their churches in order to follow the ‘truth’ of QAnon more closely.
What kind of churches are they leaving, Brian?
Oh, you know, the evangelical kind.
The art of crusading
I have written previously about reasons why evangelicals buy into the detrital soup of conspiracy theories. It begins with identifying the hunger, adding confirmation bias and then heating it with bible manipulation. It’s now time to give it some substance by adding a main ingredient – poor discipleship.
Some of Jesus’ final words to his disciples (found in Matthew 28) instructed them to “… go and make disciples of all nations”. Discipleship isn’t ‘preaching’ but is rooted in the Jewish tradition of a close, mentoring relationship between a rabbi and his disciples. The first christians were instructed to teach new believers the christian lifestyle in the same way, through practical relationships. Discipleship is learning to apply the ways of Jesus to daily life.
The problem is that much of evangelicalism’s agenda has been driven by politics, economics, statistics, doctrine, apologetics, etc. … everything but patient discipleship.
Consider all the churches, conferences, crusades, programs, and leadership structures that current christianity encourages. Think of the healing, prophetic, family, and leadership ministries. There are christian non-profits, christian for-profits, christian entertainment, even christian lobbyists.
We have a mountain of ‘christian ministries’ that don’t seem as concerned about discipleship as they are about self-promotion or self-preservation. They are able to flourish because their constituents are willing (and able) to pay for feel-good spiritual guidance.
Ironically those ideals are in direct contrast to the Cross-carrying of discipleship. We’ve become experts in the easy ways of religion, yet amateurs in the difficult ways of Jesus. We’ve been told how to be forgiven but not how to forgive; told about grace but not how to give it; told that Jesus satisfies even as our souls hunger.
It seems John Wesley, the father of Methodism, understood this very well two-hundred-and-whatever years ago when he organized believers into small groups that met regularly to experience and normalize a centred way of living.
Scanning over the past few decades we can see that high profile leaders have advanced an evangelical brand based on ‘issues’. This ‘issues-based’ faith was focused on selected hot topics. Issues like creationism, abortion, sexual purity, nationalism, capitalism (and many more) were promoted as central to christian belief.
This twentieth century emphasis on issues led to a (profitable) consumer culture that supplied its own promotional materials: music, authors, apologists, organizations, and lots of themed bibles, gifts, and paraphernalia. Topics like prophecy and the supernatural generated voracious sales.
In reality, evangelicalism was marketing its own self-fulfilling belief system.
At the same time an attitude of separateness and distrust toward the secular world slowly began to take root and grow. It is probably why current evangelicals are more informed by Facebook and YouTube than by established sources, choosing their preferred version of truth from grifters rather than from the traditional media.
As I observe the political drama in the United States these days I honestly wonder: Is the President sweet-talking evangelicals to take advantage of them or are evangelicals sweet-talking the President to take advantage of him?
In the end, conspiracy theories are simply ‘issues’ that have been radicalized.
Do what I say
Most unnerving of all has been another evangelical emphasis – faith without compromise. Evangelicals show a much-higher-than-average allegiance to unflinching beliefs and authoritarian leaders.
This is not an attitude that lends itself easily to the humility of discipleship. Unyielding opinions result in constant disagreement and culture wars. (Last week I saw a widely circulated video of an ‘evangelical’ pastor who was telling christians to arm themselves for the coming war against the liberal left.)
This obsession with strength has resulted in social side effects too. We are now learning that alpha-style leadership has led to an epidemic of toxic masculinity and spiritual (and sexual) abuse in churches of all stripes.
On a wider level, evangelicals are more likely than other faith groups to:
- support preemptive military strikes,
- support use of torture,
- support punitive prison sentencing,
- support the death penalty,
- carry a gun,
- have negative views of immigrants.
Remember, Jesus’ disciples are to be people of grace and peace. Apparently a shocking number of christians don’t find the gracious ways of Jesus to be sufficient so they indulge in the aggressive pastime of conspiring.
The heart of Jesus?
Can you see how these ingredients contribute to our detrital conspiracy soup? People searching for spiritual food inevitably look to those with the loudest voices. As their minds are immersed in issues they are nudged toward being skeptical, judgemental, and hyper-focused on evil. Conspiracy theories provide the ammunition for those looking to fight a religious war.
I admit I am painting with broad strokes but we are now seeing the results of generations of selective teaching and learning. The irony is that a movement that began with concern for souls has now been herded into a bloc of like-minded voters enthralled by conspiracies and theories.
Does discipleship consist of scolding, blaming, or spreading gossip? Is it insisting on our own way?
How is predicting the end of the world an act of discipleship? Is spreading paranoia an act of discipleship? How about spreading fear?
Would the early christians have sued the government in order to meet in a building? Would Saint Paul spend his energy exhorting people to spread paranoid tales?
Are those activities close to the heart of Jesus?
Christians have been told a lot about what to believe but less about how to believe, blindly accepting the opinions of our human leaders without knowing the Spirit of Truth. In the heart of a conspiracy theorist, the Beatitudes and the Fruit of the Spirit are nice but impractical words on a page.
Why discipleship matters
World Vision is a christian relief agency which provides food, water, medication, education and other needed services to impoverished children all over the globe. As a christian agency, its statements give priority to faith in God and love in action.
In March of 2014 they announced a decision to expand hiring to include people in same-sex marriages. While their other requirements remained in place, this shift was made to bring consistency to all its hiring policies.
Within hours some conservative leaders condemned the change, describing it as anti-Bible and against “the gospel of Jesus Christ“. By the next day evangelicals were calling for boycotts and World Vision immediately lost 3,000 – 3,500 sponsors.
In response to the unexpected backlash, World Vision apologized two days later, acknowledged they had made a mistake, and returned to their original policy. In spite of its reversal, World Vision lost 10,000 of its child sponsors in the next few months.
I’m not certain how the numbers broke down but if we assume each of those sponsors supported one child, then a minimum of 10,000 needy children lost the support (& love?) of their sponsors. In third world numbers, it is likely that each child’s family suffered as well.
I remember those three days, and I remember the horror I felt when I learned of the boycotts. Thousands of innocent children were being sacrificed because their foster parents had felt morally slighted. The next gut-punch came when I realized this was done by evangelicals – people of my own tribe – whose power to boycott was more important than helping the helpless.
And there’s the problem: a misplaced understanding of righteousness. We have inherited a religion that has preoccupied itself with issues more than it has with the heart of Jesus.
I don’t think I said anything at the time but the World Vision story was another stake in my conscience. March of 2014 was when my head and heart agreed that if this was evangelicalism, I didn’t belong.
The good news is that it wasn’t so much a leaving for me as it was a returning.
Mellencamp the theologian
Words have power. When they’re used recklessly they have the power to kill ideas, justice, peace, people.
Who knew John Mellencamp was wiser than most television preachers? (I did.) For proof, check out his song, Walk Tall. I especially appreciate this thought in verse one:
So be careful of those killing in Jesus’s name
He don’t believe in killing at all
We have an epidemic of people shouting in Jesus’s name while at the same time ignoring his words. I may not always be a good disciple, but I know it is better to follow the One who loved me to death than to listen to the clanging voices of the angry mob.
True disciples have nothing to do with all the bafflegab because they have been formed from a deeper, inner place.
If you’re an evangelical, it is more important to be a christian.
If you’re a christian, it is more important to be a disciple.
A disciple of Jesus.