One of my favourite Missional Theology Yoda Masters is Dr. Pat Keifert of Luther Seminary. He would say there are two kinds of change: continuous change (e.g. from winter into spring) and discontinuous change, which is what we’re dealing with right now with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nothing about our past experience is going to help us explain what is coming next and the feeling of not knowing where things are going is very unsettling for all of us. In times of discontinuous change Dr. Keifert would say that our questions often tell us more than our answers. “What are we learning?” is a question that he would ask at a time like this.
I am a church minister in a small/medium-ish congregation in Southern Ontario and this pandemic has caused me to question a whole bunch of things: what does sharing your faith look like when you can’t leave your house or talk to people face to face? What are we even doing when we go to church? What parts of worship are actually essential? What new spiritual practices are we going to add to our lives when this crisis is over? What practices are we going to drop?
Maybe I’ll write more about this later but one thing I am trying to learn about right now is why conspiracy theories are so popular at a time like this. Why do people have so much difficulty trusting authorities in a time of crisis? Why is CBC, NPR, and WSJ biased and misled by the “lamestream media” while your friend with a YouTube video is on the level? Sure the local Public Health Authority, the Provincial and Federal Government, and a host of international health authorities are saying this pandemic is serious, but Buddy on http://guywithawebsite.com says this is all some big hoax! And that’s when the Steakum twitter feed blew my mind (I’m not making this up)
I don’t know who is writing for the Steakumm twitter feed but apparently they got woke at some point during this quarantine! Last night they posted the brilliant observation that “vulnerable people are always the most susceptible to propaganda, misinformation, and conspiracy, especially in times of cultural anxiety, and if there is a way to help them out of these traps, targeted self-righteous vilification isn’t it.”
I must confess that was something that I needed to hear last night. I have been wanting to set a bunch of people straight lately and good ol’ Steakumms helped me to check myself before … (well you know).
The twitter conversation continued with the idea that people latch onto deep-state conspiracy theories and follow cult personalities or acquire consistently contrarian opinions, in part, because they are vulnerable. Maybe they feel bullied or left behind, isolated, exploited, abused or inadequate and they are looking for answers, community, security, and identity. The truth is we are all like this: we want to make sense of what we’re experiencing, and vulnerable people often don’t have easy access to authentic community (for a host of different reasons).
“When you hold a fringe belief or become part of a tightly-knit outcast group, you feel like you have some secret, valuable information that the world needs [and it makes] you feel important for knowing it.” You become “in the know.” You are connected and anyone on the outside becomes a vague, intangible enemy. “They” are trying to cover up the truth. “They” don’t know what they’re talking about. “They” get all their information liberal/conservative sources that are in bed with Hollywood/Big Pharma/Trump/Templar Knights etc.
Our guardian angel at Steakumms goes on to say that “the best way to reach vulnerable people who wholeheartedly believe they know the ‘truth’ is by consistently sharing evidence-based information with the intent of helping, not disparaging them.” I must confess that I am running short on faith that this will work right now, but the truth is that vulnerable people are in desperate need of a sense-making story and when you start to threaten the one they currently occupy you are going to get a very strong and angry response. In most cases, people already have a firm grip on a compelling story; they need to be told one that is better and more true.
Perhaps now more than ever, people need to hear that God is not punishing the world for (fill-in the blank sin). Neither is God distant and remote, uninterested and certainly not responsible for our current crisis. What if our story is that we live in a fallen world and that God has been working on righting the wrongs of humanity. Things are no longer the way they were made to be. There is disease and death in this world, the result of selfishness and sin. God came in the form of a human named Jesus, who lived as we live and died on a cross in order to break the hold of sin and death on all of humanity. Jesus returned from death victorious and is now establishing a kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit and the love expressed by Jesus’ followers all over the world.
While it’s true that leading propagandists and conspiracy theorists need to be directly challenged, their followers, however, are often just victims of circumstance who are at risk of being exploited. In the weeks and months that will follow this pandemic, we should make room to listen to people’s concerns over the current economic disruption and hear what their deeper concerns are. Can we wade through their skepticism toward politicized media narratives and extend enough grace that we can share how this health crisis has challenged our own identity and self-understanding too? We are all being asked to learn an awful lot right now.,
We need to listen (whenever possible) and form solidarity with our conspiracy friends and offer them an alternative to the charismatic propagandist or fringe groups that dominate our social media and cable TV platforms.