by Rev. Matthew Best

Over 20 years ago I worked on Capitol Hill for a Member of Congress.  We would receive letters, phone calls, and emails about an assortment of issues.  And we were required to send a response to every correspondence we received.  Most of the time, those responses contained information or a constituent’s opinions about up-coming legislation. But there were other letters that gave us pause.  These were the ones that we read and said “What in the world?  I haven’t heard that one before.”  These people were sharing conspiracy theories. posted an article in August 2020 on conspiracy theories.  According to the poll, 61% of Americans believe some variation about the assassination of former president JFK other than the official story. And this is decades after the event.

Jesse Walker states, “Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames.  They’re wrong.  The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as at the extremes.  Conspiracy theories played major roles in conflicts from the Indian wars of the seventeenth century to the labor battles of the Gilded Age, from the Civil War to the Cold War, from the American Revolution to the War on Terror.  They have flourished not just in times of great division but in eras of relative comity.  They have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals and institutions at the center of power.  They are not simply a colorful historical byway.  They are at the country’s core.”

In her book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell says of cultish language,

“Cultish language works to do three things: First, it makes people feel special and understood…this is called conversion…Then, a different set of language tactics get people to feel dependent on the leader, such that life outside the group doesn’t feel possible anymore…it’s called conditioning…And last, language convinces people to act in ways that are completely in conflict with their formal reality, ethics, and sense of self…this is called coercion.”[

The world is very complicated. Conspiracy theories simplify the world into dualistic, simplistic thinking and values of right and wrong. There are no gray areas or uncertainties with conspiracies. No unknowns. No complexities or perplexities. There is no need for questions either. The conspiracy knows – it offers a special knowledge to its adherents from a divine-like source who is seemingly all knowing. Simply follow this path, and you will be blessed. You’ll be special and have special understanding that non-believers won’t be able to comprehend or follow. The conspiracy defines what truth is in order to give its adherents a sense of control over their world and their lives. It offers its own language and makes one an insider – giving people something to belong to, or put another way, a sense of community.

While knowing all of this is helpful, the real question is what do we do? How do we respond as faithful Christians, to conspiracy theories and modern forms of Gnosticism? What is the role of the church in this? This is a real challenge that we face in our congregations. So many people have loved ones and friends, congregants and neighbors, and people who they care about who ascribe to conspiracy theories.  First, acknowledge that someone you care about is in fact caught up in a conspiracy theory.   By acknowledging this, you are humanizing the situation. The point isn’t to debate the truthfulness of the conspiracy and prove it wrong, which someone who believes in the conspiracy may see as an attack on their very identity. Instead, it is to reach and reconnect with a person with care at a human level. To remind them of their humanity, to see the image of God in them, and to bring the Gospel to them so they can be freed. The Gospel doesn’t hide in secret knowledge. Jesus doesn’t set facts free. He sets people free.

Second, when in a conversation with someone bound by a conspiracy, it is helpful to move the conversation away from the claims of the conspiracy. It’s not about avoiding the conspiracy, its recognizing that as long as the conversation is about the conspiracy, the conspiracy will be in control of the conversation and determine what is talked about.

Third, persistence is important.  This is not a one-time conversation.  We are investing in a relationship after all.  Don’t try to do too much in any one conversation.  Just enough to draw the person back to the valued relationship so they know that they know you are a person who they can trust, even if you aren’t a true believer.  The goal is to build trust.  With trust they will know that they can go to you when they have doubts and questions and you won’t jump on them, shame them, or convert them – all things that the conspiracy does to anyone who raises questions and doubts.

Fourth, reach into the resources of faith. Like the Gospel, faith doesn’t hide in secret, but rather lives openly. Spend time in prayer, although this might mean changing how you pray. Don’t only pray that God will change someone caught in a conspiracy and instead pray that God will change you to be exactly what the other person needs in the moment.

I wish dealing with conspiracies was just a simple matter of offering the best arguments, showing true and accurate information and data, and convincing people to change their mind. But conspiracy theories are much more complicated than these things. Truth is essential. But truth is more than just correct information or special knowledge. Truth is about relationship and love. Truth is about community and identity. Truth is how we live out our call to proclaim the Gospel and invite people into its freeing nature. Truth is what we are called to. It is what discipleship is about. And it guides how we act. It certainly guides our dealings with people caught in conspiracies. Let us live by truth – by Jesus who is the truth.

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