False Prophets, Conspiracy Theorists and the Gospel Antidote


Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Prayer of the Day: Compassionate God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring wholeness to all that is broken and speak truth to us in our confusion, that all creation will see and know your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” Deuteronomy 18:20.

False prophets abound and they seldom fail to find a ready audience. Nearly a decade ago, Harold Camping, president of Family Radio and moderator for a talk radio program called “Open Forum,” famously predicted that all true Christians would be raptured to heaven on May 21, 2011, leaving the rest of humanity to suffer war, plagues and famine until the final conflagration that would consume the earth on October 11th of that year. Thousands of his listeners heeded his warning, some resigning their jobs, some quitting school and some liquidating their life savings to finance a final missionary push to warn the world of its impending doom and call as many as possible to repentance. As is evident, the final judgment did not unfold as predicted. Of course, I felt sorry for Camping’s duped followers, many of whom had staked their reputations and livelihood on his bogus claim. But on the other hand, I could not help but wonder how so many mature and educated adults with responsible jobs could be induced to believe such malarky.

These days I find myself asking the same question about Qanon disciples who are finding their faith in tatters following the collapse of former President Donald Trump’s failed attempts to overturn the election ending his presidency. For those of you who might have been living on another planet for the last four years, Qanon is a right-wing conspiracy theory. Its adherents claim that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles constituting the “deep state” is running a global child sex-trafficking ring. They believe that former president Donald Trump has been fighting the cabal throughout his tenure. The wild fantasies of Qanon followers have been fed by regular internet information “dumps” originating from a person identified only as “Q.” Qanan loyalists have been living for the last couple of years in anticipation of “the storm,” a massive military style assault to be led by Donald Trump against this evil deep state cabal, arresting such of its supposed leaders as former secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros and other prominent “liberal elites.”

The decisive defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 election temporarily rattled Qanon’s faith and its grandiose expectations. But its followers soon found new hope in Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him by fraudulent means and his failed efforts to invalidate the results. They were energized by the baseless assertion that Vice President Mike Pence had authority to reject the certified results of the electoral college and enraged when he did not do so. The Qanon faithful were well represented in the mob that attacked our Capital on January 6th. According to the latest Qanon prophecy, the long awaited “storm” would finally come on January 20th, the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. On that day there were supposed to be blackouts across the country, mass arrests of deep state actors to be tried in military tribunals and executed.

The altogether uneventful transfer of power on January 20th (albeit under the watchful eye of the military) seems to have dashed Qanon’s followers’ last hope for fulfilment of their apocalyptic dreams. “It’s done and we were played,” said one of them. “I just want to throw up. I’m so sick of all the disinformation and false hope,” said another. Refinery29 (January 21, 2021). “So, was Q just one big lie and psyop that I foolishly followed and believed for over 3 years?” another remarked. Insider, (January 20,2021). One Qanon follower interviewed by CBS at the nation’s capital early in the day just prior to the inauguration ceremony expressed the view that the inauguration would never happen. “I still have hope,” he told a reporter. “Something big is up. You can feel it coming.” He was considerably subdued when interviewed again in the late afternoon. “I can’t believe it” he said. “I’ve been just walking around all day wondering how it could all just be a lie.” Not only did the former president fail to come through with the dramatic “storm” Qanon was expecting, but he publicly condemned the very people who risked their lives and put themselves in legal jeopardy following what they thought was his order for them to storm the Capital building.

There remains a Qanon remnant, however, still clinging to faith in Trump, analyzing his every word and action for some clue that the game is still on. Several Qanon followers speculate that the seventeen flags planted on the site of Trump’s farewell speech at Andrews Air Force Base denote the seventeenth letter of the alphabet, Q. Ibid. Others suggest that President Biden is actually in league with Trump and will ultimately hand him back the presidency. They are snatching at every straw they can find to keep the dream alive as its theoretical framework, never all that solid to begin with, continues to collapse under the weight of undeniable facts. As with the followers of the late Harold Camping, so with the followers of the elusive Q, I can’t help asking, “How could you possibly have fallen for that load of corn?”

I am afraid the answer is almost too simple. People believe crack pot conspiracy theories because they want to. As the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics so aptly observe, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” The Boxer, (Copyright: Edmund John Simons, Tim Burgess, Thomas Owen Rowlands). Conspiracy theories do what all false prophecy does. They tell us what we want to hear. They spin narratives in which we can view ourselves as righteous, justify our bigotry and blame the “enemy” (i.e., migrants, antifa, liberals, radicals, socialists, feminists, LGBTQ folk…fill in the blank) for our failures instead of taking responsibility for them. They help us make sense of a confusing and frightening world by putting a face on our fears and reducing complex issues to simple binary choices between good and evil. They make it possible for us to imagine ourselves the heroes of our own story. False prophets of conspiracy appeal to people who are too lazy to think for themselves and too cowardly to confront the truth.

The good news about Jesus is the antithesis of and antidote to false conspiracy prophecy. The gospels will not allow us to be the heroes of our own stories. There are no heroic disciples in the gospel Passion Narratives, but only cowards, traitors and deserters. There is a reason we tell these stories about disciples who fall asleep at their posts, deny their Lord under oath and turn tail and run away when the going gets rough. They are true stories, stories we tell on ourselves about ourselves. We do this not out of some masochistic impulse, but because we know that, when we find the courage to face the truth about ourselves, we find courage to speak the truth to a world desperately in need of it.

God knows that in this age of “alternative facts” we can use a good dose of truthful prophetic speech. The last four years have uncovered some ugly truths, “something brutal snaking underneath us” to borrow from poet Ada Limón. We have learned that ours is a nation lying to itself about its history of slavery, white supremacy and the ongoing effects of that legacy on its citizens of color. The Trump presidency has uncovered a huge swath of American Christianity complicit in defending white privilege and giving its full throated support to a morally degenerate leader in exchange for raw political power. It has simultaneously exposed the moral paralysis of another swath of the American Church which has remained largely silent about this shameful appropriation of its Lord’s name and the symbols of its faith in the service of these unholy objectives. Of course, we don’t need prophets to tell us that. But the world does need to be told and the church needs to be reminded of the God who judges us all, and that because God loves us too much to let us go on this way.

Here is the poem by Ada Limón quoted above in which we are challenged to view the truth under the superficial veneer of national mythology.

A New National Anthem

The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National
Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good
song. Too high for most of us with “the rockets
red glare” and then there are the bombs.
(Always, always, there is war and bombs.)
Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw
even the tenacious high school band off key.
But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call
to the field, something to get through before
the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”?[1] Perhaps,
the truth is, every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do
like the flag, how it undulates in the wind
like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,
brought to its knees, clung to by someone who
has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,
when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly
you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can
love it again, until the song in your mouth feels
like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung
by even the ageless woods, the short-grass plains,
the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left
unpoisoned, that song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?

Source: The Carrying (c. 2018 by Ada Limón; pub. by Milkweed Editions). Ada Limón (b. 1976) grew up in Sonoma, California. She attended drama school at the University of Washington where she studied theater. She received her MFA from New York University in 2001. Limón now lives alternately in Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California, where she writes and teaches. She has authored five books of poetry and is the recipient of several awards and honors. You can read more about Ada Limón and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Reference here is to the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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