Qristians and the Faith Trap
By Debbie Hooper Cosier | 19 February 2021 |
Between Christmas and New Year’s I was walking my dogs in a local beachside town when an older man, a stranger to me, surprised me with a comment: “How lovely it is to see you smiling amidst all these sad, worried people!”
I didn’t know I’d been smiling, but I also hadn’t noticed sad or worried people around me and was about to give him a standard “that’s nice” smile and move on.
Except he seemed keen to share more. “Hello!” I thought. “This could be interesting!”
“Worried?” I asked.
“All of these people are worried,” he gestured discreetly with his chin towards the adults and kids breakfasting in cafés and walking along the boardwalk across the road. He reminded me of a spy passing on covert information. “They’re afraid that the greatest leader the world has ever seen is going to lose office. But something is about to happen—very soon—and everything will be okay. Donald J. Trump will remain our president.”
A bubble of laughter rose into my throat but I swallowed it back down when I saw by his expression that he was not joking. How could he have missed this essential fact, I thought: DJT had lost the United States election and subsequently lost 86 post-election lawsuits, most dismissed by courts before they’d even been heard—some by judges he himself had appointed—because there was no evidence of the massive illegality that might tip the scales in his favour?
Oh, and that other minor detail: Donald Trump was never our president—not here in Australia.
Truths of a different kind?
While there are notable instances in world history of powerful people being in control of messaging and spreading their own version of “the facts” (something we call ‘propaganda’ and have thought of as happening mostly in places like Nazi Germany) you’d be hard-pressed to identify another time when the world has seen this particular dual whammy: ordinary individuals like you and me not being in possession of the truth—not even showing any particular rigor about examining and confirming what is true—yet supremely confident that they know what it is!
In the political arena, we see layer upon layer of misinformation over disinformation, self-deception over hypocrisy, mischaracterisation over outright lies, until it’s become an excrement trifle. It has unraveled the social fabric and inflicted untold damage on the world’s faith in democracy. At least for now.
“You only have to do a 30-second internet search and you will find the truth,” my learned friend confided not long before I made a hasty “stage left.” When I told him that I had regularly and vigorously researched the internet for well over… well, several minutes… but had still not come across the truths to which he referred, he solemnly declared, “If the truth does not reveal itself, you must open your mind to it.”
Around a week later, following the events in Washington on January 6, I realised that my beach evangelist had been speaking of the prophecies and conspiracies of QAnon, the anonymous individual or individuals who conferred god-like status on the former US president and fuelled his visions of messianic grandeur, his ambitions for unrestricted power.
The cryptic messages and conspiracies left by Q on fringe internet message boards (Qdrops) revolved around the idea that Trump was single-handedly waging war against a global cabal of deep state actors (Democrats and Republican traitors) and their celebrity allies. As the story went, they practiced Satan worship and had sex with, and ate, babies and small children. Playing out in back rooms and basements across the world was a great controversy between good and evil.
Q prophesied that:
- Trump would stay in office because he had, in reality, won the election,
- mass voter fraud would be proven, and
- a coming “storm” would end in the arrests of those involved in deep state depravities. Some even went so far as to say that offenders would be rounded up and executed.
This third prediction very nearly came to pass on January 6, when an angry mob attacked the United States Capitol, many deceived by Q and driven by open incitement from DJT.
Without the expected “Great Awakening” (more Q terminology) coming to pass on January 6, Inauguration Day on January 20 represented the last chance for the promises of QAnon prophecy to finally come true.
“EVERYTHING will be happening in the next 45 minutes,” wrote one QAnon follower on a message board in real-time. “Biden will be arrested live on television with tens of millions watching in amazement.”
“I thought it was going to be done clandestinely in the night, but Trump, ever the showman, wanted to put on a spectacle. Trump will walk out during the arrests and thank America for reelection. America will be reunited in celebration!” wrote another on the same platform.
The result has been likened to the great religious disappointment of the 1800s, when Christ did not return as prophesied, and now, while many QAnon believers are disillusioned by the failure, there are numerous others doubling down, recalculating, pushing new theories and prophecies, despite Q himself largely having gone silent. “Trust the plan,” they say to each other.
Christianity under attack
Christianity should be concerned about its over-representation among QAnon believers and other far-right factions like white supremacists. What should concern us the most is whether susceptibility to such far-fetched conspiracy theories is in the Christian DNA.
In other words, Christianity itself—or at least the way it is practiced and conceived of now—may be the problem.
Reverend and radio host Bill Crews from Sydney, Australia, says, “Churches can become Petri dishes of this stuff, particularly if you’ve got really charismatic people who don’t have any ethics.” He points out the many parallels between people who put their faith in a political saviour, and evangelical thinking, including the belief that God has a plan, that our responsibility is merely to trust without question, and that it will all pan out for good in the end.
There is no doubt that Christians have been drawn to the prophecies of QAnon in droves. And that’s at least partially because Q knows his audience. Q has manipulated and hijacked the language of Daniel and Revelation, concepts made famous in North American Christian revivals (like those in Adventist communities) that still carry weight in Bible-following churches today.
Most significantly, Q harnesses Christians’ uncomfortable relationship with faith. Christians feel driven to pass the faith “test,” and if anyone dares to doubt, the believers are blamed for their own failure, instead of the failure of the belief to stand up to investigation.
Back from blind faith
If Christians want to be taken seriously, if they want to take a seat at the table as respected agents for change within society once more, they must find a way to combat the perception that they are gullible and foolish. It makes no sense to say, “If the truth does not reveal itself, you must open your mind to it,” which puts the responsibility on me to believe, not the idea to show that it is true.
It might just start with being more judicious about faith. What kind of faith do we demand from people—our young people—heck, even older third and fourth-generation Adventists who might question the faith of their forebears?
Who is served by unswerving faith in the church’s set of doctrines and man-shaped conspiracies? God or church? (I say man-shaped because, let’s face it, if God really wanted us to live these end times precisely and accurately, wouldn’t he have mapped it out much more clearly?)
I often think of Doubting Thomas. Though he’s been badly maligned by preachers and Sabbath School teachers from Cradle Roll onwards, in recent years I’ve embraced him as a like-minded spiritual journeyist. Like me, he required proof of the stories that had been circulating since Jesus’ resurrection. Were the stories really true or were they fanciful?
A considerable number of the people buzzing with excitement about the resurrection had actually seen and spoken to Jesus firsthand. Others were just one degree of separation from eyewitnesses. Thomas wasn’t one of these. It was not enough for Thomas to simply hear from those who had seen. He needed to see it for himself.
If we were all a little more generous to poor Thomas’s memory, we’d imagine that his unwillingness to believe everything he heard may have had to do with a surfeit of common sense and an analytical mind. Or, maybe, he was reacting to untrustworthy people from his past—don’t we all bring our unique and sometimes damaging life experiences to our faith?
So to make Thomas out to be weak and of bad character is just plain unkind and unfair. Would you want to be judged as he was for your questions?
How did the story end? Jesus pulled aside his robe, unfurled the palms of his hands and said, “Tom, my friend, come here. See for yourself. Feel these scars, these wounds.” These were not the actions of an angry, defensive Jesus. This was not Jesus blaming and ridiculing Thomas for asking for reassurance. This was Jesus giving Thomas what he needed. Facts. Evidence.
Oh, how repressive Adventists have become! Why is questioning the truth of something, by those who are being asked to generously commit their lives to something and sacrifice for it, considered a personal failing?
Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are they that have not seen, yet have believed.” Belief without sight might be the pinnacle of faith, but if faith is misguided—if it is placed in something that is wrong, harmful, ultimately hurtful to oneself or others—then it is mere stupidity. There is nothing spiritual or edifying about believing stupid things.
And most people I know who have doubts about Adventist doctrine are not stupid people. They don’t want to destroy the church. They want something better for their church, for other believers, and for themselves. They want truth—not lies and superstitions, like QAnon.
Faith without reason?
Australian post-grad seminary student and youth worker Aden Cotterill said this about faith in an opinion article for Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion and Ethics column:
“‘Faith without sight,’ should never be construed as ‘faith without reasons’… Christians ought not disregard evidential based belief, for the apostles always called for a faith grounded not in sight, but in the evidence of eyewitness testimony (1 Cor 15:3-8; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 John 1-3) and they were happy to embrace the falsifiability of the faith, declaring ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’ (1 Cor 15:14).”
How much more credible is a Christian to a world seeking answers when they are open to questioning, willing to listen, when they share eye-witness accounts of how Jesus enhanced their own lives and changed who they are! Why not become the inclusive community that people crave amid the conflict and isolation of COVID, and the raucous, dystopian world-gone-mad on lies?
Let me add that it’s time for Christians to drop this obsession with power, with reputation, with controlling others, with pursuing money to support a top-heavy organisation that adds not a single jot of benefit to the lives of the people they’re here to serve. Why not instead show love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, as Galatians reminds us—for, “against such things, there is no law” (5:23).
God bless my beachy interlocutor, who fantasized that Donald John Trump was Australia’s president. Personally, I’m glad he wasn’t our president, and never will be. But that’s not my main concern here. I’m just saying that it’s time for Christians to develop a newer, more authentic, more insightful, more intelligent approach to faith and belief.
In the end, Donald Trump won’t matter. He’s a footnote to history. The truth—especially the truth about God—matters. I wouldn’t want God finding me following stupid, shallow, nonsensical conspiracies—“cleverly devised fables” in Peter’s words—rather than plain old-fashioned evidential truth.
Debbie Hooper Cosier is a former teacher, now a writer, who lives with her husband, Barry, and sons Jamie and Braden, in the Tweed Valley in northern New South Wales, Australia. Her website is freshwriting.com.au.