When I was in elementary school, I attended meetings of the John Birch Society.
I can’t remember how it happened that I was, on several evenings, in a room full of adults who watched 8mm movies and filmstrips, listened to recordings, and reported on books and articles about the threats of communism, the Trilateral Commission, the civil rights movement, and feminism. I don’t recall much of what was said, but the tone of those evenings was anxious and angry. I was fascinated by, but fearful of, what I heard.
Somehow (“somehow,” for me, is shorthand for the mysteries of grace), many of these same adults had taught me that Jesus was the one we should listen to and follow. He was, in a way, more real to me than they were, and I was confused about how we could sing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and say “For God so loved the world” and “God is love” but talk about some people as if they mattered less than the rest of us.
I didn’t, of course, have language to talk about the irreducible worth, inherent dignity, and essential equality of everyone, rooted in the astonishing gift of God’s having made each and all of us in God’s own image. Nor would I have talked about the unconditional, indiscriminate and lavish love God has for all people. I just knew that Jesus loved us all, including my school classmates who were Black, even though their being at my school seemed to make a lot of adults nervous.
When I heard parts of Dr. King’s speeches on the evening news (which I heard often since we lived in the Atlanta area), I knew—again somehow—that, when he talked about love, even for enemies, and being peaceful, even when attacked, his words were more like Jesus than the ones I heard among the Birchers.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those mid-to-late 1960s gatherings of the John Birch Society in Clayton County, GA.
Many of the people who participated were members of our church. They were kind to me. Some of them were my Sunday School teachers and had well-worn Bibles. They prayed for each other and took meals to one another’s homes when there was an illness or death. They laughed and cried with one another. They gave their money to support missionaries in many of the countries they thought threatened the United States.
Though I didn’t know it then, they were in the grip of interlocking conspiracy theories. I knew they were afraid, defensive, and suspicious, but I didn’t know that their fear drew them to believe the conspiracies and that the conspiracies worsened their fears.
Nor did I understand that, in the name of freedom and with confidence that they were being faithful to God, they imagined Jesus as an ally in their causes rather than submitting their causes to his will and way. They let fear drive out love rather than love to cast out fear. They were sincere, committed, pious, and wrong.
Conspiracy theories abound in our time, fear is rampant, and anger is palpable. As a consequence, commonsense public health measures (masks, vaccines) which are also expressions of neighbor-love are now politicized and controversial. Claims of election fraud, even in the absence of credible evidence, have become routine. The January 6 attack on the Capitol is recast by some as a routine tourist visit or a gathering of true patriots fighting for freedom.
No doubt, there are cynical leaders—many of them politicians and preachers—who exploit for their own purposes the insecurities, losses, griefs, and fears of those who embrace these conspiracies. When I think about those who embrace them, though, I think about the Birchers of my boyhood. They had what they thought was solid evidence—8mm movies, filmstrips, recordings, tracts, articles, and books—for their views. Those media were the cutting edge, the social media, of their time. To them, what they saw, heard, and read wasn’t fake news; it was the real truth, suppressed by the established news outlets. They were also convinced that Jesus was in their corner and that their work was God’s.
Yelling across political and socio-economic divides won’t help much to break the spell of conspiracy theories. It requires, instead, relationships of patient, truthful, and generous love.
And, we need to help each other see and hear Jesus “again for the first time,” not the Jesus who has been coopted by the powers-that-be, but the Jesus through whom, somehow, God defeated the deadly conspiracy of those powers who craved position, status, and wealth more than they desired peace, justice, and the common good.