Conspiracy Theories and the negation of history

Conspiracy Theories and the negation of history
| PentecostalTheology.com

This is a chapter of my forthcoming book, “America in Danger: Left and Right”

But I tell you that for every careless word that people speak, they will give an account of it on the day of judgment.  – Matthew 12:36 (NASB)

 

To answer before listening—
that is folly and shame. – Prov. 18:13 (NIV)

 

“You are not to say, ‘It is a conspiracy!’ Regarding everything that this people call a conspiracy, And you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it.

– Isaiah 8:12 (NIV)

 

America is plagued by conspiracy theories (CTs) now more than at any time in its history. Facebook, the “tribalization” of our news sources and political structures have aided this lamentable situation. [1]  For instance, millions of Americans, especially Evangelical Christians, have come to believe in the QAnon CT. That is, the destructive tale that liberal elites abduct and abuse children for sexual and satanic ritual purposes, and that such persons as Hilary Clinton and Chief Justice Roberts are engaged in this satanism.

 

Let us start by trying to define what CTs are. They come in many varieties, but in general they are attempts to understand the world, or some negative aspect of it, through false or incomplete knowledge. Often CTs are generated by combining a negative event with pre-existing suspicions against some group or person. Similarly, predictive CTs are invented stories based on suspicions that an evil group or person will do something evil. In CTs, suspicions are considered facts, and little or no attempt is made to verify the information on logical or evidential grounds. The anger, suspicion and distrust embraced by CT believer (and his social group with similar beliefs) often diminishes or destroys logical reasoning or factual verification.

 

One especially tragic and sinful CT occurred over five hundred years ago during Europe’s bubonic plague (1347-1351).  A rumor spread among Christians that the plague was caused by Jews who “poisoned the wells” in order to exterminate Christians. This lie spread rapidly, and mobs all throughout Europe gathered up Jews by the thousands and burned them at the stake without any trial or evidence other than their suspicions. Many of the Jews who survived were looted of their goods and exiled out of Europe into Islamic Spain and other places. This corporate event was both a sin of slander and genocide – the “careless word” of the Bible in extreme.  CTs about the Jews would continue to circulate for centuries, reaching their climax in the Nazi holocaust.

 

At the root of most CTs is an unbiblical assumption that history and current events should be understandable and go mostly one’s way. If it does not, it is the result of a specific cabal of evildoers, sometimes within one’s midst, who make things go wrong. The Bible teaches to the contrary: mankind is universally afflicted with sin, and this results in history being molded by sinful, foolish and selfish choices by all peoples and governments. This results in the “wrongness” and chaos of normal history – that is, history without God’s intervening grace.

 

The book of Judges spells this out quite clearly. When the Israelites forsake God and turn to foreign gods all hell breaks out (literally), and the Israelites are severely oppressed. But when they repent, the Lord sends a “judge” to lead them back to the Lord and peace returns – until they fall into idolatry. And again the “wrongness” of history falls upon them once again via various invaders and oppressors. This simple pattern is retold in the books of Kings and Chronicles. 2 Chronicles describes the tragic end game of this cycle, the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of its temple. For the Jews, nothing could have been more “wrong” than that. But note, the Spirit breathed biblical account of the Temple’s destruction describes no conspiracy by disgruntled Jews betraying their own people, rather God used the Babylonians, who were doing the usual empire building thing, as His instrument of judgement.[2]

 

The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place.  But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his   people and there was no remedy.  He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.  He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials.  They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. (2 Chronicles 39:15-19)

 

But back to modern CTs, let me describe a conspiracy theory I saw generated firsthand back in 1974 and which is typical of many of them. Background: at the time Israel had just fought the Yun Kippur War, and for the first days it went badly for Israel. Egypt and Syria had carried out a surprise attack to regain territory lost in the 1967 “Seven Day War.” The Israeli Army and Air Force counter-attacked and pulled a victory from almost certain defeat. However, in the middle of the war Israel almost ran out of ammunition and other vital supplies. President Nixon organized a massive airlift to resupply the Jewish armed forces and enable them to continue their successful counterattack.

 

This airlift greatly angered the Arabs, and led by Saudi Arabia, they organized a boycott of the

US and refused to sell the U.S. their petroleum. At the time, the U.S. was heavily dependent o

n Arab oil to supplement its domestic production. The Nixon administration was forced to quickly put into effect various fuel-saving programs, including lowering the speed limit on highways to 55 mph – most Americans old enough remember this and the long lines at gas stations. Prices rose as demand for gas quickly overwhelmed supply.

 

At this time a colleague at my job site, Bob (not his real name) went to visit relatives in Louisiana, and there observed a large refinery and tankers offloading oil (probably from Venezuela). On his return he told me the oil shortage was “bogus” and a plot by oil executives to jack up the price of gas. “There is plenty of gas out there for everybody.”

 

He saw was a large refinery still operating, but of course he had no access to the details of whether it was working at limited or full production.  More importantly, he could not see at the same time the millions of cars in the US refueling at hundreds of thousands of gas stations, nor did he have any way to calculate if the refinery could supply all of America’s needs (of course not).  But he felt sure he had the truth and felt that he was a wise person with true, firsthand information that proved the oil executives greedy and evil – a cheap way to self-esteem, and a slander on gas executives. Now of course, some gas executives are greedy and sinful, as in any group of human beings, but it is not true that they created the shortage, nor did they artificially jack up the price of gas. Note the sequence: a bad situation (higher gas prices and low speed limit), a suspect group (oil executives) and voila, an instant CT and its attached speculative slander – the “careless word” that the Bible warns us against.

 

Earlier, when I was a high-school teacher at Atlanta public school (1970-1973) and taught at a predominantly African American school, I heard several conspiracy theories from the students. Among them was the a CT that has now gotten wide traction among whites and African Americans alike: the moon landings were faked and never took place. This was partially driven, I believe, by their observation that none of the astronauts or supporting scientists manning the consoles at mission control were African American, and therefore the event was of little interest to them.

 

This was not a harmless CT. I noticed that none of my students had any special interest in space science, unlike white kids of the era. Becoming a good scientist usually starts young, “with fire in the belly” for some interest, and the CT about the moon landings cut that off, at least in space science. I have wondered how many more African American space scientists there could be now had that CT not developed. There was an element of speculative slander (careless word) here too in so far as this CT created an imaginary group of high-ranking NASA officials who did not have the integrity to say that the moon mission was not possible, and therefore created a photographic studio to fake the landings, etc.[3]

 

But before I go further, let me say that not all CTs are false, although most are. It is a serious problem figuring out which are true or false. I personally hold to one CT: that the US government, in concert with other governments, is withholding information on UFOs and our continuous observation by extra-terrestrials. I hold this opinion from speaking to various persons who have seen UFOs, including my brother decades ago, and by using the normal skills of historical investigation, i.e., does the person have a gain or interest in inventing such an observation or experience?  There may also be perfectly good national security reasons as to why the government does not want us to know about UFO, and so I make no negative judgements about our government on this issue.[4]

 

In modern times CTs have been generated by practically all political groups, although there seems to be more generated now by the Right than the Left. A reservation here, Marxism is inherently a cluster in interlocking CTs, blaming all of the world’s ills on the “bourgeois,” Capitalists, and Imperialism, but we are so used to Marxism that its interlocking CTs are not generally labeled as CTs, but rather a political ideology. The outlandish assertions of post-Modern radical activists often have the characteristics of CTs, certainly the ability to elevate a suspicion to fact (chapter 4).

 

But there have also been other destructive CTs from the Left. For instance, certain Left and Afro-centric groups in America blamed the CIA or other government agencies for creating the HIV virus as a purposeful genocidal tool aimed at African Americans and homosexuals.

Unlike other conspiracy theories which have nebulous origins, we now know where this one came from. It originated as a propaganda piece produced by the Communist East German Government as part of the anti-American campaign they supported for decades.[5] That claim was repeated in African American and Left journals in the United States and overseas.

 

Scientific studies have conclusively shown that the HIV virus jumped from Green Monkeys in Central Africa, where it was non-lethal to the monkeys, to humans sometime in the early Twentieth Century but remained localized until the 1970s when better transportation made the spread possible.[6] Even today many people believe in this “made in America” conspiracy theory. Again, good science does not matter in the face of a need to invent a villain as the cause of a great tragedy.

 

Another well-known CT was generated by the cult leader Jim Jones of Guyana. He was a radical leftist who passed himself off as a Christian pastor although he was really a non-believer. He established a cult in California which he then moved to Guyana. Jones blended Marxist doctrine with New Age ideas and topped it off with a conspiracy theory that CIA was coming to destroy the group in a paratroop attack. Jones assured his group that the way out was “revolutionary suicide.” That mass suicide/murder of his commune in 1978 cost the lives of over nine hundred people, three hundred of which were children.[7]

 

We will turn our attention to a bevy of Right wing CTs below (chapter 11). But now I should reaffirm that not all CTs are political. For instance, Bob’s CT about the gas price fix (above) was apolitical. Recently an apolitical CT has been given widespread coverage in YouTube. This CT was begun by Chris Hallett, a father who after two different divorces was not given custody of any of his children. Deeply disappointed and angered by the courts, he did some research on the Constitution and came up with the CT that American courts are unconstitutional because they are staffed with lawyers who use the title “esquire.” This, according to Hallett is a title of nobility, which is prohibited by the constitution.  Therefore, the courts and all its judgements are unconstitutional. Wow, how extraordinarily ignorant and unhistorical. The Constitution was framed by persons of many professions, but mainly lawyers.[8] “Esquire” is a title like “Doctor” but has no hereditary or “nobility” aspect to it.[9] The followers of this CT are just desperate for something to grasp at.

 

Historical Wisdom vs. Conspiracy theories

We in the West live in societies that are normally supportive and appreciative of historical knowledge, and benefit from the wisdom it gives. CTs are normally looked upon with suspicion, so that even now when they are common, the very term evokes the sense of “not true.” The heritage of valuing sound historical understanding and avoiding CTs is mostly due to the Biblical foundations of Western culture, with an assist from the Greek and Roman classical tradition.[10] Here in America it is possible to walk into most bookstores and find a wide variety of well written histories that ultimately follow the biblical model of telling the truth. That is, they attempt to tell the true facts of history, and the motives and goals of the persons involved. This includes criticizing the faults and mistakes of heroes, and the avoidance of caricatures of enemies.

Recently, an American Hebrew scholar and teacher who recently vised Germany and the Dachau death camp succinctly connected Hebraic sense of history with the German’s honesty in preserving its landmarks to its own evil:

What kind of people write history in which they are so obviously placed in a bad light, with their faults exposed, sins recorded, errors in full view for all to see and recall—complaining Jonah’s and scandalously deficient monarchs? In some ways, the Old Testament is a monument much like a Dachau in a suburb, or a carefully preserved Checkpoint Charlie.[11]

Why is it that so many of the books of the are historical? That type of religious writings is rarely found in the scriptures of other world religions.[12] Especially unique in the Bible are the historical books that repeat with different perspectives the same events, as the Gospels in the New Testament and the books of Chronicles and Kings in the Old. What type of wisdom does God expect us to receive from historical books? These are important questions that we must keep in mind as we compare the Biblical view of history with CTs.

 

The historical books of the Bible stress man’s freedom and responsibility in obeying or disobeying God and His commandments.[13] God does not interfere in man’s freedom to obey or disobey, or to be foolish, although sometimes He works though mankind’s sin and foolishness to get His providential way. An example is found in the account of Joseph and his brothers. After all the injustice and pain Joseph experienced, he said to his brothers:

“I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen 45: 4-7).

 

In the Bible evil and destruction are most often the fruit of mankind’s own foolishness and sin. As St Paul summarizes it, “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom 6:23). We already noted that the culminating tragedy of the Old Testament, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, was the product of sin and disobedience. The Babylonians succeeded via the superiority of their army but it was ultimately put in motion by God because of Israel’s sins and disobedience.

 

The historical books in the Bible blend in prophetic and reproof motifs, as in Nathan’s reproof of David for his sins of murder and adultery (2 Sam 12:1-13). But the Bible’s traverse of history also gives us hope. We may be disobedient, but after pain there is the hope of restoration and gain. This contrasts with CTs, where restoration and justice depends on the elimination or political ousting of an evil conspiratorial group. Biblical narratives stress repentance and a return to righteousness.

 

We see the Biblical view of hope work out in the Israeli exile and return from their captivity in Babylon. In fact, the captives were first enticed by false prophecy to believe that they would be immediately returned to Jerusalem by a prophet called Hananiah. He was prophesying out of his “flesh,” as Paul would put it, and confused the people’s yearnings for God’s word. His words pleased but misled the exiles. But Jeremiah put Hananiah in his place:

Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore, this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord’” (Jer 28: 15-16).

To the contrary Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles which really reflected God’s will and plans for them. It deflated heroic expectancy of the exiles. No hero would rescue them, the Babylonian King would not die in battle, etc. Instead, the true prophet had mundane but spiritually significant instructions:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:4-7).

The exiles obeyed the true word of God, settled, blessed and prayed for the local government, and awaited Divine restoration. That came, as described in the same chapter of Chronicles which described the horrible fall of the Jerusalem, via an unexpected source, a pagan king:

 

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them’” (2 Chron 36: 22-23).

 

Cultures that do not have this biblical (and classical heritage) are less historically astute, and often their history books are often little more than propaganda for the national or religious groups. This was a mark of histories written under communist regimes, and sadly, most common today in Islamic cultures. Bernard Lewis, the great Arab scholar noted this in his recent book, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. [14] He saw that Arab countries have been anxious to adopt Western technology and science but have been disinterested in adopting the Western tradition of critical historical thinking and writing. This is due to the different scriptural bases of Christianity and Islam. The Koran has no separate historical books such as 1 & 2 Chronicles, the Gospels, Acts, etc. Rather, there are historical vignettes scattered about the Koran with no clear chain of historical consequences and development. There is nothing in Koran to parallel the magnificent and tragic ending of 2 Chronicles where the author relentlessly exposes the ultimate cause of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.

 

Lacking these models, many Muslims, with their heightened sense of God’s sovereignty, can only think in terms of Allah’s will and the faults and sins of other peoples. Accepting fault for sins committed by Islamic peoples seems to be an insult on Islam itself. For instance, the attempt of Turkey to join the European Union was obstructed by the Turkish government’s refusal to acknowledge their responsibility in the Armenian genocide of 1915-1918. To have publicly admitted that would have admitted that somehow Islam failed.  There is simply no model for critical self-judgment in the Koran as there is in the Bible.

 

At times the Muslim reaction to critical and embarrassing aspects of their own history is to cover it up. Again, for instance, the Turkish government has gone to great lengths to bulldoze the remnants of its abandoned Armenian villages. Similarly, Palestinians in the West Bank have frequently purposely pulverized recovered ancient Temple artifacts in the attempt to negate that there really was an ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem.[15]  Without a true sense of critical history, Islamic peoples are wide open to CTs of various sorts. This happens even at a local business enterprise level where offices and plants are riddled by factionalism because disputes and normal disagreements devolve into local conspiracy theories between “them” vs. “us.”[16]

 

CTs are “counterfeit history.”

 

From the biblical standard, CTs are counterfeit history. They rob persons espousing them of the wisdom one should have in reading and understanding historical situations and relating then to present crises. Persons under the sway of CTs, Christian or not, ae encouraged to believe that the elimination of an evil group and the triumph of a “good” faction will bring about peace and harmony. In effect, politics is confused with messianic expectations. Christians who buy into CTs believe they must give divine providence a helping hand. They want the offensive group or faction removed or exterminated so that the golden age may come forth. That dream might be, as the “Forever Trump” folks wish, an America where the Left is reduced to impotency and a general return to the conservative interpretation of the Constitution. A Left person might dream of a Republican and “fascist” free America with a socialist economic and political system.

 

And what if their goals are reached? Paradise will still not be achieved because man is inherently sinful. Unintended consequences of policies will breed a new generation of problems. Let us recall that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and communism in its one party, state-established form was destroyed.[17] A respected political scientist declared in a widely read essay that the world had come to “The end of history.” That is, that democracy and free market economies had won out and serious world conflicts would not reoccur.[18]

 

Well, guess what?

 

 

[1] This chapter is a reworked version of an article I wrote for Pneuma Review, “The Sinfulness and Destructiveness of Conspiracy Theories,” Posted June 29, 2015. http://pneumareview.com/the-sinfulness-and-destructiveness-of-conspiracy-theories/

[2] God’s judgement is a topic not often dealt with by modern theologians, but an excellent recent work on the issue is Steven J. Keillor’s God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007).

[3] SCI Network. “The Truth Behind the Mood Landings,” TV program aired July 2019 and systematically demolished the pseudo-science behind the slander that American astronauts never walked on the moon. The Wikipedia article “Moon landing conspiracy theories” gives a splendid summary of the theory and how it has been debunked by independent third parties. Verification of the moon landings include pictures from new, high-resolution telescopes which can identify the various lunar landers which are still on the moon.

 

[4] For a fuller explanation see my UFO posting on this. “UFOs and Conspiracy Theories: A Christian Historian’s Reflections,” Pentecostal Theology, blog. Posted Oct 20, 2019.

[5] Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (New York: Basic Books: 1999) 319.

[6] P. M. Sharp. et al, “The origins of acquired immune deficiency syndrome viruses: Where and when?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Vol. 356 No.1410 (2001) 867–76.

[7] On the Jones cult see: David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the People’s Temple and Jonestown (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

[8] National Archives, “Meet the Founding Fathers,” Posted March16, 2020. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/founding-fathers.

[9] Wall Street Journal, “ When an Online Conspiracy Theory Turns Deadly,”  WSJ Podcasts   Posted, July 12, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/podcasts/the-journal/when-an-online-conspiracy-theory-turns-deadly/6bb8b580-bab9-4f16-834c-94ab2a95a04c

[10] Most scholars of the history of historical writings (“historiography”) would reverse this and say that the West’s robust historical writings comes mainly from its Greco-Roman tradition. I plan to elaborate my view that the Biblical influence is preeminent in a future book. For now, I would refer the reader to the classic study of historical method and analysis by the English Christian scholar: R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956) part II. Collingwood shows that Christian historical writing introduced the concept of character development, or decline, a concept not found in the classical Greco-Roman writers who believed in set destiny and character via astrology. It is also important to incorporate the seminal work of Mircea Eliade’s, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (Princeton: Princeton University, 1955) in which the Eliade points out the most important contribution of the Jew to history, the discovery of linear history (non-repeating). See also, Thomas Cahill: The Gifts of the Jews (New York; Nan L. Talese: 1998), and the classic by Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of History (New York: Basic Books, 1981). For use in a Christian school or adult Sunday school I strongly recommend John Fea’s Why Study History? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).

[11] Cited in Christopher Seitz’s article in First Things, “Canceling Culture,” Posted 1/21/21 www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2021/01/canceling-culture

[12] The scriptures of other religions often have founder’s tales, but nothing to campare to the systematic history found in books of Kings or Chronicles.

[13] A modern Pentecostal classic on this is Joh Mark Ruthven’s work, What’s Wrong With Protestant Theology (Tulsa Word and Spirit, 2013).

[14]Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. (New York: Harper Collins, 2003). See chapter 6, “Time, Space and Modernity.”

[15] Mark Ami-El, “The Destruction of the Temple Mount Antiquities,” Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints. Posted August 1, 2002. http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp483.htm

 

[16] Arndt Graf, Schirin Fathi, and Ludwig Paul, eds., Orientalism and Conspiracy: Politics and Conspiracy Theory in the Islamic World (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011). The seminal study on the prevalence of conspiracy theory in Muslim thought.

[17] Incidentally, this definitively proved the John Birch’s conspiracy theory (see below, chapter 6) that Truman, Eisenhower and other US presidents were presiding over a conscious conspiracy to turn the world over to the Communists. Rather, the policy of “containment,” first articulated by the diplomat George F. Kennan, which urged that the Communist nations be contained but not attacked, proved true. Kennan foresaw that Communist society would fall apart in time. However, that was not totally true. Communism’s fall was brought forward by pressure from the West, as in Regan’s “Star Wars” anti-ballistic missile program, and spiritual forces loosed by Pope Paul II. On the latter, see George Weigel’s The End and the Beginning: The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2010).

[18] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History,” National Interest (Summer 1989).

 

William DeArteaga

William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include, Quenching the Spirit (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), and Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He and his wife Carolyn continue in their healing, teaching and writing ministries. He is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations.

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