Conspiracy Theories: Rise Up!

DSC02622By Tommy Airey, a sermon preached at Shalom Community Church: A Mennonite and Church of the Brethren Congregation (Ann Arbor, MI), 04.03.16

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’  A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
John 20:24-29

The week after Easter, the lectionary assures radical disciples that faith is a process. It is an inherent struggle over time to believe that life does conquer death, that love will trump fear. The disciples are huddled together inside on a Sunday for fear of the Jews—specifically the Judean leaders, the elite coalition of religious and political leaders who had killed their leader in a mockery of justice. This is a highly volatile and political situation. The followers of the renegade Jesus (a Jew from the Galilean countryside) feared that they too would be arrested, tortured and publicly executed. Crucifixion itself was a powerfully effective instrument of violence and intimidation, the ultimate imperial weapon to keep disgruntled masses in check.

This morning’s text about doubting Thomas is familiar to most of us, but its inherently political nature is something First World churches, by and large, have not considered. In the late 1st century, 50-60 years after the death of Jesus, when the Gospel of John was written, Emperor Domitian was referred to as “the Son of God,” “the Lord,” and the ultimate: “my Lord and my God.” After all, imperial propagandists claimed: it was Domitian who brought peace to the world.

Empire was and is always spinning narratives to get her citizens to believe. In fact, variations of the Greek word pistis that arise over and over in this episode—translated as belief, believe, believing—is rooted in the imperial lexicon. Slaves and citizens alike were required to pledge pistis to the Emperor in ritualized incense burning.   Those who refused were persecuted and many were tortured and killed. For these first readers of John, this was not an irrational fear and no doubt, they worshipped behind locked doors.

Belief was not just mental assent to certain religious doctrines, it was about loyalty, an everyday socio-political choice with profound consequences. If Jesus was Lord and the Son of God, then the Emperor was not. This kind of “belief” was a threat to imperial order. Earlier in John’s Gospel, as the chief priests pressed Pilate to crucify Jesus they wanted to make their belief plain: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the Emperor,” they testified. “We have no king but Emperor!”

The peace of the Lord Jesus created a tense rivalry to the privilege and power of Judean elites who pledged allegiance to the Emperor’s Pax Romana. In our Gospel episode, the risen Jesus bestows the power to forgive on to his followers, hijacking that role from the priests. Jesus’ critique concerned the fundamental social valuing of his society, always questioning the current distribution of economic & political power: exposing the injustice of taxes and Temple, at table with sinners & tax collectors, with women, breaking boundaries that segregated the unclean, the diseased, the cast aside.

The powerful establishment, then as now, steered the Empire towards the status quo by scripting the masses into a conventional wisdom. When the disciples tell the absent Thomas that they had seen “the Lord,” he naturally sides with Roman conventional wisdom: crucified rebels have lost the battle, are guilty, are cursed by God and obviously cannot be raised from the dead. If Jesus was the real Lord, he would have conquered and dethroned the ruling elites, not be crucified by them. Thomas’ cadres are spinning conspiracy theories and he isn’t buying it. The only way he’s going to believe that Jesus is the true Lord (to pledge allegiance to him over the Emperor) is if he can see it and feel it for himself.

Conspiracy theories tend to arise from communities that look a lot like these original disciples—oppressed and marginalized people who are attempting to make sense of their plight in the world. For millennia, after all, conventional wisdom has been built on their backs. These theories aren’t 100% factual in the way that modernity has trained us.  They contain hyperbole, extravagance and an abrasiveness that can turn many of us off.

Conspiracy theories originate to explain why things are so unjust and dehumanizing in a secular culture.  Conspiracy theorists know that the prosperity Gospel—that God rewards and punishes based on a simplistic belief—is foolish. They know deep down that decisions are being made behind closed doors, behind the curtain, that directly affect who wins and who losses in society. They push back against explanations obsessed with personal responsibility, that people somehow deserve poverty, imprisonment, dilapidated schools and water shut-offs.

For decades now, the black community in the United States has been lamenting police brutalities and fatalities. White folks, by and large, have played the role of Thomas, “No, no. These aren’t victims: they are ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals.’” We have schlepped them off as conspiracy theories. And then along came the Smart Phone. YouTube is now chock full of horrific videos of these killings. Just Google “unarmed black man shot 16 times” as exhibit A. The conspiracy theory is Reality.

For decades, the black community in the United States has been lamenting that the War on Drugs in America is really a war on black people. White folks have played the role of Thomas, “This isn’t about race. It’s about the real drug problem in our ghettos. Just say no.” Five years ago Michelle Alexander, a law professor at The Ohio State University, released her book The New Jim Crow, detailing the systemic racism in this almost 50 year political agenda. Alexander writes, “This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.  In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth…White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts. That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders.  In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.” The conspiracy theory is a Reality.

Yet, the conventional wisdom of law and order and the politics of responsibility continue to trump the truthfulness of these conspiracy theories arising from the underclass. Thomas reminds us that hearing about it, reading it and even watching it online are often times not enough. Thomas calls us further on, to travel to places of trauma to touch wounds in order to have a more robust faith.

In this episode, Thomas is the surrogate for all of us objectively weighing Reality from the sidelines, who are so sure that conventional wisdom is truth because (A) it wouldn’t be on TV if it wasn’t, (B) it is what most people around us believe and (C) it gets us off the hook. The bottom line: if these alternative renderings of reality arising from below—if they are just conspiracy theories—then it demands nothing from us.

In fact, everything sounds like conspiracy that doesn’t match our experience. Abject poverty, injustice and violence in the world is easily explained away. But once we experience and internalize it, our politics begin to change. We probably all have stories about traveling somewhere or meeting someone—an experience that trumps the imperial conventional wisdom received from our family, our church, the media, our social networks.

Conventional wisdom about the downfall of Detroit is that middle-class white folks had to flee for their lives to the suburbs. It was no longer safe. Black folks have been scripted as violent “thugs,” addicted to drugs and dependent on the government. “Those people” are what ruined Detroit.

The conventional wisdom is that, in order to comeback, the city desperately needs a combination of redevelopment and personal responsibility, to grow the economy and balance the budget. Conventional wisdom proclaims that the city needs to “change the culture” when it comes to residents paying their water bills and property taxes.

In 2013, the governor appointed an emergency financial manager to take the reins from the mayor and city council. He ushered in the historic bankruptcy proceedings, slashing pension and healthcare obligations to longtime city workers. He increased rates for water and sewerage and contracted a suburban wrecking company to shut-off water to homes that were 60 days behind on their bills.   Corporate, government and media have reported over and over again that this has been the start of a comeback. As they say in the D, they are “selling it like liquor on a billboard.”

This conventional wisdom is confronted by a coalition called The People’s Water Board who have a conspiracy theory: that these policies unfairly target poor black people who stayed and paid while everyone else walked away from the city in the 60s, 70s and 80s. This is a clearing out campaign built not just on austerity, but on white supremacy. The so-called “comeback” of the city is built on the theft of valuable resources and the commons in a city that is 83% African-American.

I’ve been deeply blessed to get the opportunity to volunteer with the grassroots organization We The People of Detroit, started in 2008 by five African-American women committed to resisting Emergency Management. Two years ago, they started to solely focus on the water crisis, a steady campaign of awareness-raising, canvassing, water delivery & advocacy for victims of shut-off. Low and behold, about a year ago, they started telling me about an epidemic of lead poisoning in Flint. I listened, but like Thomas, I balked. This can’t possibly be true.  This just doesn’t happen in America. This year, we really ought to remind ourselves, once a day, that the only reason the Flint water crisis finally went viral about 100 days ago is because a small grassroots movement, led mostly by black women, organized and strategized and never gave up until the conspiracy theory was proved a Reality.

For the past year, the women of We The People of Detroit have been partnering with PhD students and faculty at Wayne State University on a mapping project that, when it is published in just a few weeks, will graphically reveal their findings: that the city targeted certain neighborhoods for water shut-offs, school shutdowns and home foreclosures. It followed a clear pattern of systematic racism, a clearing out campaign to re-image the city with a young, white upwardly mobile face. Sure enough, their conspiracy theory will be proved a Reality.

The episode of St. Thomas and the Risen Jesus prods us to three things:

  1. Above all else, it calls us to faith, to belief. And this means it is prodding us to make a choice, to make a decision about what and who we are pledging allegiance to. It is calling us to question conventional wisdom and to listen to the conspiracy theories rising from below. In Detroit and beyond, it beckons us to throw in with community, with the under-resourced, underprivileged neighborhoods, instead of with the forces of “urban redevelopment,” those boasting of a “blank canvass,” what Detroit author adrienne marie brown describes as “…the opportunity available among the ruins of other people’s lives.”
  1. Many of us who take up the task of reading and researching from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized will believe and throw in. Indeed, as our text proclaims: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” However, some of us, like Thomas, will only believe it when we see it and feel it for ourselves. This episode is proclaiming that something happens to us when we risk social alienation and question conventional wisdom, when we go beyond Googling it, and see for ourselves. Like Thomas, we shift allegiances when we put our fingers in the destructive and dehumanizing wounds created by Empire. This means that we circle around to the beginning of John’s Gospel, to the disciples’ invitation to “come and see” the real life behind the conspiracy theories of our world. This is how our beliefs change—it is how our allegiance is shifted from conventional wisdom to the Divine Conspiracy of Jesus.   This means movement. It means geography. It will mean inconvenience and uncomfortability. It will mean risk. This all requires an epistemological shift and serious bridge-building. Our commitment to the myth of objectivity is very difficult to break. And, by the way, it is a commitment that particularly plagues white males like me. I, too, am in a process of pistis.
  1. Lastly, this episode assures us that our fear and unbelief is not a deal breaker. The risen Jesus shows up anyways, boldly proclaiming: “Peace.” This is a Lord who pursues us with Love, firmly and tenderly, determined to remind us that the Truth about God and the world will set us free. So brothers and sisters, let us never underestimate the imperial forces that deform us, the principalities and powers propagandizing us with their conventional wisdom. But above all else, let us never forget the words from John’s first letter to radical disciples risking everything to pledge allegiance to Caesar’s rival: the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

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