Individualism, Conformity and Authority

~ Deuteronomy 18:15-20/Mark 1:21-28 ~

Of all of the rioters that stormed the capitol building on January 6, to say he stood out is an understatement. Sporting face paint, a furry hat with horns and carrying an American flag attached to a spear, the self-described “QAnon Shaman” was front and center in the whole, tragic event. He had been heard outside the capital building yelling that the President had invited them all here, that they were on a mission. But most importantly that the QAnon prediction would certainly come to pass – Trump would yet be inaugurated president, despite all facts to the contrary. This wasn’t just a conspiracy theory it was an authoritative prophetic certainty.

Ah! But not to be. Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States and Trump went off to Florida, leaving all those ‘true believers’ to scratch their heads, saying, “what happened?” The Shaman guy says he was duped, is throwing Trump under the bus and openly questioning his faith in his QAnon religion.

Of course, as it is with all ‘true believers’, many are not abandoning the faith. Indeed, they are doubling down. The prophecy wasn’t wrong, they just misinterpreted it. So now, many are embracing the idea that Biden still is not the legitimate president and that Trump will be sworn in for his second term on March 4, the original date of the inauguration in the U.S. Constitution before the 20th Amendment was adopted in 1937. They have developed an incredibly complex rationale for this because that’s what conspiracy theorists do.

Yes, this is crazy stuff. But what really saddens me and at the same time intrigues me is why so many Christians have bought into these conspiracy theories. Why have so many Christians, no, conservative Christians, bought into the “big lie” that Biden “stole the election.” I mean, it’s one thing to want your guy to win, but, as a Christian, to buy into this wild and non-biblical QAnon conspiracy is a bridge too far. So, my question: Is there something inherent in conservative religious ideology and practice that lends itself to embracing conspiracy theories. Sadly, yes. And it’s about authority, prophetic authority. Let’s explore.

Our reading from Deuteronomy has Moses speaking to the Israelites on the plains of Moab right before they were to enter the Promised Land. However, despite what you learned in Sunday School, Moses didn’t actually write this; he was not the author of Deuteronomy. Meaning ‘second law’, Deuteronomy was written sometime in the 7th century BCE, maybe during the reign of King Josiah. It was probably written by a group of Levites, the priestly class, who are collectively known as the Deuteronomist.

In this passage Moses is telling the people that God will raise up prophets like him and that they should heed what they say. But at the same time he warns of fake prophets who might speak in the name of other gods or, and this is significant, who might presume to speak for God when God didn’t give them a word to pronounce. Such a prophet, says Moses, shall die. Or, at least, that’s what the Deuteronomist says Moses said.

In other words, a prophet must speak that which only comes from God, that is where the authority comes. So, God’s prophets speak with authority, powerful authority, unquestioned authority. A wishy-washy prophet just doesn’t cut it. If you’re going to speak “the Word of the Lord” you must speak it boldly.

And so it is, throughout history, there have been those religious leaders who presume to speak for God to their followers. The thing is often, OK, almost all the time, they are wrong. What they proclaim just isn’t true or just doesn’t come to pass. However, despite their terrible track record they don’t ever seem to succumb to what Moses said would be their lot – they don’t die. No, they just keep on, often times doubling down, still claiming they were right.

I can’t tell you how many Evangelical TV, radio and mega-church preachers, dozens and dozens, claimed in no uncertain terms that Trump would be re-elected. They were absolutely certain. God told them so. Surprisingly, there have been a handful of ‘mea culpas’, OK, 2-3 said they were wrong and apologized for leading their flock astray. But the vast majority kept on doing their thing and their people keep on believing them. All, still claiming God’s authority.

Jesus came claiming authority. Or more precisely, he acted as though he had authority. He spoke with authority. But the fact is, he didn’t have authority as far as anyone knew. He just assumed it. That’s what our reading from Mark tells us. Having announced a new ‘way’, Jesus had begun forging this new way, and people were summoned to join the journey. Jesus now goes to Capernaum for his first foray into the public arena. He enters a synagogue and begins to teach. It doesn’t say what he actually taught but we can guess that it was about the kingdom of God near at hand.

Authority was a serious issue in Jesus’ day. How did one get authority in Jesus’ day? If you saw Jesus out and about in Galilee you would assume he did not have any authority basically because he was not considered to have the honor that was needed to have authority. It wasn’t that he was a dishonorable person, he just didn’t have enough honor or status to warrant being taken seriously. True, he was a male and that counted for a lot. But his family origins were not of high honor (in fact, many may have considered his origins dishonorable) and he certainly had not been schooled in any of the established, honorable ways. In short, he was a peasant, just like everyone else. Yet, there was Jesus in the synagogue claiming to have authority that everyone knew he just didn’t have.

In this very first public act of Jesus, Mark sets up the ongoing battle between Jesus and the established powers—the religious establishment. And in so doing, shows us that Jesus’ battle is not just with earthly powers but with spiritual powers as well. More precisely the earthly powers are in league with the spiritual powers. Mark frames this whole incident to make that point.

The people are astounded with Jesus’ profound insight, unlike how the scribes teach. Right upfront Jesus’ honor increases at the expense of the scribes. The battle is on. Suddenly, Mark says, a man with an unclean spirit appears. The unclean spirit, presumably speaking on behalf of the offended scribes, challenges Jesus. The spirit’s statement is a curious one: “What have you to do with us?” Thus the spirit speaks of defiance toward a hostile intruder, with a contemptuous “You from Nazareth,” but also a fearful, “Have you come to destroy us?” Who is the ‘us’? It is only one spirit. Indeed, it can only be ‘them’, the scribal elite whose space Jesus threatens.

In answer, Jesus rebukes the spirit sternly and commands it to leave the man. And so the synagogue crowd nervously considers this new development. Mark uses strong words to describe their amazement. They are incredulous and fearful, for they are witnessing a profound disruption of the assumed order of things. In Jesus’ very first encounter with the society, he stirs things up, setting us up for more confrontations. Jesus’ audacious claim of authority wins the day. The religious establishment is put on notice that they are in for a serious battle and as a result are soon plotting Jesus’ arrest.

Today’s authoritarian prophets are a far cry from Jesus, claiming authority yet they are false prophets, all. But why do people still follow them? Why do people succumb to the false predictions? Why are conservative Christians prone to embrace a conspiracy theory? Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I believe the deep-seated individualism of our American religious culture creates the propensity to conform; individualism leads to conformist authoritative communities.

It starts with a kind of idolatry. I don’t mean devotion or worship of Trump. I mean the idolatry that is focused on self. Ultimately, what fosters a conspiratorial mindset is replacement of faith in God with a faith in self. They replace a humble reliance on God, with unshakeable confidence that they, their assumptions and opinions, are right, and must be affirmed no matter what evidence to the contrary is presented. Their trust isn’t in Jesus. It’s not even in the Bible, despite their protestations. Ultimately, the authority of conservative Christian is their own selves, that is their god.

There are several characteristics of this faith. One is that it is very dogmatic. In fact, the dogma becomes the center of faith. When your faith is defined as dogmatism rather than trust in God, the center of your devotion and allegiance becomes your belief system rather than God. However much one says that one received those beliefs from another source (whether the Bible, parents, church, or any other), it is ultimately one’s own understanding and interpretation of what those authorities have said that holds sway. Worship of self, unsurprisingly, is the religion most perfectly suited to our individualistic American culture, economy, and way of life.

Out of this mindset, they choose which liars to believe. They decide which people are lying (scientists, scholars, journalists, etc.) no matter how much evidence supports what they say. And they believe which people to believe even though they’ve lied in the past. It becomes self-fulfilling. If they don’t like what a preacher says, they will seek out others. They’ll keep searching until they end up in a community of the likeminded. They will seek out those leaders who will tell them what they already believe. More often than not, these communities are authoritarian in nature. So, the pressure to conform is strong. Bullying becomes the norm so much so that when one does start to ask questions, to engage in critical examination of the groups motives and values, indeed, of their own motives and values, they remain with the group nonetheless because to cut ties is too threatening, too scary. So, it is ironic that the supposed self-defined individualist creates conformist communities. Conformity to the group becomes the authority they so desire, even though they’d say they are deciding things for themselves. It is a culture of individual self-centeredness in which everyone either works together to reinforce the biggest lie of all – that “we” are right about everything that matters, all the time – or otherwise you get expelled.

Unfortunately few if any of the liars that conservative Christians choose to pretend are truth-tellers will confront them with these painful truths, that they support charlatans and betray Christ. They will simply choose to believe that their assumptions and prejudices are truth, and everything else is a lie. When one approaches life that way no one, not even Jesus or the ancient prophets, is likely to get through to them.

How do you, how do we, determine what to believe and what to deny? What is our source of authority? Yes, there was a time when the church had authority, people felt they could trust the institution or the leaders. But the church has squandered the moral high ground in so many ways, has lost its authoritative status. So, I ask again, where is our authority? I suppose I could say, just trust me – NOT! Yet, I don’t want us to dismiss how important being in community, yes, this community, can be. If we are discerning, self-reflective, honest and willing to confront our own prejudices, individually and collectively, we just might avoid the pitfalls I’ve discussed this morning. And, as a follower of Jesus who believes in repentance and redemption, I must continue with hope, nonetheless. It’s what Jesus would do. Amen.


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