Four years ago, I was standing outside my flat listening to my friend talking about an article that claimed the Queen was being kept alive by regular blood transfusions taken from children. I don’t think he really believed it, but there was enough doubt in his mind to make it worth sharing. That was when I first started to consider why someone would believe something so seemingly unbelievable, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many of you have had similar conversations over the past year; some of you might even have found yourselves entertaining ideas that you wouldn’t have thought twice about 10 years ago.
So why have we seen a surge in conspiracy theories over the past few years? I wonder if it has something to do with trust.
Nearly all conspiracy theories have this in common; someone powerful abuses their power for their own benefit, and we, the little guys, pay the price. The sad thing is that we don’t have to know much about the history of the last century to be able to name countless examples of this actually happening. So many people in power have betrayed us. We all know of doctors, politicians and religious leaders who have abused, cheated and lied to protect their own power, wealth and status. They have used power for their own benefit and damaged us in the process. We could say that anyone who lives in the real world and absolutely trusts those in authority is setting themselves up for a fall. Isn’t a certain level of scepticism healthy if we want to survive in this world?
But when and how does healthy scepticism turn into believing conspiracy theories? Does it have something to do with control?
Why would someone believe that Covid-19 is a plot by the government to control us, rather than a natural virus that jumped from animals to humans? I wonder if it’s because the conspiracy theory gives us something to fight against: it helps us feel less powerless and it gives us some measure of control; we can ignore the government and choose not to believe their ‘lies’. The problem, of course, is that believing this hasn’t stopped people ending up flat on their backs with a positive Covid-19 result.
Whatever we believe about Covid-19, this pandemic has shown us how little control we really have over our own lives. Those things we thought we did have control over, such as where we go, what we do and who we see, have been taken from us. It’s left us feeling powerless. We are not in control, and we are unsure of how much we can trust those who are.
For all of us, Covid-19 has been a bit of a reality check, and not a very comfortable one. We’ve realised that to be human is not to be in control, and that’s a vulnerable place to be. Choosing the conspiracy theory route might feel like an attractive way to deal with that discomfort – trust no one and you take back control – but it is a dead end. The control we feel we have is just an illusion; there is no truth there and at some point reality will bite back. Furthermore, if you trust no-one, you cut yourself off from other people and none of us can live like that. Just as it is part of being human not to have as much control as we think, isn’t it also part of being human to trust? It is relationships of deep trust that give us security, meaning and joy.
So is there a better way? I think there is, and it comes down to how we answer these two questions: Who is in control, and can we trust them?
A good, powerful leader
When we ask these questions, I suspect most of us are looking for two things: we want a leader who is powerful, and we want a leader who is good.
Psalm 146 gives us some helpful insight into this desire. It says:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing (vv3-4).
This psalm tells us that all human leaders will fail us at some point. They might fail in many ways, but even the best leaders in the world will ultimately fail us because they will die. The same is true of the worst, most deceptive leader: their power is not absolute. So where is the hope?
The psalm goes on:
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them –
he remains faithful for ever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked (vv5-9).
Human power is limited, but according to the Bible there is someone who does have absolute power: God, the one who made everything. Above all those other human leaders, there is one with ultimate, unlimited, absolute power.
What does he use that power for? To get justice for the oppressed, to care for the sick and to protect the weak.
Isn’t this the leader we all want? One who is powerful, but who is also good, and who uses his power for the benefit of those in his care.
When I look at the crazy things going on in the world around me, when I look at the leaders who make decisions that affect my life, the reason I can trust them, to a certain extent and without a crushing anxiety, is because I know that their power is limited. Above them there is a higher, absolute power, and that power is held by someone good.
But how do we know this is true and not just wishful thinking? We know because of Jesus.
He said that he is the God this poem talks about, and he proved that by what he said and what he did. He proved his authority over creation by feeding 5000 people with a little boy’s lunch, by calming terrifying storms and by raising the dead. He proved his goodness by challenging corrupt leadership, by caring for the sick and by protecting the weak.
If you want to see the ultimate proof of Jesus’ power and goodness, just read what happened in the last week of his life on earth; it will blow your mind.
Jesus is the leader we all want. That’s why we don’t need to give in to these illusions; that’s why we can trust. That’s why we don’t have to be in control, because he, the one who is truly in control, is absolutely powerful and beautifully good.