Two months after COVID-19 hit American shores, a video called “Plandemic” unleashed an incredible amalgamation of political conspiracy theory and anti-vaccination sentiment on social media. This was not new ideology but rather a solar flare from an already simmering landscape.
As a surgeon practicing throughout the epidemic, I have seen all manner of anxieties play out in my clinic and on telemedicine. Truthfully, I have felt it myself. The video and people’s acceptance of it still rocked me. The video and the underlying ideologies have sparked protests and demonstrations. These have been a reminder that, despite our technology, we are in so many ways inescapable from one another and our various neuroses.
In March, we took the unprecedented step of shuttering America. Many, many people have died. Quarantine is a divisive issue in a country already polarized across deep ideological lines. Leadership is lacking on both sides of the aisle. Data lag is inevitable both from a scientific and organizational standpoint. In public spaces, white people are forced to feel what people of color have historically felt, and they are angry about it. We fight for control of each other. But the Walmart still stands, and Applebee’s is back to serving happy hour. Instead of an apocalypse we understand, we are stuck with an uncertain but intact limbo we do not understand.
Against the stark relief of this virus and this country, it seems obvious why “Plandemic” struck a chord. In “Plandemic,” many heard a story that might explain our frustration and our powerlessness, and it gave fairly random events a unifying narrative and claimed that such events can be controlled, for good or evil.
In comparison, the Christian response to this story and this virus has seemed insufficient. In the face of infection, our alternative Christian communities become monasteries once again. Missionaries are evacuated due to liability. St. Francis has always been a beloved figure in the medical community, and yet now even St. Francis cannot kiss the leper, for fear of getting the leper sick. To use Miroslav Volf’s dichotomy: while exclusion remains the same, embrace seems impossible. And so it becomes a lot easier to just pass memes about toilet paper.
What’s more—by many surveys, polls, and studies—it seems that Christians fall in with the sorts of groups that produce “Plandemic” at a higher rate than the general population. When one examines QAnon in particular, one finds a group using Christian language and verses to reinforce their ideology, and many of their ranks are Christian congregants, including the North Carolina man at the center of Pizzagate.
The trouble I have as a doctor is that so much of “Plandemic” and the movements it represents seem ignorant to me. Their ideologies are not based on the reality or science I have studied, and their adherents are deeply distrustful of the medical establishment of which I am a part. It felt like an affront.
Then, as a Christian, I find myself shrinking away, trying to avoid the label so that I am not lumped in with those people. As I consider these patients, these parents of friends, these teachers, these fellow church members, it seems easier to dictate to them a “better” story than to offer myself in some sort of solidarity. It is painful to be as patient as one needs to be. What’s more, many argue so strongly that it almost makes you feel like maybe you’re the crazy one, and that is distinctly unpleasant. I want to prescribe self-criticism, to ridicule, and finally to exclude. Unfollow. Block.
This presents something of a conundrum. After all, I hope to take eucharist someday, possibly from the same cup as some of those people. The Christian and medical posture, in my opinion, should be one of service. But how can I serve someone I so vehemently disagree with, and why should I put myself through that pain?
To me, much of what I am seeing during this pandemic seems irrational (on both sides of the political aisle). Even outside, it feels like we live less in the Enlightenment and more in Carroll’s Wonderland. Human beings are not very good at calculating risks, as the work of theorists like Tversky and Kahneman can show us. In the most benign cases, in my Texas neighborhood I have seen a man jogging with an N95 mask (displaying a dominant lung capacity) as well as people riding bikes with masks but no helmets.
There are less humorous examples of responses to different calculations of risk, however. Predating this virus, we had the anti-vaxx movement, QAnon, InfoWars, and various 4chan white supremacist groups. These ideologies have proven more politically powerful and technologically savvy than many of us realized, and more violent. In these movements, proof of authenticity is seen in the denial of authenticity by the establishment—taking “Plandemic” off of social media is proof that it is true. The only science that can be believed is what one accomplishes for oneself or within one degree of separation. As impenetrable as these groups seem to be, the stakes are high. Children go unvaccinated and are left vulnerable to disease, and more than a few mass shootings have resulted from online chats, most notably Christchurch and El Paso.
Our country was born out of the Enlightenment, and indeed, this crisis seems to be the very thing the Enlightenment was meant to solve. Rationality is supposed to win the day against a disease. Yet this disease is not all we are fighting. The Enlightenment and its institutions are struggling against the human psychological response to this disease. The institutions of the Enlightenment have long argued that if a person cannot be rational, then they should be excluded from the public sphere, sometimes surrendering the rights of an individual. Much of Medicine has said, “We will see you in the emergency room,” and signed off. America has consigned these “irrational” groups to home schools and the dark web. Ignorance can be ignored, we hope. But conspiracy theories have thrived in the dark, only to show themselves in times like... well, now.
The contemplatives have long urged that rationality is not the true foundation of a person, and for one, Jonathan Haidt’s research into the psychology of morality seems to back them up. In the best of times, it seems like our rationality has got the tiger of our emotions by the tail, afraid to let go, afraid to say that it is not the one in control. Now in COVID-19, that tiger is frightened by an invisible and ubiquitous threat.
It is precisely in such uncertain times—when the Enlightenment does not have data and does not offer someone to trust—that we look around so desperately for a story. For ages, societies have huddled around storytellers that can endow us with special knowledge. It is from this firmament that we can pivot, transcend, become special. In such a group, one might be rewarded for believing a thing without seeing, for standing strong against persecution, for going further up and further in.
What we seek from our stories is a shorthand for morality, and this is something old in us. In them we look for a feeling that we are “okay,” an assurance of some level of belonging or security. In our stories, we feed our confirmation bias. We look to characters as our ideals—whether the characters are Odysseus or saints or Minnie Mouse—and we try to be like them. Whether this commonality is due to a need for God’s story or due to evolutionary pressure for social cohesion, this taste for story appears to be one we all share in some form or fashion, like the taste for morality.
A group like QAnon can display its confirmation bias in using Christian scripture to drive its ideology, and a preacher can use confirmation bias to sell books with a specific reading of Revelations. Throughout history we have used scripture to justify all sorts of things: slavery, misogyny, financial inequality, crusades, a Holocaust. It is easy to look back and feel a sort of Christological pressure—as if I would not have participated in any of this if I had lived then—but that is bias too. Even now, I look to Christ as my ideal, and yet how am I to support my interpretation of His life, separated by so much distance and time and culture from the data?
A startling commonality comes about, born in doubt. It is possible that these “others” are trained to be conspiracy theorists by their churches, but that is merely a convenient excuse. The way to solidarity and to compassion is not through that excuse. What we must ask is whether we are all Christians because of our proclivity for confirmation bias. Maybe these “others” are not living in Wonderland, but rather we are all living in Wonderland.
This is a terrible question, and yet I argue that it should be asked, that it should properly bring us to our knees. In medicine and in business, to question one’s core beliefs and one’s rationality is to descend into indignity and fear, possibly a sort of death. To be perceived as ignorant in certain circles is to get sidelined, excluded. It is frightening to question my faith, to open myself up to irrationality and slippery slopes, to be seen in some form of solidarity with those people.
If we really are Christians—if that is the defining identity of our lives—then we must acknowledge that our savior howled out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” One can only imagine how irrational we must have looked from the cross, to this Son of God that left heaven to change our minds. Perhaps we would do well to remember that Christ descended into this irrational Wonderland for us, and then asked us to take up our cross and follow Him.
We must remind ourselves that people trapped in these cultish groups are our brothers and sisters and siblings. To be a Christian is to find ways of throwing your circle of inclusion widely around the excluded. If rationality and fear of exclusion due to being labeled as irrational is what keeps the church from them, then we must find a way through it. To abandon them to such a fate of violence and fear is to leave the one sheep in the valley to die. Rationality does not elevate one’s worth above another’s. At base, these are people in mourning, and we are called to mourn with those who mourn. To follow a Suffering God demands no less.
Clearly, not every Christian is called to this ministry of reconciliation. There are some who need healthy boundaries in place. We must be creative in this, with our heads and hearts, and we must support each other if reconciliation is to be sustained. Inclusion should not mean merely tolerance, in the same way that a wedding is not all there is to a marriage. For such an effort, the reward is greater peace for our brothers and sisters being used by political systems, reconciliation with them, and perhaps prevention of bloodshed and illness.
This divided world could use less of our Easter and more of our Lent, less certainty and more doubt. If we are ever to come to the table and share Christ’s sacrifice from the same cup again, then we must lament together now. Somehow, we must meet each other at the bottom of mourning, and somehow we must help each other up. If we cannot, then what good is this difficult thing called church? Let us put our weapons down and sit together across tribal lines, whether it is 6 feet away or online or someday (please, Lord) closer. Let us have faith in a God that can find us, whether it is in the shadows of the valley, in the dark night of the soul, or in the dark web.