“They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15, NRSV).
My doctor had recommended that I do an echocardiogram. And as I lay on my side facing the technician, she regaled me with stories about her colorful West Virginia family. Her uncle came home late one night, one story went.
“Why are you so late?” his wife asked, accusing.
“Can't answer that,” he said, “it's secret.”
“Secret!” she boomed.
“Well, all right,” he said, “I'll break my promise and tell you: A small plane ran out of fuel and landed on the bridge just as I was getting ready to cross, blocking all traffic. The cops on the scene, sympathetic with the poor pilot, went around to drivers, asking them to donate some of the gasoline from their tanks, to replenish the downed plane. Which many of them did, including me. And the cops swore us to secrecy; because if word got out, the young pilot could lose his license. So, there it is. I broke my promise.”
The tale cracked me up, especially when she told me her uncle stuck to the story, even after one of his brothers pointed out later that cars and planes don't run on the same fuel. “Well, that's the story," he said.
Whether we ourselves tell them or not, all of us can spot a tall tale a mile away; and the good ones crack us up. But what we have been witnessing in the United States these past several years are not "tall tales." They're reckless lies; calculating deceptions, laced with deadly poison.
A Warning from Jesus
As his disciples called his attention one day to the magnificence of the temple, Jesus shocked them by predicting the structure's demise. Stunned, they asked him: “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). I've always been intrigued by the way Jesus began his answer—almost as if he didn't hear their question. “Watch out,” he said, “that no one deceives you” (Matt. 24:4). It is true that the main focus of Jesus' deception comment pertained to the Messiah and his coming. But there's a sense, I think, in which his warning also includes general deception in the last days, the apostle Paul echoing the point when he said that toward the end, “evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13, NIV).
Some think we're the smartest generation. But among us are some of the most gullible souls that ever walked the planet. Millions today are falling for con artists, imposters, and charlatans. Remember the Hale–Bopp comet just over two decades ago? The announcement that it would pass close to the earth in the spring of 1997 brought crazies out of the woodwork. Among them, a gentleman named Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heaven's Gate cult. Applewhite and Heaven's Gate co-founder, former nurse Bonnie Nettles, believed, among other things, that they were the “two witnesses” mentioned in Revelation 11. They told their followers that the Hale–Bopp comet was being trailed by an alien spaceship, prepared to pick up those on earth who were ready to enter the next level of being. To prepare for the transcendental event, members of the group needed to shed their “containers.” The gruesome result of acting upon that teaching became clear when thirty-nine bodies were discovered in an upscale neighborhood near San Diego, California, on March 26, 1997. They had shed their “containers” by committing suicide in preparation for being picked up by these aliens.
It was the largest mass suicide involving U.S. citizens since 1978, when more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones imbibed cyanide-laced Flavor Aid in Jonestown, Guyana. “Watch out,” Jesus said, “that no one deceives you.” His words were never more relevant than now. Deception, dishonesty, and fraud are in the very air we breathe today, exponentially exacerbated by the coming of the internet and social media.
The Present Madness
Two developments converged over the last two years or so to shake my faith in the mental stability of large sectors of the American public. The first was the COVID-19 pandemic; the second, the U.S. presidential election that occurred in the middle of it. I can still remember the dread that gripped me as in those early days I watched the death toll rise in Italy to 700 a day! Then 800! 900! And I'm thinking: Lord, may it never come here!
But come here it did—and everywhere else. And therein lay its convergence with that second development, the general election in the United States. Within the complex of those two events came a certain madness, at first mild, then gradually accelerating. In the summer of 2020, a Time magazine researcher went around the country speaking and listening to people. During an interview the following September, she talked about what she found: a sizable number of people, she said, who “seemed inoculated against reality,” as if operating in a parallel universe.
All of us can remember the tension leading up to the national election, the first in living memory to happen in the midst of a deadly pandemic. But election officials all across the country, rising to the challenge, ensured the integrity of the process, orchestrating, from all credible accounts, one of the safest, most secure elections in the country's history.
But scores of audits and recounts later, not to mention upwards of sixty court challenges, the losing candidate maintains he not only won but did so by a landslide.
Perhaps this is the spot to state that I'm not writing as a partisan. I'm neither Republican nor Democrat. The Democrats who represent me in Congress (and for whom I voted) hardly ever hear from me, and that's because they generally share the same basic convictions I do on the major issues facing the country. Nor does the Republican governor of my state (for whom I also voted) hear from me. And that's because he's a rational, decent guy, and (with few exceptions) our positions on the big issues converge.
Political parties, as such, should mean little to us when we're dealing with the things of God—and that's what I'm doing here. I'm dealing with deception—twin deceptions that, combined, form a toxic mix that continues to endanger the life and safety of society.
A “million maskless march” in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in April 2020, saw hundreds of face coverings burned by young people, who then proceeded to hold a party. We've seen violence erupt on airlines and other means of public transportation, with passengers and flight crew being assaulted. In early February 2021, 49-year-old Baltimore bus driver Frankye Duckett, a husband and father of four, was killed for asking a passenger to wear a mask. Fox News political commentator Tucker Carlson in an April 2021 broadcast pronounced that “forcing children to wear masks outside … should be illegal.”
“Call the police immediately,” he angrily urged his listeners, “contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you're looking at is abuse; it's child abuse, and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.”
Then, true to form, came the anti-vaxxers, combining forces, as it were, with anti-maskers. I wrote down the signs from one public demonstration—in Michigan, as I recall: “Covid is a lie”; “Covid is a hoax”; “COVID-19 is safer than no freedom”; “Fauci is wrong”; “Do not trust the test or vaccine”; “Open up all our states”; “Liberate Michigan”; “This is a dry run for communism”; “Give me liberty or give me COVID-19.”
Similar sentiments echoed in the halls of Congress itself. In an April 15, 2021, hearing, for example, Ohio Representative Jim Jordan again and again pressed Dr. Anthony Fauci for “a date when Americans could get their liberty back.”
“We're not talking about liberties,” said an exasperated Fauci eventually, “we're talking about a pandemic that has killed 560,000 Americans.”
As of November 17, 2021, 62 million eligible Americans remained unvaccinated. Sixty-two million! Even in the face of more than 780,000 dead from Covid, with daily infections at 90,000. This recklessness on the part of large portions of the American population points to a degree of deception perhaps never seen before in the U.S., made all the more head-scratching by the fact that the one person at the center of the resistance has himself been vaccinated, together with his entire family. Astonishing.
As I finished reading a recent article by Bob Smietana of the Religion News Service, I heard myself saying quietly, O dear Lord! Smietana was reporting on a November 13, 2021, gathering at a San Antonio, Texas, church, a gathering that he said brought together “a who’s who of Christian nationalists, anti-vaxxers, Trump loyalists, and conspiracy theorists.” “QAnon true believers and pro-Trump preachers and activists” were there, he said, “all of whom periodically filled the air with chants of ‘Let’s Go Brandon’—a workaround for an obscene anti-Biden chant.” Alex Jones of InfoWars, famous for denying the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting ever happened, was there, proclaiming to the “cheering crowd that the end-times prophecies of the Book of Revelation were playing out before their eyes.” And former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was there, making the following incredible statement in his speech: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.”
Like the mythological Hydra, disinformation about COVID-19 and the election has sprouted all kinds of crazy new heads around the country. People are losing it, going berserk. On the first Tuesday in November 2021, hundreds of QAnon believers gathered at the site in Dallas, Texas, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, to “wait for history to be made.” Many “outfitted with ‘Trump-Kennedy 2024’ shirts” waited in the rain for JFK’s son, “John F. Kennedy Jr., who has been dead for over 20 years … [to] appear at that spot, emerging from anonymity to become Donald Trump’s vice president when the former president is reinstated.”
The tragedy is not merely that Mr. Trump has systematically perpetrated the falsehood that the election was stolen from him but that millions around the country have since joined him in that dangerous delusion. Attorneys, physicians, scientists, teachers, policemen, members of the military, judges, business people, radio disk jockeys, television commentators, movie stars, showbiz personalities—all swept away by this massive subterfuge, created completely out of whole cloth. A poll taken in late October 2021 found that 60% of Republicans think that the 2020 presidential election results should be overturned.
What kind of witchcraft is this, that a stupid lie, foisted by one person, could grip the psyche of millions of people in one massive, irrational wave of deception! It’s downright frightening.
And dangerous. There are powder kegs all across the country ready to ignite at a moment’s notice. On October 26, the Turning Point USA founder was asked a question by a man in the audience: “At this point,” the man said, “we’re living under a corporate and medical fascism. This is tyranny. When do we get to use the guns?” As the audience broke into applause, the man interrupted: “That’s not a joke, I’m not saying it like that. I mean, literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”
“In Jesus’ Name, Amen”
Those words came at the end of the benediction at an October 12, 2021, rally on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, in which political candidates and others gave fiery speeches, questioning the results of the 2020 presidential election, and calling for yet another audit, nearly one year later. And that benediction was calling down God’s blessing on all that madness “in Jesus’ name.”
Poor Jesus! I thought after listening to it. The brainless things done in his name! Which led to the additional thought: Are Adventists complicit in this insanity?
Those close enough to me to hear the “noises” I make from time to time could testify that the church lies at the center of my interest in these developments. How does the church function in a climate like this? Believing in “truth” as we do, how do we do mission in a culture where facts no longer matter? And if we find ourselves falling for the present subterfuge, so clear to anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking, then how shall we survive the more complex deceptions still ahead of us in these final days?
Such outlandish beliefs and conspiracies are never without consequences. With their dangerous credo, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles took 37 people down with them—people with children, parents, other relatives, and friends who care. And think of the horrible toll from Jim Jones’s lunacy—913 fatalities.
The present madness has the potential for outcomes far exceeding what we saw via Applewhite or Jones. One might surmise that thousands have already died because of the prevailing lethal deception about COVID-19. And in regard to the consequence of the election shenanigans, one has only to look at what happened on January 6, when a planned insurrection came within a hair’s breadth of wrecking the government of the United States.
According to Bob Woodward, speaking in a television interview, by January 8, two days after the storming of the Capitol, “China is watching what's happening in the U.S., and they're worried that the U.S. is going to collapse. The Iranians are worried about this. The Russians. And they go on military alert.” That's when Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley called his Chinese counterpart to calm things down. That's how serious it got.
In a statement that caught my attention earlier this year, former Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt made the point that “25-to-30 percent of the country has always been crazy.” But, he said, “it used to be harder for those people to find each other.” Today, however, “it’s easy for them to all connect with each other with social media and the internet.” They now have a common meeting place. God help us!
“They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15, NRSV).
Deception is a dangerous thing, and Jesus warned us against it.
Jesus wants his followers to be alert; clear-eyed; and impervious to manipulation, disinformation, and nonsense. Jesus wants that when you meet a person who claims his name, you're meeting someone who is solid, rational, their feet on the ground. Not soft-headed, not falling for con artists, imposters, and charlatans.
Amid the current madness, he wants to see us, like the liberated demoniac of Gadara, clothed and in our right mind.
Roy Adams, in his last full-time assignment for the church, served for 22-years as associate editor of Adventist Review/Adventist World at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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