Eric Barreto: Trust and Conspiracy in a Pandemic (Matthew 14:22-33)

The social media post pointed to a video promising deliverance from the pandemic, an assurance that things are not as dire as they seem. Nor, the video suggested, do we need to worry so much. It promised to provide a glimpse behind a curtain trying to show a truth that “they” want to keep from us. The truth, you see, was right there if you just chose to believe that a litany of scientists, experts, and leaders were not really interested in your health but in your continued delusion. It’s all a conspiracy, but now you had the chance to get in on the secret “they” didn’t want you to know.

The video had been widely discredited, of course. Even the social media giants — too often reticent to stand proactively against propaganda and conspiracy theory — had taken down the videos in order to keep others from being deluded.

And yet this social media post defiantly wrote, “Deny this if you choose. I believe it. That is my right.”

Others have written and researched the sources of mistrust that nurture conspiracy among Christians in particular. Scholars have recently traced the proliferation of a sense of persecution among white Christians and its link to believing that racism against Black people and communities is overblown.

The sociologist Samuel Perry posted data on Twitter that suggests that Christians who feel persecuted are more likely to “disregard COVID-19 precautions” like increased hand-washing and wearing a mask in public. Robert P. Jones recently wrote about his research showing that white Christians were significantly more likely than others to deny the persistence of structural racism and to advocate for Confederate monuments to remain.

Jones concludes, “The results point to a stark conclusion: While most white Christians think of themselves as people who hold warm feelings toward African Americans, holding racist views is nonetheless positively and independently associated with white Christian identity. Again, this troubling relationship holds not just for white evangelical Protestants, but also for white mainline Protestants and white Catholics.”

Too many Christians miss a critical element of faith, of what it means to believe something.

Faith is not just a matter of thinking the right things or saying the right words. Faith is fundamentally a confession of trust, an embodiment of how we relate to God and thus to one another as children of God.

Faith is not just a yes to doctrine but a yes to the God who created us, the God who saves us, the God who draws us to new life. And that “us” in the last sentence is important, for God’s creation, salvation, sanctification have a communal dimension and import. In Christian faith, it’s never just about me but about us. And thus faith in God necessarily implicates the trust we share with our neighbors.

The embrace of conspiracy among far too many Christians is at its core a crisis of (mis)trust and thus also a crisis of faith.

When some Christians choose to trust the one doctor who confirms my preconceived expectations, the one person of color who diminishes the impact of racism, the one politician who promises a return to greatness, then we see a crisis of faith, not just in God, but in the diverse stories and generous genius God has created.

We could talk more about why Christians have become so easily seduced by these conspiratorial whispers. However, I want to close with something else.

Instead of theologies that lead us astray, that misshape our sense of trust, that delude us with fanciful narratives, what theological convictions drive us to a critical hope that is both properly suspicious of the propensity of the powerful to harm while also nurturing a loving trust of our neighbors, especially those neighbors marginalized by powerful structures?

This last Sunday many churches read from Matthew 14:13-21, the story of Jesus’ proliferation of bread to share with 5,000 men and an uncounted number of women and children. The miracle here is not just a magic trick, a sleight of hand, a special effect meant to dazzle the crowds. No, the miracle is one of abundance in a place where the disciples only see what they lack. “This is a deserted place,” the disciples inform a Jesus who has healed the sick and proclaimed good news with every step he has taken (v. 15).

There are no desolate places when Jesus is present. There is enough to go around, more than enough when Jesus sets a table before us.

This upcoming Sunday we encounter Jesus striding on the sea and calming the winds and the waves in Matthew 14:22-33. First, bread in the wilderness. Now, calm in the eye of a storm. Notice what Jesus tells his disconsolate disciples: Do not be afraid. There is nothing to fear, for I have drawn near to you.

I wonder if the thirst among too many Christians for a conspiracy theory that makes sense of a world seeming to be spinning out of control is a way to reach out for something solid in a dissolving world, a reality that seems to be slipping through our fingers.

But in reaching out for a hidden truth that makes it all make sense, we miss that Jesus is already there with us in those places that seem foreboding and lonely and dangerous.

Jesus’ very presence is the assurance of God’s promise of new, abundant life.

Let’s be clear. The other side of conspiracy is not naïveté or an unquestioning trust in those deemed experts or those who wield power over us. A critical perspective is indispensable. We know that the powerful have enacted terrible regimes of oppression in the past, occluding their actions and justifying their treatment of the powerless. The Tuskegee Experiment was real. So is systemic racism.

But it is vital that we nurture a faithful sensibility that can distinguish between cries of oppression which ring in God’s ears with compassion and the privileged fear that the comfortable may lose their unmerited place in the structure of a broken world God is setting right. It is crucial that we discern the difference between fears rooted in a sober look at the world as it is and promotes our survival and fears of loss and scarcity rooted in a twisted vision of one’s neighbors.

Do not look to the man behind the curtain pulling the strings. Do not look for the code that explains it all. Do not look for the conspiracy that contorts and changes to explain every wrinkle and incorrect prediction.

No. Look to the Jesus who offers us bread in the wilderness, a bread that nourishes us to notice that we are not alone, a bread that teaches us that there is always enough in the reign of God. Look to the Jesus who strides on the waves, who beckons us to the water, who delivers us when we cry out, “Save us.” That Jesus draws us close and reminds us not to fear but to love God and neighbor alike with every thought and word.


Eric D. Barreto

Eric D. Barreto is the Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. His passion is to pursue scholarship for the sake of the church, and he regularly writes for and teaches in faith communities around the country.

Twitter | @ericbarreto


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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