Yearly Archives: 2021

The tears of Sara Sidner

On January 12, something remarkable happened during a live-broadcast of CNN. During a visit to a Los Angeles hospital, the reporter broke down in tears while reporting on the “New Day” program. Sara Sidner had interviewed Juliana Jimenez Sesma. In the space of eleven days, this woman lost her mother and her stepfather to Covid-19. Her mother’s funeral service had to be conducted in a parking lot. Sara could not hold back her tears when she told the viewers that this was the tenth hospital she had visited, and that she had heard this kind of heartbreaking stories everywhere. “It’s really hard to take! Sorry!” she said between her sobs.

I must confess that it deeply touched me when I saw this. More so than other pictures that we regularly see on TV, of overcrowded ICUs in hospitals, of rows of refrigerated containers being used as temporary morgues, and of fields with hundreds of freshly dug graves. Here was someone, who was used to seeing tragedies, but was now overwhelmed by emotion. It reminded me of two moments in the life of Jesus, when he was overcome by feelings of compassion. In Matthew 14, we read how Jesus tried to find some peace in a remote place. However, a large crowd was determined to see and hear him. When Jesus saw a “large crowd,” he “had compassion on them” (verse 14). A few chapters earlier, the emotion of Jesus as he saw the people around him is described even more poignantly. After Jesus had “passed through all the towns and villages,” proclaiming the good news in the synagogues and healing “every disease and every ailment,” we read, “He saw the crowds”, he had “compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:35, 36).

In this time of Corona many things do not leave us unaffected, even if we ourselves have not been physically affected by the virus. Events like Sara Sidner’s tearful reporting touch us deeply. And for very many people, this also, again and again, raises the question of God’s role in this Covid-19 pandemic, which has now claimed more than two million lives worldwide.

N.T. (Tom) Wright, the British theologian who for a time also served as a bishop in the Anglican Church, wrote a book about God and the pandemic. It was immediately translated into Dutch. If you expect this author to have the definitive answer to the question of the exact role of God in this and other disasters that have affected humanity, you’d better keep the 15.99 euros that the book costs in your pocket. Many things that happen in our imperfect world are inexplicable. But before we blame God for anything, we must remember that the condition of this world is the result of what we as humans have done to our planet. In doing so, we cannot ignore the fact that many epidemics belong to the category of so-called zoonotic diseases that may “jump” from animals to humans. Covid-19 is one such zoonosis. There are still many questions about what exactly happened with respect to Covid-19, but, in general, we can say that the way we keep, trade, transport and consume animals poses enormous health risks.

Of course, such an observation does not begin to settle the question of God’s part in all the misery, including during the current crisis, that afflicts the world. But, says Wright, what God does in this world should never be separated from what he has done for humanity in Christ. In his compassion, God went to great lengths to restore wholeness to our human brokenness. That process, which he began in the life and death of Christ, he is going to bring to completion. Therefore, Wright continues, we should not constantly look back at what God may have or may not have done, but we must look forward to what he is still going to do about it (p. 32).

In the meantime, it’s okay to complain. A significant portion of the Psalms are lamentations, in which the poet, full of sorrow and sometimes with anger and reproach toward God, observes that an awful lot of things in the world, and in our lives, are not as they should be. And it is significant that there is even a book in the Bible called Lamentations. It is the record of the bitter lamentations of people who had ended up as disenfranchised exiles in Babylon.

The consolation that Tom Wright holds out to us, that, while things in the world are not as they originally were and should be, they will eventually become again what they should be–isn’t that a bit too meager a consolation? Or is his message perhaps a welcome and encouraging reminder that, even in this current crisis, in which even seasoned reporters may burst out in tears, many wonderful things are still happening?

As we read the Book of Lamentations, we suddenly come across in the third chapter these wonderfully encouraging words -words that we can also add to our complaints so many centuries later:
Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed,
For his compassions never fail!
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness!

The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance

The American social-psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989) published in 1957 his now famous book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The book resulted from his study of a bizarre cult led by Mrs. Marian Keech. She claimed that aliens from Planet Clarion would destroy the earth on December 21, 1954 through a massive deluge. Despite the fact that this prediction did not come true, almost all of Mrs. Keech’s followers continued to believe in her alien messages. They refused to admit that they had been wrong, but now claimed that through them the calamity had been averted. Festinger tried to find an explanation for this strange phenomenon. With his theory of cognitive dissonance, he wanted to explain how people tend to deal with new information that conflicts with their previous ideas. They usually experience considerable “psychological discomfort” because of this “dissonance,” and they can deal with thin two ways. They may decide to revise their previous ideas, or they may repress them and continue to search for information that can somehow confirm their previous ideas.

An oft-cited example of “cognitive dissonance” is that of the Watchtower Society. The Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaimed that Christ would return in 1914. But 1914 passed without this happening. Subsequent predictions of the time of Christ’s return (1915, 1918, 1923, 1925, and 1975) also proved false. Yet, this did not lead to the end of this movement, as frustrated members walked away en masse, despite the “cognitive dissonance” they experienced when the course of history proved to be at odds with their earlier theological convictions. The theology of the Witnesses was adjusted by the leaders and most members agreed. An important factor in this process was that many members had invested so much time, energy, and emotion in their movement that they wanted to cling to every possible argument to save their movement!

We saw a very striking example of cognitive dissonance recently in the United States in the QAnon movement. At one point the bizarre theory emerged that there is an underground network of influential pedophile individuals, who are guilty of abducting and even murdering children, and that Q-the anonymous leader who wants to expose this movement-must be supported by all means possible. On December 4, 2016, the heavily armed Edgar Maddison Welch stormed the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC, because he believed that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring in the basement of this restaurant. However, Welch discovered that the pizzeria did not have a basement, that there were no pedophiles and that Hillary Clinton was also missing. Welch is now in jail, but the QAnon movement has not been discouraged by this. On the contrary. New “evidence” is continually brought forward as the thousands of followers continue to propagate the pedophile conspiracy of QAnon.

Cognitive dissonance does not always lead to the same result as in the cases of QAnon and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Seventh-day Adventists have every reason to be aware of this phenomenon. William Miller’s movement completely splintered when the prediction that Christ would return on Oct. 22, 1844, proved false. A small number of Miller’s followers, who would form the core of the later Church of the Seventh-day Adventists, did, however, feel this cognitive dissonance and developed a theological explanation for the 1844 disappointment. This is now very far behind us, and the church has recognized from the outset that the theory of Miller and his supporters was incorrect. The vast majority of church members never want to repeat the mistake of setting a date for Jesus’ return. But even among Adventists, the problem of cognitive dissonance still regularly rears its head, when it appears that earlier theological assertions–particularly regarding prophetic predictions–can no longer be defended. One clear example will have to suffice.

In the past there were attempts in many originally Christian countries to enforce strict Sunday observance by means of legislation. The expectation that the celebration of Sunday would be mandated worldwide became an integral part of the Adventist end-time scenario. Eventually, refusal to recognize Sunday as a day of rest and worship would even become life threatening. The reality is that this expectation has not been fulfilled. Quite the opposite has been the case. It is, however, proving difficult for many Adventists to accept that this mortal clash between Sunday observers and Sabbath observers is more and more unlikely to happen. This produces considerable cognitive dissonance. Numerous church members continue to search diligently for statements by spiritual leaders, or activities by often obscure organizations that are fighting a rearguard action to promote Sunday sanctification. Adventist organizations on the fringes of the church continue to warn against coming Sunday laws…. In 1983, Jan Marcussen published his booklet A NATIONAL SUNDAY LAW, which was translated into many languages (including Dutch). Marcussen’s supporters have now distributed some 47 million copies of this book. Why do they put so much energy into this? Because it is very difficult to give up a position once taken, and to which one has become so attached. If a long-held position is no longer tenable, we must, individually and collectively, have the courage to resolve the cognitive dissonance by giving up such a position rather than clinging to it, often with contrived and far-fetched arguments.

Conspiracy theories

Thursday morning, January 7. Last night (Dutch time) I watched for several hours, in horror, the siege of the Capitol complex by a mob of thousands of Trump-supporters. It was more than disconcerting to see how a US president incited his followers to take their protest to a level of vandalism and of utter disregard for the norms of decency and for the laws of the land. The conduct of the mob was a sad result of what their leader had taught them over the past four years.

At the very root of what we saw transpire in the American capital is the willingness of so many people to believe in conspiracy theories. The American president, and those around him, have been feeding the people a constant diet of lies and fabrications. Among the supporters of the outgoing American president are, sadly, millions of men and women who have come to believe that sinister powers are at work that will bring ruin to the kind of America that they want to defend, and that during the recent presidential elections a system of widespread fraud did indeed “steal” the victory from their hero. But, really, if there had been such a widespread fraud, it must have involved many thousands (or even more) people all around the country, secretly plotting their malicious plan, and executing it right under the noses of tens of thousands of observers. Regrettably, for those who passionately believe in these conspiracy theories, there are always new developments that will confirm their misgivings.

As the drama around the transition from one US presidency to the next is further unfolding, other conspiracy theories have gained the support of millions of people worldwide. The current pandemic has given rise to numerous far-fetched myths about its origin. Even in a country that prides itself with having a population of mostly very level-headed people, it seems (according to a recent report) that some ten percent of the population believes that the Covid-19 pandemic has been purposely engineered by pharmaceutical companies, in pursuit of ever more profits. (https://nltimes.nl/2020/08/17/10-percent-dutch-believe-covid-19-conspiracy-theories.) I would be the last person to defend the conduct of many of these companies, but such a theory clearly has no ground whatsoever in reality.

One of the most popular, widespread theories, which has in many respects been amalgamated with conspiracy theories concerning the dangers of vaccines and of the 5G network, is the ID2020 theory. Bill Gates, and the Microsoft company that he founded, are at the center of this wildly speculative theory. It claims that the pandemic will be used by powers which aim at creating a world government. They plan to control the people through chips with a minuscule tracking device, that will be implanted through the mass-vaccination. As could be expected, lots of conservative Christians in the USA are convinced that this is the satanic “mark of the beast” that the apostle John has written about in his Apocalypse.

I do not know how many Adventists have bought into this weird, and totally baseless, ID2020 myth. But I do know that at the fringe of the Adventist Church are a number of independent ministries and popular speakers, who have embraced (and are constantly promoting) all kinds of conspiracy theories. Of course, these theories more often than not include mischievous plans of the pope and dangerous machinations by the Jesuits. The Amazing Discoveries organization of Walter Veith has been, since a few decades, at the forefront on propagating the wildest theories about the past and present role of numerous secret societies. The problem with conspiracy theories is that there may well be some aspects that could actually be true, but these are then spun out into wild, baseless, speculations and accusations.

Lately, David Gates, an independent SDA preacher, has been travelling the world informing his Adventist audiences about the evil things that are behind the current pandemic and behind the global vaccination plans, and about how these fit into a wildly alarmist version of Adventist views of last-day events. These and similar activities on the right-wing fringe of the church have prompted the leadership of the church to issue a stern warning to the church members to reject these totally irresponsible ideas that cause widespread unrest. (“Covid-19 Vaccines: Addressing Concerns, Offering Counsel”, in Adventist Review on-line: https://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story15816-covid-19-vaccines-addressing-concerns,-offering-counsel).

What we need in society as well in the church is capable, level-headed leadership, which will provide intelligent and transparent information about the reality of current events, and which can inspire the vast majority of the people into rejecting the populist and alarmist notions of the prophets of doom and disarray who cause so much chaos.