I was deeply disappointed to see a friend and fellow Christian posting things that were untrue on Facebook. These were things that were blatantly untrue even without fact-checking for those who know even a smattering about politics and history. But fact-checking also revealed deeper levels of misinformation about what was posted.
I think it is important to challenge the spread of misinformation. Not only because it harms the reputation of Christianity when it is associated with lies. Not only because it is ironic when Christians, when challenged on spreading falsehood, may respond with a relativistic “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” in their own defense even while at other times they oppose those they disagree with not only by providing counterarguments, but by seeking to silence them.
No, the problem of spreading rumors is deeper. It has the potential to be deeply evil, and Christians of all people should know better, if they know their history, because we’ve been on the receiving end of their most disturbing impact.
In the time of the early church, there were nasty rumors that some malicious people spread about Christians. Twisting Christians’ references to loving their brothers and sisters and meeting together to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ, Christians were accused of engaging in incest and cannibalism.
Being maligned is never easy. But surely people weren’t really gullible enough to believe such things, were they? We don’t know. Perhaps many simply said it knowing it was slander. Perhaps many more heard such things and reserved judgment. But the things were said and remained in people’s minds. Then when Christians were persecuted, some of those who believed the rumors cheered that this pernicious element was getting what they deserved. Others simply stood idly by in ways they might not have if they hadn’t heard such terrible things about Christians, and on some level wondered whether they mightn’t be true.
And so when Christians circulate rumors, they are siding with tyrants and persecutors against themselves and their own experience. They are choosing to be like some Christians who undoubtedly joined in the chorus cheering the harm done to Christians lest they be found out as Christians themselves.
Let me put it bluntly: Circulating rumors that malign others is an act of betrayal of the Christian faith.
A directly related irony is that Christians have spread misinformation even about the very details of how they were persecuted, when misinformation was used in the service of that persecution. See for instance this article about whether Christians were thrown to lions in the Colisseum. It isn’t that the persecutions themselves never happened. But why feel the need to “improve” the stories about them by making the setting a more famous one, or the suffering more gruesome?
No side or group is above creating propaganda and using falsehood to malign others. A recent example is the viral photo that supposedly features Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump holding a Bible in much the same pose.
Tweets can be faked or doctored and circulate, as has happened with one created by a white nationalist group, pretending to be Antifa. With today’s technology you can go beyond lying about people to pretending to be them while saying things they didn’t say. The president’s son retweeted the fake tweet.
In the present day enough Christians believe that a Democratic president would “ban the Bible” that it has an impact on elections.
Rumors matter. If Christians cannot be better than the wider culture, we lose any right to claim to offer truth.
If we are worse than others, then I want to say “God help us.” But if one is ready to embrace rumors and lies that confirm what you are inclined to believe, one of the most pernicious effects is that it shields you from being reached and challenged on your wrong views – which means you’re shielding yourself from the variety of ways that God might help you if you were open to it…
Of related interest: