By Eleanor Daniel
I have a confession to make. Some days I wonder why I even bother to teach the Word of God to others. I’m not sure they take it in very seriously.
I’m not talking about teaching the Word to unbelievers. It often takes a long time and a lot of effort for them to come to belief in the Lord and to submit to him. Rather, I’m talking about good people who have been Christians for a long time and who, by all expectations, should demonstrate markedly different behavior than nonbelievers. Nor am I talking about gross sins.
No, I’m thinking about those who profess to love others and often show it in practical ways, those who claim a deep commitment to Christ and yet gullibly swallow rumors, especially those on the Internet, without question. I’m referring in particular to those who pass along gossip and untruths on the basis of something they have seen on the Internet or on television, or heard on a talk show or other presentation—never once taking the time to check the veracity of the claims.
Scripture clearly instructs Christians to be aware of what they are passing on to others. Paul said in Ephesians 4:25, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Paul’s teaching certainly applies to face-to-face encounters with others; I believe it also applies to our use of social media.
I begin to doubt the value of my teaching when these rumors are passed on by otherwise trustworthy Christians. But somehow they forget about being trustworthy when it comes to some claim that someone (we rarely know who started it or for what reason) circulates because the rumor verifies (in their mind, at least) that Christians are being persecuted and that a conspiracy is afoot to squelch all expressions of Christianity.
It happened three times, with three people—two of whom I teach on a regular basis—with three different topics, in the three days before I wrote this.
One Internet-circulated rumor, obviously pro-military and anti-Washington, deplored the plight of retired military who, according to the rumor, receive only half of their military pay in retirement while the president and members of Congress receive their full salaries when they retire. But guess what? It isn’t true.
Let’s take the military side first. Millitary.com begins with the claim that the military retirement system is the best one can find anywhere. For starters, pay begins the day after one retires (that is, leaves the military after 20 or more years of service), regardless of age. The actual pay, of course, depends on number of years served and rank achieved. But, according to this website, it is 75 to 80 percent of one’s pay when he or she was on active duty.
Currently, a retired president receives 43.75 percent of his salary as chief executive, plus 10 years of Secret Service protection. Members of Congress receive retirement benefits based on the length of time they served in Congress and other federal employment, according to the regulations of the Federal Employees Retirement System and Civil Service Retirement System.
So my question is: why does one want to propagate such misinformation when a couple of less-than-10-minute searches on Google take you to the truth? Doesn’t truth matter?
A second message urged Christians to sign a petition to protest the Federal Communications Commission’s hearing of Petition 2493 which would remove pastors from television with the presumed end result of making it illegal to read Scripture over the airways. Again, it simply isn’t true.
It’s a rumor that has made its rounds every now and again since at least 2006. But a quick check on the Snopes, Hoax-Slayer, and Truth or Fiction websites dispels the myth right away. Even Focus on the Family asserts that it is false.
But to make sure, I checked the FCC site. Petition 2493, filed in 1974, asked that the FCC issue no new broadcast licenses to religious organizations until current licensees were investigated. The FCC rejected that petition. Again, why do people pass along false information when it is so easy to find the truth? Does truth matter?
The third e-mail was a discussion about a DVD that a friend of mine viewed at her church. Mind you, I’ve not viewed the DVD in question, but the person claims that the presenter stated that the Constitution had been changed with regard to education, and that the Constitution as originally written stated that the Bible would be used in schools.
Again, utterly false. The Constitution prior to the passage of the Bill of Rights amendments made no mention of religion, the Bible, or schools. Then the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, stated that the United States could neither establish a state religion nor prohibit the individual practice of religion.
It is true, of course, that the Bible played a prominent role in colonial education, especially in the colonies that were established for religious reasons—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Maryland, in particular. But it is equally true that schools in the earliest years of the republic were private schools, not schools supported by taxpayers’ dollars. Common schools, or public schools as we call them today, took root in the 1830s, but did not become commonplace until the decade or two before the Civil War.
The founding fathers did not make rules regarding public schools. And so, regardless of what we think about teaching the Bible in schools, the speaker on the DVD propagated, or at least implied, false information and equated the private educational milieu of the late 1700s to public education in the 2000s.
Many of us would be happy to see more Bible taught in the schools, but to say it was the intent of the Founding Fathers again begs the question: why would a speaker knowingly present such information? He has an agenda, to be sure. And his desires may be valid, but valid desires can’t be legitimized with inaccurate information.
Does truth matter?
Committed to Truth?
So I return to my original confession. Does teaching the Bible make any difference to those who hear? We all agree that it should. Why, then, are we so loosely committed to truth that we jump in to pass along every rumor that suggests “persecution” or conspiracy to undermine Christianity?
We have always had conspiracy theories and urban legends. But in the past it took some time for them to circulate, allowing opportunity to correct the information and sometimes stop the rumor. But with the advent of the Internet, readily accessible videos, and social media, the information now is not only circulated, but archived—and stopping the rumor is virtually impossible.
Unfortunately, the scenarios I’ve described will only grow exponentially in the next year with rhetoric—true and false—surrounding the 2012 election. It is time, then, for Christians to make responsible use of technology and to be responsible disciples of Jesus. The rumors will fly. So what can you do?
• Check out the facts when you get one of these messages. I want to be informed if there is a real problem, but I don’t want to pass along what isn’t true. And I don’t want to base my beliefs on false information.
• Be fully aware that not everything found on the Internet is true. Find the source of the information.
• Try to correct the information when you can. Some people appreciate it.
• When someone disregards my pleas to check the facts, I ask them to take me off their e-mail lists—and I hide their contributions on my Facebook page. At least I don’t have to read it and fret about passing on rumors.
• If the message sounds far-fetched, it probably is. Don’t pass it on.
• Remember that we represent Christ. What kind of witness are we to the subjects of the false information, some of it malicious, some simply in error? What are we telling our friends and acquaintances when we pass on such information?
I’ll keep on teaching the Bible, of course, because I know that in the end, the Word of God prevails, even if we are slow to learn. But I would be elated if a few more Christians took seriously the biblical directive to “speak the truth.”
Eleanor Daniel has taught 43 years in colleges and seminaries. She is the Dorothy Keister Walker Professor of Christian Education Emeritus at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.