This is the third sermon in a Lenten series entitled “Shadow Dancing: Pulling Back the Veil.” The scripture was excerpts from Isaiah 1.
You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive (members) of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world. You see plague and pestilence sweeping the planet, and understand that they are part of the plan. You know that a clash between good and evil cannot be avoided, and you yearn for the Great Awakening that is coming. And so you must be on guard at all times. You must shield your ears from the scorn of the ignorant. You must find those who are like you. And you must be prepared to fight. You know all this because you believe in Q.
This was the opening to an article on the conspiracy theory QAnon in The Atlantic several months ago, and I thought it was a good window into how this conspiracy theory that has infected many folks in the United States feels like from the inside. QAnon folks believe that a group of global, liberal elites run a worldwide ring in which they abduct children for sex trafficking and even harvest their blood and cannibalize them. They believe that the mainstream media is in cahoots with these abusers, and many of them believe that Donald Trump is the savior who will stop this evil. They also believe that there is an enormous apocalyptic event coming called the Storm. When the Storm hits, the evildoers will be punished, and the righteous will be rewarded.
QAnon has been gaining adherents, largely from the political right and especially the evangelical Christian world, over the past four years. Many of the people who stormed the Capital on Jan. 6 were QAnon true believers, as is at least one Congresswoman and quite a number of state legislators. QAnon is believed to be one reason for the growing threat of domestic terrorism in this country.
What the heck is going on here? Has part of the country become psychotic? I believe that one lens to understand QAnon is by understanding it as an eruption of the shadow into our collective space. As a reminder, the shadow is that part of our psyche where we unconsciously put things that we don’t want to look at because they are painful, shameful or somehow harmful to our self-image, to our ego’s need to be good and right. Just as we as individuals have a personal ego and a personal shadow, so also groups have collectives egos and collective shadows. And it’s only when we look at what is in our shadow, both as individuals and as collectives, that we can heal and become whole.
About 46 of us are participating in a Lenten meditation in which we visualize ourselves sitting in a beam of beautiful light, the light of Divine Love. And from that space, we invite whatever cut-off parts of ourselves are in the shadow to sit with us in the light of that Love. When I first did this meditation years ago and called out to who was in my shadow, a 10-year-old version of myself came and sat beside me. I immediately knew why she was there. She had been humiliated by her two closest friends, made to feel ashamed of her body. It was hard for me to look at her, because it was hard for me to remember that that had happened to me and it was hard for me to realize that that pain and shame were still stuck in my body. As she at with me in the light of Love, though, we were both healed. And I can think of her now and tell you this story, with no feelings of shame but only of gratitude that she came into the light and was seen.
Gently inviting into the light what is in the shadow is perhaps the best way to see, heal and integrate the shadow. But, often, that is not how our shadow becomes conscious to us. Often, our shadow erupts and — like a bomb exploding — leaves damage in its wake. If I explode in irritation at something my husband says, or if I am overcome by feelings of shame or disgust that I unconsciously project onto another person or groups, then that’s a mini shadow eruption in my life. Eruptions are the least healthy way for us to see what’s in our shadow, because they come out distorted and sideways, not clean. And they often harm others, as well as ourselves. But these eruptions are a clue that something needs to be looked at, needs to be seen. QAnon is this same sort of shadow eruption, I believe. It has flushed out what is in our collective shadow, no matter how distorted and damaging the eruption. So let’s look at the shadow eruption of QAnon and what needs to be seen within it.
As freakish as QAnon may seem, these sorts of conspiracy theories — especially involving cannibalism and transgression of sexual norms — are quite common throughout history. Early followers of Jesus were accused of cannibalism by the Roman Empire. The early church father Irenaeus, who was a heresy hunter, accused the Gnostic sect of child abuse and sexual licentiousness. Later on, in the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of capturing Christian children and using their blood for religious rituals. This “blood libel” conspiracy theory was the bedrock of anti-Semitism for centuries, and you can catch more than a whiff of it in QAnon. In the 16th century, Anabaptists were accused of similar sorts of diabolical things and persecuted for them, as were women accused of being witches. (Some of this history comes from this podcast.)
Scholars believe these conspiracy theories re-emerge and flourish in times of great uncertainty, when the social order is breaking down, when there is societal chaos and stress. Does that sound like now? Ecological destruction, increasing economic inequality, widespread economic distress, massive mistrust of authority — this is the perfect petri dish in which conspiracy cultures can grow.
In January, the New York Times profiled a former QAnon true believer named Lenka Perron that provided a window into how this culture can take root and grow. I especially appreciated this profile because Lenka is not what many of us might think of as the typical QAnon true believer. She’s educated, and she and her immigrant family have been union Democrats for decades. At first, the QAnon theories seemed crazy to her. But then, the more she heard and learned, they more they became comforting, a “way to get her bearings in a chaotic world that felt increasingly unequal and rigged against middle-class people like her.”
Her family were working-class folks from Detroit who had risen into the middle class via good jobs in auto plants. Like many, they saw their middle-class lifestyles decline after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, which contributed to the shutdown of the manufacturing industry in this country as jobs went overseas, where you could pay workers less and not offer as many benefits. Despite these losses, she stuck with the Democratic party because she believed it was fighting for her and other working people. When Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, she became a huge supporter. He was electrifying for her, she said, because he was naming what she saw happening — that the “middle class was shrinking” and that “the 1% and corporations (had) more control and (were) taking more of the money.” (This is true.) She just assumed the Democratic party would support Sanders. When hacked emails revealed that the Democratic establishment was undermining his candidacy, she began to believe that they didn’t really care for the working class. The emails, she said, were just all about “expensive dinner parties and exclusive get-togethers.”
She felt completely betrayed by a party she and her family had supported their entire life. This emotional vulnerability created the conditions for conspiracy culture to grow in her psyche. Reading about QAnon and figuring out with others how to piece together clues of how the world really worked, of who was really in power, gave Lenka a sense of agency. An “evil cabal could be defeated.” But a “diffuse sense that things were out of her control” could not. She felt a part of a bigger purpose again and part of a community of truth seekers, people who were seeing what was in the shadows and bringing it into the light.
And what is the truth she — and others — found in the shadows? It can be boiled down to this: There are lots of very powerful people controlling things, abusing the most innocent, and you can’t believe what you read in the media because they are on the side of the powerful.
I don’t know about you, but I find a lot of truth in that. I am absolutely not saying that child abuse and cannibalism are happening in the way QAnon asserts. But I do believe that there are lots of very powerful people controlling things and that they do abuse the most innocent. Or, I might nuance it this way: There is a system of domination controlling things and it leads people to consciously and unconsciously abuse the most innocent. And I believe that a lot of our media — especially the right-wing media like Fox News but also, to some degree, more mainstream media — is directly or indirectly supporting this powerful system. Let me unpack that a little bit.
In the 1930s and 40s, an economic and political philosophy called neoliberalism came into being. Its original founders were two Austrian intellectuals who saw FDR’s New Deal and the development of Britain’s welfare state as frightening developments because they saw them as being on a spectrum with communism and nazism. They saw these developments as being on a spectrum with totalitarianism, where the state has too much power. They believed, instead, in individual freedom and in the market. They said that the market could deliver benefits that could never be achieved by central, governmental planning. They saw individual competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. They redefined citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling. They believed that any attempt to limit economic activity was a threat to liberty. (Much of this is from British journalism George Monbiot’s excellent article.)
Wealthy people became aware of this philosophy and saw it in an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and taxation. These wealthy folks began funding think tanks and financed academic positions and even whole departments like at the University of Chicago. They set out to persuade thought leaders and other people with social power to adopt neoliberal ideas, ideas that included massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, cutting regulations that protected workers and the environment, and privatizing public goods like education and health care.
In the 1970s, neoliberalism began to really enter the mainstream. After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan took power, neoliberal ideas started to become reality in their countries. Through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, these neoliberal policies were imposed — often without democratic consent — on much of the world. The book I just worked on with Sarah Augustine details how devastating neoliberal policies have been for Indigenous and other vulnerable peoples, and how devastating they have been for the environment.
Remarkably, former allies of the working class like the Democratic Party and the Labour party in Britain also adopted neoliberal policies. Lenka is right that the Democratic Party abandoned the working class in this country. And perhaps part of the reason QAnon is so fixated on Hillary Clinton — besides misogyny — is that she and her husband, Bill, are arguably the Democrats most responsible for this abandonment. The Clintons’ endorsement of the North American Free Trade Agreement devastated the manufacturing industry in this country and the middle- and working-class folks who depended on it. Meanwhile, the right-wing media in our country sells neoliberalism to the working masses — using a healthy dose of racism and white grievance politics to do so — and the mainstream media often normalizes it. (Not all media, not all journalists, but much of it.)
The result, according to British journalist George Monbiot who has written a book on neoliberalism, has been “the financial meltdown of 2007-8… the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty… the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump,” epidemic homelessness, and the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Although one can argue that the roots of our dis-ease go back further than neoliberalism, the societal disruption and insecurity that it creates, I believe, holds a large responsibility for creating the petri dish in which right-wing extremism and conspiracy cults like QAnon can grow. The fact that neoliberalism has taken over most of the world helps us also understand why we are seeing conspiracy theories like QAnon, and right-wing extremism growing around the world. They are all shadow eruptions that point — if we have but eyes to see — at what is really in the shadows.
When I read the prophet Isaiah, I hear him speaking to us from across the millennia: Our cities will burn with fire, our country will lie desolate until we wash ourselves, make ourselves clean — until we invite in from the shadows the ugly truth, the “dirty” truth of who we are and allow ourselves to be healed. Until we as a country look at the blood that is on our hands. Until we cease to unconsciously do evil and learn to consciously do good. Amen.