Tomorrow will be the 58th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It happened on November 22, 1963, and I remember it well. In 1963, I was in Grade 1; and on November 22nd, which was a Friday that year, I was home with a cold. I remember the assassination because children’s TV shows were pre-empted by news reports about Kennedy, which annoyed me no end. As a six-year-old, I didn’t understand the depth of emotion that Kennedy’s assassination aroused in my parents and in so many others around the world. But I can well remember my annoyance at not being able to watch Romper Room!
On the other hand, do we really know that Kennedy was assassinated 58 years ago? His death was extensively reported in the media. But today, a growing number of conspiracy theorists say mainstream media outlets – from the CBC, to the daily newspapers, to the original three American networks – spread fake news. Perhaps these fake news organizations lied about Kennedy’s death in 1963!
I raise this issue because earlier this month, a group of followers of the QAnon conspiracy gathered in Houston Texas to greet Kennedy’s youngest child, John F. Kennedy Jr. They said he was going to support defeated President Donald Trump and to become his running mate in the 2024 elections – despite John Junior’s death in a plane crash in 1999!
Not surprisingly, the long-dead John Junior did not appear. Nevertheless, some QAnon supports are still in Houston believing that he, or perhaps his father, who would be 104 years old now, or Princess Diana will yet appear and help bring President Trump back to office.
The question of whether John F. Kennedy (Senior or Junior), Princess Di, or other famous people who died prematurely are actually dead confronts us with today’s Gospel question: what is truth, and how can we know it when we encounter it?
I am sure that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and that his son died in a plane crash in 1999. But such beliefs, like most of the knowledge I possess, are based on faith in outside sources, whether textbooks, media reports, or conversations with friends.
I resonate with some of the skepticism that QAnon followers have in the mainstream media. Despite my belief that QAnon followers are deranged fascists, I too have long been skeptical of the mainstream media. Like all institutions in this wondrous and suffering world, media outlets reflect national and political biases; and these explain some of their failures. For instance, in most wars fought during my lifetime – from Vietnam through Iraq – the Western media have been deferential to the rulers of the United States. Although this support has often crumpled under the pressure of events, their initial support reveals bias.
And why do we know so much about the life and death of famous celebrities like John Junior or Princess Diana? Both became prominent because of the families into which they were born or into which they married. But doesn’t our obsession with the few monarchies that still survive in an increasingly non-monarchical world, like the British one, or with pseudo-monarchies like that of the Kennedy clan in the USA, represent a distortion of the media we want?
I have no doubt that John Junior died tragically in a plane crash when he was just 38 years old in 1999. But part of me wishes I didn’t know so much about the Kennedy clan and about the goings-on of the British royal family.
And I bring some of this skepticism with me when I hear Pilate’s retort to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel reading: “What is truth?”
For one, did Pilate really say this on the day that Jesus was executed? I believe we cannot know if any of the things said or done in the four gospel accounts are historically true. John is the last Gospel to be written, about 70 years after the death of Jesus. And his Gospel presents a radically different Jesus than the three others. But even the earliest and supposedly most accurate gospel, Mark, was written 40 years after Jesus’ death.
John’s account of the trials and execution of Jesus is the one part of his Gospel that shows a possible reliance on Mark. But even in the scene that we heard today about a conversation between Jesus and the Roman ruler Pilate in Jerusalem, which is found in all four gospels, it is only John’s account that includes the remarks by Jesus and Pilate about truth.
The details of what Jesus says and does in the gospels, although endlessly fruitful when writing Sunday reflections, are not of prime importance for me. Instead, I locate the importance of the gospels in the trajectory of death and resurrection they sketch for us, a path which I have tried to follow for the past 20 years since I returned to church.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus says that he is a king who came to bear witness to the truth. But I am skeptical of this claim since truth is so slippery. More important for me is the concept of reality; and we get closer to reality, I believe, when we communicate by acknowledging our own perceptions, attitudes, and feelings.
Beyond our feelings and wishes, there is also the question as to what is important; and the answer to that question depends on who has power, how power is changing, and what kind of world one wants.
QAnon and other conspiracy theorists enhance the power of racist, science-denying, and sexist rulers, and with a disregard of many tough aspects of current reality – whether these be climate change, or the rise of robots, or the success of authoritarian dictators.
I appreciate how belonging to QAnon provides many people with a sense of belonging and purpose. But I dislike the trajectory of such movements, and I view their growth in the US and elsewhere with distress.
Better, I think, to join communities like Mill Woods United Church that strive to be both counter-cultural and sane. Most of us rely on the mainstream media and traditional education to provide much of our knowledge. At the same time, we can also find space to be aware of national and other biases in the mainstream.
Today, there are vast social media forums that bolster conspiracy theory groups like QAnon; and there are also prominent political leaders, like ex-President Trump, and media organizations, like Fox News and Newsmax, that help such currents to grow.
When, for instance, B.C. is struck with climate catastrophes like this summer’s heat domes and this fall’s rainfall, do news agencies link these disasters to climate change, and hence to humanity’s need to respond to it as an emergency; or do they view them as natural phenomena without any social impact?
Or when a U.S. teenager shoots two people dead with an assault rifle at a Black Lives Matters protest and is found not guilty, as was the case last week in Wisconsin, does a news agency view him as a white supremacist or as a hero whose actions should be emulated by other supposed “patriots.”
QAnon supporters and the media and political leaders that support them probably adopt the second attitude in these two cases, while many in both the mainstream and the Christian counterculture, might adopt the first attitude.
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, I try to remember that what we need in the quest for truth are communities of faith that can help us create a counterculture that is as full of Love as possible. The Inner Christ is both an assurance of healing and love and a call to reach out to one another as fellow bearers of an inner flame of divine sovereignty and love.
On this final Sunday of the church year, I decided to hear Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes’ poem “Kingdom.” He writes that God is “Love, in whose service beauty blossoms, for whose delight the seasons turn, and for whose glory the galaxies dance;” and he suggests that we will not rest until we fall like grains of sand to join the heart of Love, which is already torn, and which already kneels.
Today, as one church year ends and another beckons, this is my prayer for us – that we find the space to talk, pray, and sing so that we are more likely to fall like grains of sand and join the heart of Love, which is the ruler we all need and which already resides, even if sometimes hidden, in each of us.
May it be so. Amen.