There’s a disturbing meme making its way around Facebook and other social-media sites right now. You may have seen it, especially if you or your friends are heavily involved with Christian activism. It’s a picture of burned bodies, hundreds of them, laid out in the sun in Nigeria. Usually the picture has some sort of caption telling us that these are the victims of a “Muslim rampage” in Nigeria—the bodies are, allegedly, those of Christians burned alive by Islamic militants as part of a religiously-mandated jihad. The pictures are pretty hard to look at, and it’s hard not to feel outrage and sympathy for the victims of such an evil act of terrorism.
Except for one thing: it didn’t happen. The photograph is real, but it has nothing to do with religious violence in Nigeria. What you see in the picture is the result of a terrible explosion that happened when a fuel tanker ran off the road, overturned, and ignited near the village of Sange. Sange, for those of you keeping track at home, is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thousands of miles away from Nigeria. Tensions are indeed very high right now between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, and violence does break out. Like many other countries (including the United States), Nigeria has radical, dangerous groups that twist religious beliefs into excuses for terrible acts. But not even Boko Haram—the Nigerian equivalent of Al-Qaeda—has ever taken to burning Christians alive. The simplest of Google searches easily disproves the “truth” of this story. Yet even as I write this, Facebook posts, email forwards, “Action Alerts,”, Sunday sermons, and other forms of propoganda continue to paint a picture of bloodthirsty Nigerian Muslims setting fire to Christian martyrs. Such outrage raises already-dangerous levels of inter-religious distrust, distrust leads to tension, and tension leads to (more) violence.
I can hear the gasps of (feigned) shock now: “What?! Something I saw on the internet wasn’t true?!?!? Someone get me my smelling salts!” But this fake story is symptomatic of a larger problem that I’ve seen gaining strength lately. Something about the current mindset of many Christians in this country is causing them to throw fact-checking and logical thought entirely out the window. Apparently, the source of a story is more important to these people than the facts of a story—if it comes from Fox News or a conservative leader, it’s unassailably true, no matter how nonsensical or physically impossible. Once one of these “true stories” takes root, nothing from the outside world seems to affect it. For instance, a Christian friend of mine who I otherwise love and respect told me that he “knew” that President Obama is a secret Muslim because he has gold curtains in the White House.
Is this where we’ve fallen to? So many things are wrong with that one sentence—the President has been pretty public about his Christian faith, why would it be terrible if he were Muslim, and what do gold curtains have to do with anything anyway—that it was impossible to even respond. On top of that, a quick fact check told me that gold curtains aren’t even new to the White House. The particular Drapes of Muslim Doom that my friend was talking about were installed by Laura Bush (who is many things, but definitely not a Muslim woman). And check out this photograph of Ronald Reagan, Patron Saint of Conservative Christianity. The curtains may be tacky, but they’re a typical part of White House décor, not a secretly coded shout-out to the worldwide Islamic Brotherhood.
Stories like these make me worry that too many Christians are living in a world of superstition and fear that they mistake for shared reality. I’m sure whole books of folklore could be written about bizarre Obama “facts” believed by somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of the population. In speaking with family and friends, I’ve heard the following
I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of these, but the ones I’ve listed here share some troubling features. They all portray the President as some sort of alien “Other” who does not share “our” values. They all state or imply that the President is constantly telegraphing his allegiance to shadowy groups through “hidden” signs. And, of course, they’re all easily disproved with photographic and historical evidence. In other words, they’re superstitions that articulate intense anxiety (about change, about the future) and vestigial racism as the definition of “American” expands to include people with non-Anglo names and non-Caucasian features.
Thanks to gullible Christian congregations and misinformation outlets like Fox News, though, these glaringly false tales get treated as if they were factual events rather than evidence of deep psychological and sociological conflict. And that makes a more divisive and dangerous world for all of us to live in. How are we supposed to have a real, respectful conversation with people who disagree with us if we have to spend the first several hours “debating” the presence or absence of an American flag pin on the duly-elected President of the United States? How are we supposed to be credible advocates for peace between all kinds of people if we can be duped into imagining that Nigerian Muslims were conducting systematic Christian-roastings? The country (and the world) needs more clear-eyed, rational understanding of the world around us, not inflammatory internet memes that get all of their credibility through repetition.
Please, people. Think before you click “Share.”