1. by Hans Boersma9 . 27 . 21

Conspiracy theorists are lunatics. Such is the consensus among most people I meet. And yet, whenever the topic of conspiracy theories comes up, I think of Psalm 2:

Why do the nations conspire, 
    and the peoples plot in vain? 
The kings of the earth set themselves, 
    and the rulers take counsel together, 
    against the Lord and his anointed, saying, 
“Let us burst their bonds asunder, 
    and cast their cords from us” (Ps. 2:1–2)

David claims that the nations conspire. The early church was convinced that Jesus’s death was the result of a Psalm 2 type of conspiracy set up by rulers and elders and scribes (Acts 4:5, 25–27).

The past few years have placed the positive use of the term “conspiracy” under a cloud. In some ways, this is understandable. Conspiracy theories that claim, for example, that the September 11 attacks were the result of controlled demolition or that Neil Armstrong never set foot on the moon are worthy of nothing but disdain. 

Still, crazy conspiracy theories do not preclude actual conspiracies. And it may be worth asking whether David’s words rightly come to mind in connection with the sudden rush to enforce COVID vaccination through vaccine passports and even vaccine mandates. 

David uses the term conspire (rāgash in Hebrew) again in the opening words of Psalm 64: “Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from dread of the enemy, hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the scheming (rigshāh) of evildoers.” David appears convinced that a lot of folks fail to act with good intentions. The Greek translation uses the verb phylassō. It invites comparisons between conspiring nations and proud horses: Just as the latter neigh, whinny, and prance, so the former are unruly, wanton, and arrogant. 

Along with the verb conspire, the psalmist suspects the elites of plotting and of taking counsel. The Book of Proverbs takes up the first of these two verbs, insisting that the minds of evil men “devise (hāgāh) violence,” while “their lips talk of mischief” (Prov. 24:2). It is David, again, who uses the second verb when he complains to God about his enemies: “They scheme (yāsad) together against me, as they plot to take my life” (Ps. 31:14). The language conjures up the picture of a group of people deliberately getting together so as to arrange a certain outcome.

Maybe David was a pessimist. For my part, I think he just had a keen sense of human sinfulness. Our society looks to technology as the solution to nearly every problem we face. Health—one of our culture’s ultimate concerns—is no exception. Our technological and political elites tap into widespread and deeply seated anxieties about health in our post-Christian society. Our anxieties have created conditions in which actual conspiracies might just take root.

This is not to pooh-pooh either health concerns or technology per se. But the myopic focus on health, along with the knee-jerk faith in technology, makes us susceptible to exploitation by elites whose primary objective may not be our well-being. In other words, our current conditions render us vulnerable to Big Tech and Big Pharma conspiring to create a way of life that—had we known its parameters from the outset—we would have rejected out of hand.

When rulers mandate vaccine passports and establish elaborate electronic systems to police compliance, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how the same system might be used—and in the eyes of many should be used—to regulate carbon emissions, expenditures, and even opinions. After all, it’s not just the coronavirus that is dangerous. So are climate change, social inequality, and certain moral and religious convictions. Technologically, traveling from vaccine passports to a social credit system—the kind that China already has in place—takes no time at all.

Slippery slope arguments are often fallacious. Just because something can happen doesn’t mean it will. Still, as David Cayley has rightly argued, the demonization of scientists with alternative viewpoints and the ready abandonment of “voluntary consent” to medical procedures ought to caution us that perhaps the psalmist’s words about conspiracy have some relevance for our current situation.

Of course, my slippery slope argument is grounded in the prior conviction that there is something malignant already in the first step—vaccine passports. I plead guilty as charged. The evil is relatively slight and largely hidden from view. After all, COVID-19 is a serious health issue for the elderly and others with underlying health conditions. Of all people, Christians should recognize the moral requirement to protect the vulnerable.

But vaccine passports reach well beyond such a legitimate humanitarian impulse. Their health benefits are very much in dispute, seeing as COVID vaccinations do not always prevent infection. And to force vaccination upon an entire population—mostly through social coercion, for now—is to violate the important notion of voluntary consent.

This is not an argument against vaccination per se. It is an argument to take conspiracy theorists—David foremost among them—seriously.

Of course, it would be much easier had the first major step to technological surveillance been obviously evil: say, race-based passports, passports linked to party allegiance, or passports issued only to those with certain moral or religious convictions. Everyone would take note, and the protests would, rightly, be deafening. Such passports are therefore unlikely to be issued any time soon. 

No totalitarian regime would get off the ground if the evil were obvious from the start. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau overreached a few years ago by legislating that summer job grant recipients sign an attestation respecting LGBTQ and abortion rights, he was eventually forced to back down. The totalitarian impulse was too overt.

The truth is, we don’t get to choose our issues. Vaccine passports are becoming commonplace, and we cannot avoid making up our minds. They are a dangerous step toward the imposition of a social credit system. Such an imposition is all the more likely considering the rapid disintegration of shared moral horizons, which would inhibit rulers and nations from demanding compliance to more egregious demands in the future. At the very least we must be alert to the conspiratorial origins of vaccine passports.

Opposing conspiracies, however, is not enough. As Christians, we should out-conspire the conspirators. Each of the three Hebrew words of Psalm 2 is used also of righteous conspiracies. Nations may conspire (rāgash), but so does true friendship: “We used to hold sweet converse together; within God’s house we walked in fellowship (regesh)” (55:14). Peoples may plot (hāgāh), but the Book of Psalms uses the same word to speak of believers meditating on God or on his law. And rulers may establish themselves as a group so as to take counsel together (yāsad), but the earth and the temple too have been established (e.g., Ps. 24:2; Isa. 28:16)—and we know the One who conspired those particular schemes.

Conspiracy is hardly restricted to evildoers or powermongers. Christians conspire together—at least, if they’re prudent and alert to the signs of the times. Calling to mind Psalm 2, the outnumbered group of disciples in Jerusalem appealed to God for help, knowing that he is the ultimate conspirator, that his hand and his plan are present in all things (Acts 4:28). After they prayed, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31).

When Big Tech and Big Pharma, aided by the media and politicians, conspire to divide people between vaccinated and unvaccinated, they are signaling the beginning of a well-orchestrated campaign. It is a campaign that must not succeed. What we need is the boldness of the early disciples. For theirs was a boldness founded upon divine conspiracy, the true antidote to today’s totalitarian impulse.

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.