by James Blay
The birth of the Information age in the late 20th Century ushered in a period of immense access to information in very efficient ways. In a lot of ways it mirrored the invention of Gothenburg’s Printing Press in the 15th Century. Where once the availability of information was limited to the few and privileged, advances in information technology made it easily available to the many.
With the availability of information comes the manipulation of information. Today we have to deal with fake news, deep fake videos – where one can actually make a video of someone else speaking and saying things they did not actually say, false narratives, and conspiracy theories. Our inability or unwillingness to filter or investigate the information we receive usually results in ignorance and a misguided worldview.
When information is manipulated, it is most often a means by which a particular narrative is being championed. Take for example those who deny the existence of systemic racism in America, their goal is to suggest a particular account that racism ended with the passing of the Civil Rights Act. To these people, the fact that black and brown people are still being oppressed and lynched is due to laziness and criminal activities. The manipulation of information is also used by the powerful to keep hold of power. The dissemination of divisive rhetoric, the “them versus us” argument, the immigrants are evil conversations, the all life matters slogans, are all attempts to #makeamericagreatagain. The reality however is that the strategy of this manipulation of information is to keep promoting white power, white supremacy, and to protect the status quo.
We need to be responsible consumers of information. The question “who told you?,” should be our investigative tool when faced with misinformation or suspect information. By asking the question, “who told you?” we are actually doing the necessary investigative work that keeps us knowledgeable about what is happening in our homes, our communities, and our country. The absence of this kind of investigative work only strengthens the possibility of information being used to divide us, keep us silent, and keep oppressive systems and people in power.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, the continued killing of black people by police, the various demonstrations all across the country, and the fact that this is an election year, information has become an even more powerful tool. We have the Rona deniers, the all life matters campaigners, the why cant we all just get along agents, the blame shifting and finger pointing coming from national leadership, all intent on protecting and sustaining the status quo. Now more than ever we need intentionality in reviewing, analyzing, filtering, and investigating the information we receive. Like it or not, information impacts our life decisions and right now we need to make a lot of right decisions for ourselves, for our communities, and for this country. Just like God did with Adam and Eve in the creation narrative, we too out of curiosity have to start asking; who told you?
In the Genesis 3 portion of the larger creation narrative that begins with Genesis 2:4, God comes for the usual walk around with and walk among creation. Usually, Adam and Eve are there excited to welcome and converse with the Divine Creator in the cool of the evening. On this particular day however something is different, and God realizes that Adam and Eve are not there. God calls out, where are you, again emphasizing the strangeness of them not being there to welcome and walk with God.
Upon hearing God call out they have no choice but to respond, and in their response the truth of what they have done comes out. When they are placed in the garden, they are given specific instructions about how to tend God’s creation, how to care for the garden. They however allow the serpent to manipulate information and make them do the very thing God asked them not to do. Faced with the particularity of what God told them, and the temptation of the serpent’s word, they chose the latter. Immediately they realize that they are naked and this realization causes them to be afraid.
Out of God’s great love for Adam and Eve, God wants to know how they got here. Who told you that you were naked? God asks. Where did you get this information? Did you trust the reliability of the source? Are you sure they were not servicing a particular agenda? Did you investigate to make sure they were not only trying to break up our relationship? Did you fact check? Where did you get this information? All Adam and Eve can do in this moment of fear and shame is play the blame game. Adam blames God and Eve, and she in turn blames the serpent.
God’s heart breaks for creation. The plan is ruined all because they chose to listen to the serpent rather than the Creator. What now? They cannot be in the garden anymore. They cannot walk and talk with God in the cool of the day anymore. But even in their disobedience, God responds in measured love, connected and concerned. God provides cover for the very thing that causes them to be afraid, their nakedness. Now they are tasked to go into the world and labor for all they need to survive. They now have to ponder the destructive and disruptive effect of their disobedience, not just for them but also for generations to follow.
The account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 gives us an important insight into why it is important to verify, fact check, investigate, and analyze information we receive. Someone once told me, never believe all that you hear. Always verify the original source of information. Reading more critically this text in Genesis 3 I cannot help but realize that as responsible consumers of information, especially in this age of plenty, we have a duty to ask the “who told you?” to fact check, to counter falsehood with truth. Seriously, it is a matter of saving the soul of this country, protecting the life of the innocent, reclaiming the humanity of oppressed people. It is a life and death issue. Where the literal life and pursuit of happiness of people is concerned, there can be no neutrality when it comes to combating false narratives, or dealing with manipulated information. Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu reminds us “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
When God asked Adam and Eve, who told you that you are naked, there was a logical follow up question. God knew they had disobeyed and eaten from the forbidden tree. The inquest was not an attempt to put them to shame; it was an opportunity for confession and redemption. Our attempts at combating false narratives, misinformation, and out right lies should not be about putting people to shame. Yes we must call out injustice, we must scream out that it is unacceptable to dehumanize and criminalize black people, LGBTQ people, brown people, and native American people, we must drown out those who fail to realize that all lives can’t matter until black lives matter, we must be a constant check on oppression and injustice by the way we communicate, and the ways we digest information we receive. As we engage in this existential battle, let us also remember to leave room for confession and redemption. Give people space to recognize and own their limitations while offering grace to those who are genuinely seeking redemption from their oppressive and racist ways.
As we encounter information in the spaces we occupy, know that the old adage of sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me has no place in the fight for justice and equity. Words are powerful tools for creating and sustaining the white supremacy narrative. Under this narrative black and brown lives are somehow less than. This narrative perpetuates the ideology that immigrants are criminals and diseased. This narrative suggests that the incarceration and enslavement of black and brown people is justified. This narrative seeks to keep people of color in poverty through racist policies. This narrative calls protestors for justice thugs and agitators while at the same time validating the violence against black people as police doing their jobs. We, as followers of the Creator God who called creation good, who created us all in the image of the Divine, cannot afford not to ask; who told you?
Who told you black lives don’t matter? Who told you there is no systemic racism in America? Who told you LGBTQ people are sinners going to hell, or that by reason of their sexuality they do not deserve the same rights as citizens of this country? Who told you that you do not deserve to be loved? Who told you that because someone is arrested they must have done something wrong? Who told you?
When I was in the 5th grade my teacher told me in front of the entire class that I was not going anywhere – that I would end up on the streets or in jail. She told me my parents were wasting their money sending me to school. For the next three or four years of me being in school I believed her. I stopped trying and started being exactly who she told me I would be. My grades fell, and I was always in trouble convinced that this was the life I was meant to live. Fast forward to the beginning of high school, my English teacher after our very first class assignment called me to her office and said, you have written one of the best works I have seen for a long time, you are going to be an excellent student. Hearing her words lit a fire in me for learning I thought had long been extinguished. Not only did I want to be an excellent student, now I wanted to also be a better person.
In order to really ask who told you and the necessary follow up questions, we should also examine what we ourselves are telling. Our efforts to fact check, investigate, and fight against manipulated and oppressive information should not divorce us from doing the same for the information we are putting out there. We are at a very important place in the existence of this country. Information is the tool by which we can make and be the change we hope to see.
Not all information is destructive or oppressive, some information we receive is life giving, empowering and freeing. Some information reminds us who we are as created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Some information reminds us that we are loved as we are, that we can accomplish far more than we ever dreamed or imagined. Some information lets us know we do not deserve to be used or abused. Some information acknowledges our hurts and pain and brokenness without trying to explain it away or pretend its not happening. Some information pushes us to widen our source of information, to discover new voices as we seek to listen, to learn, to be better. Some information celebrates us and creates space for us to live as our authentic selves. Some information communicates that we are cared for and loved and appreciated. These are the words we must eternalize because those who genuinely share them with us are those who seek to nurture our well-being.
So ask yourself today, who told you what you are holding on to? What are you telling that others are holding on to?