In the Philippines, my home country, fake news travels fast—not only through social media, but through word-of-mouth communication spread by “Marites,” a Tagalog word for a person who gossips.
This is a compound word from mare, meaning “godmother” as well as clusters of friends in the neighborhood, and the English word latest. In effect, it means “Mare, what’s the latest?” So gossip goes around very fast, especially in densely populated, poor urban communities.
Technology has accelerated and expanded the spread of misinformation beyond what chatty friend networks ever could. It happens in the US and the West as a whole, as well as in countries where the government influences or restricts the media.
Analysts say that part of the reason Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and his allies have returned to power is the way they have been able to massively use social media to revise narratives of our experience of authoritarianism under his father’s rule.
Christians across the world have rightly lamented the spread of fake news in their communities, the prevalence of conspiracy theories, and the skepticism toward ever being able to know the truth. Those of us in the Majority World are also sensitive to another dimension of this phenomenon: We are more likely to see the spiritual reality behind it.
We sense how the demonic could lodge and entrench itself in media technologies—our contemporary version of what Paul calls the “prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2:2 (ESV).
Paul’s language of “thrones or dominions or principalities or powers” in Colossians 1:16 (NKJV) suggests that the demonic manifests itself not only in personalities, but also in subhuman forces—structures and institutions—that enslave or oppress people.
Untruth usually couples with oppression, says the prophet Jeremiah. When truth has fallen in the public square, “oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit” grows (Jer. 9:6, ESV). Those who bend their tongues to speak lies proceed from evil to evil.
The state and other powerful institutions have the power to deceive masses of people through media and social media. It is not an accident that the first thing despots do to consolidate power is muzzle the press.
In a time of massive disinformation, Christians are to fight back for truth. We engage the “prince of the power of the air,” articulating persuasively God’s norms for society in the public square.
Building a “hermeneutical community”
Participation in the political and social life of a country does not merely mean putting Christians into office or capturing positions of power so as to advance our values and agenda like the Religious Right in America. It means creating a social and intellectual environment that argues the cogency of Christian values and frames behavior in public life.
As the writer T. S. Eliot puts it:
What the rulers believed would be less important than the beliefs to which they would be obliged to conform. And a skeptical or indifferent statesman, working with a Christian frame, might be more effective than a devout Christian statesman obliged to conform to a secular frame. … It is not primarily the Christianity of statesmen that matters, but their being confined, by the traditions and the temper of the people which they rule, to a Christian framework within which to realize their ambitions.
How do we go about creating such an environment?
Firstly, we intentionally build what I call a “hermeneutical community,” one made up of those who, like the tribe of Issachar (1 Chron. 12:32), can discern the times and give guidance on how to effectively influence and impact society.
Witness, in the Pauline sense, is to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Unfortunately, this missional mandate has been sidelined by the massive energy put on shallow gospel proclamations that pass for what we call “evangelism.” We train believers to use the Bible on matters like how to get saved, but not on how the whole counsel of God can be applied to the many issues we face every day.
Concededly, the kind of nurture that enables people to engage issues in the public square requires focused attention on those with relevant professional gifts and expertise, opening their minds to the gospel’s relevance to all of life. It is time we bring to the center of our church life and witness the artists and scientists, those with gifts that can communicate creatively to the outside world.
The importance of such a hermeneutical community was impressed upon me at the height of the struggle against former Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos’s authoritarian regime. Some evangelical leaders in the Philippines kept criticizing my organization, the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC), for being part of the surge of resistance against the continuance of Marcos’s rule.
ISACC is a small community of social scientists, development practitioners, writers, artists, and a handful of pastors and theologians. We were convinced that the results of the 1986 snap elections that proclaimed Marcos as winner were fraudulent. He had no more right to rule our country.
We mounted a protest together with other movements. Evangelical leaders then labeled this as “rebellion” and kept referencing Romans 13:1–7, which talks of being subject to the governing authorities.
But our reading of the times differed greatly. Our discernment was that the relevant text to the times was not Romans 13, as most evangelicals thought, but Revelation 13. There are times when the state ceases to be a servant and instead assumes the proportions of a beast (Rev. 13:5–8) and so must be resisted.
Our reading of both the times and the relevant text won the day.
After the 1986 People Power Revolution, some church leaders began to ask, How come ISACC seems to have its finger on the pulse of where our people are, but we missed it?
Lest we miss our historical cues, we must raise a critical mass of young thought leaders who can read the signs of the times accurately and creatively apply Scripture in analyzing and confronting the burning issues of our day.
Secondly, we are told to disciple nations, not just individuals. We are to create new life-affirming systems within our cultures.
This is not primarily done by building alternative structures that we baptize as “Christian,” like “Christian” media or a “Christian” school, but by penetrating our cultures and existing institutions. We affirm or critique our customs and traditions and turn them to Christ and the values of the kingdom.
The rousing outcry we raised against Marcos may have happened 37 years ago, but we continue to wrestle with similarly sinister beasts of our day.
For instance, there is a resurgence of authoritarianism in many countries where democracy was supposed to have been restored. The cult of the caudillo, or the mythic strongman, persists.
Part of the reason is the lack of congruence between the operative values in the culture and the established structures of governance. As Guatemalan sociologist Bernardo Arevalo puts it, “We have the hardware of democracy, but the software of authoritarianism.”
Change needs a “software” of values that will support the “hardware” of the structures and institutions that we put in place.
Creating supportive patterns of culture that will make our systems work requires discipling a whole nation. The process starts but does not end with the internal transformation of individuals. Such change is meant to issue in the “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10), that then radiate out into the larger society.
The missiologist-historian Andrew Walls, in tracing Christianity’s leap from Judaism to inculturation into Greek thought forms, explains how the Bible engages cultures and transforms the social fabric of nations:
The Word is to pass into all those distinctive ways of thought, those networks of kinship, those special ways of doing things, that give a nation its commonality, its coherence, its identity. [The Word] has to travel through the shared mental and moral processes of a community.
As we bring the Word into the public square, we set people free from what Paul calls “strongholds” of the mind (2 Cor. 10:4, ESV). Strongholds, in the way Paul uses it, are not primarily territories of spiritual powers out there, but the web of lies in our minds that shape a society’s consciousness and keep our cultures in bondage.
Witness involves destroying intellectual barriers to belief in Christ. It means getting the Word out there and making “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, ESV).
Unfortunately, we have reduced our witness to mouthing pre-packaged gospel formulations that we assume will work from culture to culture and that do not really engage the hearts and minds of our people. It is also unfortunate that those of us who are recipients of theologies developed in the West have tended to gloss over the cultural and incarnational nature of our witness.
A transforming work
These days, massive poverty has caused the erosion of the Filipino people’s values. Economic pressure makes our bureaucrats surrender integrity and our overseas workers into willing smugglers and couriers of drugs in remote places. We call it kapit sa patalim in Tagalog, referring to how people will graspingly take hold of the blade of a sharp knife—even if it cuts their own hands—just to seize opportunities to survive.
But change can happen and can spread through the structures that organize our common life, just like how the early church, through its practice and witness under persecution, broke through barriers of class, race, and gender to eventually tear the social fabric of Greco-Roman society, a civilization borne on the backs of slaves.
The battle for the soul of a people begins with the mind. People follow the “prince of the power of the air” until the Word breaks through. And as the gospel penetrates and transforms our mental models of how the world works, communities are enabled to move toward new patterns of culture.
Melba Padilla Maggay is a writer and social anthropologist. She serves as president of Micah Global and was formerly the president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.