I don’t know if the age of the anti-Christ has arrived, but I know the age of the anti-Christian has arrived — and one of them, the foremost poster boy, is convicted felon televangelist Jim Bakker. Not to be outdone by his past twisted, immoral and illegal activities, Bakker now continues on The Jim Bakker Show based out of Morningside USA in the Ozark Mountains on his resurrected PTL Television Network. By the way, PTL stands for Praise The Lord — which causes me to say LGMP: Lord, give me patience.
Last week, New York’s attorney general and the FDA ordered Bakker to stop using his “religious” TV show to pitch and sell a snake oil cure for the COVID-19 virus, the so-called “Silver Solution.” Silver particles mixed with water won’t protect you, period. As bad as this is, Jim Bakker in and of himself is not the most disturbing aspect of this story, although he has been exceedingly disturbing since he first appeared on TV in 1974. Bakker would have us believe that, because of his “special calling” from God and his “special knowledge” (gnosos in Greek), he can give us, for a price, the magic cure-all for our ills.
By the way, just for enlightening kicks, Google the heresy of Gnosticism in the early days of the Church.
The most disturbing thing here is how the televangelist snake-oil-and-special-knowledge approach to Christianity continues to infect American society in deep and insidious ways. For example, also last week, the Pew Research Center published the results of its most recent survey showing almost two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. believe “their side is winning” politically under the Trump administration — this has increased from 23% in May of 2016 to 63% last month.
The bad news is Trump operates as a virtual snake oil salesman, providing “God-sanctioned” medicines and messages that a certain section of America finds reassuring for “their side.” He is, and has always been, a purveyor of quick fixes — especially ones that don’t work and lead to fiscal and moral bankruptcies. But the good news is his customers (or should one say, marks), his white evangelical supporters, now make up only 16% of the U.S. population, as per Pew study figures of fall 2019.
A little historic context is in order: Up until 20th century American evangelicalism, a cornerstone teaching of Christianity was that we imperfect humans are here in this often troubled world, having to overcome our failings, our tendencies toward sin; we are in that little boat on the rough sea and we have to stick together, tend the sail and oars, care for each other, and work on the very long haul of building, through our good works, a more grace-filled human community. Faith alone or being “born again” was not enough — we were required to work on ourselves and our world, to do God’s work. Jesus and his apostles didn’t promise a cheap, quick fix, but rather worked to prepare us for a long, difficult passage. They weren’t selling a fast-action snake oil.
But imperfect human nature seems to want to believe in snake oil and quick fixes. The lesson to learn, as we are now dealing with COVID-19 up close, is that we are facing a true worldwide health emergency — a type of event most of us thought was a thing of the past — and this is a situation that won’t be solved by a quick fix. Despite Trump’s (feeble) attempt to demonstrate an in-charge, secular savior-type presence, the fact is no one person, or one country, is going to be able to get this under control right away. It is going to take a worldwide team effort.
One of the greatest things Christianity brought onto the worldwide stage is the tenet we are One Human Family (caps intentional). From its earliest days (the Council of Jerusalem c. 50 CE), the Christian Church was explicitly welcoming to all regardless of a person’s race, ethnicity, place of origin, whether free or slave, whether sick or well. It was the first organization to establish a worldwide obligation for human rights and mutual assistance. Did it always succeed and was this mission never violated over the last 2,000 years? No, of course not. We are not perfect. We’re still working on it.
We have a wonderful opportunity to work on it right now. This is not an us-against-them, our-side-their-side situation, despite Trump’s calling COVID-19 a “foreign virus,” implying it is the latest manifestation of the old Chinese Yellow Peril. Come on, all viruses are “foreign” in the sense they are foreign to the bio-system of the human body. The reality is very simple and very symbolic: this is a situation of an “us” that is all humanity against a “them” that is all the COVID-19 viruses traveling around the planet. “Our side” is simply the side of all humanity.
This is also a situation whereby we will see further evidence our American health-care system is structurally unsound. How can we deal with a crisis fight against COVID-19 if millions of Americans do not have access to health care? Or have limited and too-expensive access — and access to a system that is fractured and split up into hundreds of different and competing entities often at odds with each other. The silver lining of this pandemic is it forces us to never forget that our neighbors’ health is just as important as our own; if they get sick, we are more likely to get sick.
There’s no “our side” and “their side” in any of this. Thanks to modern transportation, the world has become very small. Europe is truly just “across the pond.” We’ve been using that expression since the 1960s. It’s high time to let it sink in, really sink in.
Lines from a famous meditation come to mind, written by John Donne, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, in 1623 just after Donne nearly died from a serious but unknown illness:
No man is an island entire of itself ...
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.