The Biggest Con in the World

Ever since I saw The Sting–the first movie I remember watching–grifters have been a central part of my life. At the turn of the 20th Century, America’s attitude toward confidence crime was, "If you’re stupid enough to fall for a grifter’s tale, you deserve what you get." But that zeitgeist changed as the confidence men worked their way up the social ladder and started working their schemes on the upper class. That’s when the bunco laws got passed and through various means, confidence crimes because actual crimes. The conman ceased being a kind of Robin Hood figure and became an actual criminal.

Myself, I’m torn. I can see confidence crimes as tools. They are morally neutral. How you use them defines their morality. A hammer can be used to build a house or bash a man’s brain in. The latter activity does not make the hammer itself an immoral tool. Likewise, confidence crimes can be used to create just ends.

But then, there’s a part of me that remembers Socrates’ story of the Ring of Gyges. The Ring makes you invisible (sound familiar), and so Socrates’ students asked if the Ring could be used for moral purposes. The teacher said, "Every moral act should be a public act," establishing the groundwork for civil disobedience and his own later suicide.

The way the law sees confidence crime as a kind of fraud. You make a promise you cannot deliver on. I promise to give you a car in exchange for ten thousand dollars. I get the cash and you get no car. That’s fraud. Breaking a contract. Confidence crime falls under that definition in the American legal system. Con games may be handshake agreements, but under our legal system, handshake agreements are still agreements.

Every confidence crime in the world operates under that premise: the conman makes a promise he cannot deliver. He tricks you into giving him your confidence. Usually, he does this by giving you the illusion that you’ve won his confidence. 

I’ve got this problem, friend. It’s bad. My brother’s being held by the mob. Yeah, I can’t go to the police because they own the police. And my brother, he knows where all this cash is that he hid. More than the mob knows. They think it’s ten grand. It’s really one million. If I give them the ten grand, they’ll let him go and that one million dollars will get unlocked. I’ve only got eight grand. If I only had two thousand more dollars, that one million would be ours. And my brother would be alive. That’s what really matters to me…

It’s called "the Spanish Prisoner," and the reason they call it that is because it dates all the way back to Elizabethan England when Catholic Spain was capturing and ransoming Protestant English nobility. At least, that’s the first time we have a record of it. Even that record calls this, " a very old story." It is, without a doubt, the most "classic" con of them all. In fact, it’s still in play. Today, they call it "the Nigerian Prince." Here’s another one…

Say friend, you seem like a good fellow. I’ve got a secret I want to share with you. See, this buddy of mine works at one of those big banks and he’s in charge of money exchanges. You know, the kind of exchanges that countries do. Exchange a few million euros for dollars kind of thing. Well, he’s got this plan that will make both of us a ton of money. I know I can trust you, so I’m gonna let you in. But to get in, you have to buy in. That means you have to put up some cash. But don’t worry. At the end of this, all of us are gonna be rich…

 

I know, I know. You’ve seen it. And you never fall for it. But, trust me. The reason you’ve seen it so much is because it’s still working like a charm.

___

Confidence tricks work because it appeals to a part of the human mind that encourages us to invest in the State Lottery. It encourages us to believe in UFOs and conspiracy theories. These are things we believe without critical analysis. If we were objective and looked at the facts, we’d easily dismiss these beliefs as what they are: unsubstantiated claims.

And, that same part of our brain encourages us to believe in the unsubstantiated claims about the end of the world.

What is happening over at Family Radio Church is a confidence crime. Since they’ve announced the End of the World was going to happen today, they’ve received over 100 million in donations. The last time they pulled this stunt–back in 1994–they pulled in millions of dollars as well. Harold Camping’s church is worth over 72 million dollars. And counting. Of course, after tomorrow, it’s debatable whether or not his reputation will survive a second failed prophecy.

Or will it?

One of my Youtube subscriptions, ProfMTH, created a wonderful video all about what happens when prophecies fail and how believers react.  You’d think they would leave the failed prophet behind. You’d think that, but you (and I) would be wrong.

That’s because human beings are gullible. Yes, I count myself as a human being, so I fall into that category as well. There are things I want so desperately to believe that I’m willing to ignore evidence to maintain my belief. It’s a conscience effort to overcome my biases and see evidence to the contrary. Knowing that it’s not a simple effort, but a concentrated and deliberate task, makes it a little easier, but my biases trick me just as often as they trick others. I work hard at it, but I fail more often than I’d like to admit.

People look at Camping and call him a conman. They’re correct. But what most people fail to realize is that his church is really no different than any other church in the United States. They all do the same thing. They make a promise they can’t deliver on and ask money for delivering it.

Hey, I’d like to tell you about this friend of mine, Jesus Christ. He’s gonna save the world. All you have to do is change your entire life: how you think, how you act, the people you call friends, the people you call family. All you have to do is believe what I’m telling you and join us. And you’ll be saved.

And if you don’t think religion asks you to change your entire life, take a step back and think about it. How many people have you rejected relationships with because they aren’t part of your faith? How many family members do you have conflict with because they aren’t part of your faith? How many books, movies, TV shows, songs, etc. do you not even give a second glance because they don’t agree with your faith?

I can think of dozens of examples. Gay marriage. Sex outside of marriage. Homosexuality. Bi-sexuality. Polygamy. Polyamory. Hell, I haven’t even gotten outside of SEX yet. These lifestyle choices are dictated by the world’s religions and the only argument they have is "God said so."

 
"And if you don’t give us money," the churches say, "how can we spread the word about God’s love?"
 
This, my friends, is the very definition of a con game.
 
Church’s promise they have the Word of God. They promise it. They swear to you that they have the right message. 
 
Of course, with a little objective and critical observation, you’ll discover that all they have is smoke and mirrors. 
 
What the Family Radio Church is doing has no distinction at all with any other church on the planet.
 
"We know God’s will."
 
That’s the claim. They know what God wants. And their "evidence" comes from selective reading of the Bible.
 
How is any church in the world any different?
 
It’s a con. What’s worse, it’s a con being used for evil.

Jesus vs Paul

Way back in my youth, I tried coming to terms with Jesus. I was subject to the argument from authority: how could so many people be so wrong? So, I started studying the history of Christianity and Jesus himself. I came into contact with the gnostics. Perhaps it was my iconoclastic tendency to side with the underdog, but I found the gnostic interpretation of the Jesus story much more appealing than the Catholic or Protestant interpretations.

I liked the notion of Jesus representing an invisible god coming into the physical world to save us from its temporal lures. Ephemeral love against physical lust. Charity vs greed. Justice vs revenge. These things appealed to me and, for a while, I identified myself as a "gnostic christian." I didn’t actually believe in the mystical claims of the gnostics, but I found the lessons they taught more beneficial than the lessons I learned in Catholic school.

Around that time, I also learned about St. Paul. As I read more about him, I realized that much of what Christianity is today comes not from Jesus but from Paul’s interpretations of Jesus’ teachings. I also learned that Paul lived his entire life before the first gospel (Mark) was even written. Paul was probably converted between 31 – 36 AD and probably died in 67 AD. The Gospel of Mark was probably written right about that time or right after it. Most Bible scholars (serious Bible scholars) place the writing of Mark around 70 AD. There are arguments for Mark showing up as early as 65 or 67 AD but because it mentions the fall of the Temple in the year 70 AD, most scholars place it after that date.

What that told me was strange. Paul was writing about Jesus before the writing of the earliest gospel. How could that be? I took a deeper look and found that much of what Paul was preaching in his letters had nothing at all to do with what Jesus was preaching.

Meanwhile, I also started getting interested in American history. I read Common Sense and The Federalist Papers. And then I discovered that Thomas Jefferson had his own version of the Gospels. I got hold of that and discovered that Jefferson had taken out all the miracles. I later read that he called St. Paul, "the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus." That threw me for a loop. It also put me back to studying Christian history to understand what Jefferson meant.

What I found kicked my ass.

Paul blatantly contradicts nearly everything Jesus preached. Not only that, but Paul seems completely ignorant of Jesus altogether. 

Paul never mentions any of Jesus’ miracles. He never mentions the birth story. He never mentions his parents finding him in the temple instructing the rabbis. He never mentions John the Baptist. He never talks about the forty days of temptation in the desert. He never talks about turning water into wine or healing the sick and blind. He never mentions the "He who is without sin" story. (Admittedly, that one was added a few centuries later, but that’s another essay.) He doesn’t talk about Jesus walking on water.

Other than Peter and James (Jesus’ brother), he never mentions any of the other disciples. Not even Judas.

He never mentions Jesus entering Jerusalem on an ass (a HUGE prophecy from the Torah). He never mentions anything other than the scourging, torture and eventual murder of Jesus. Until the Romans actually hang him, to Paul, the Jesus you and I know never gets mentioned by Paul at all.

But the most important (and damning) piece of evidence for me was this: Paul never quotes from, addresses or otherwise draws attention to the Sermon on the Mount.

___

Now, when I bring this up, most Christians have no idea what I’m talking about. They read every book in the New Testament as something Jesus said. A few Christians are a bit up on this and make equivocations about the mixed messages. They go scouring through Paul’s letters looking for things that look like or sound like something Jesus said and they link them together.

This kind of activity always reminds me of Nostradamians trying to fit cryptic prophecies with modern events. 

(Why is the Bible is like four or five jigsaw puzzles that someone threw together on the floor? Sure, some of the pieces fit, but they don’t all fit together and it looks very sad when people try to fit a piece from one puzzle together with the piece from another.)  

This is called interpolation: inserting meaning into a text that was not in the original text.

Tolkien scholars are much the same way. They read all kinds of shit in the Rings Trilogy that just isn’t there. Hell, it happens in roleplaying games.

Hell, it happens in my roleplaying games. People telling me how I’m misinterpreting things I meant in the rules that I wrote.

It’s a basic human activity. We like to make meaning. We are pattern-seeking storytellers. 

So, when we find a discrepancy in the Bible, we naturally go looking for the solution to fix it. Got a problem with a passage in one book? That’s okay! A passage from another book will fix it!

(This is also what makes me so mad when religious folks tell me I’m "taking the book out of context." I’m taking the book out of context? When you tell me that to understand a cryptic phrase in Acts, I have to go back and read a quote from Elijah that has nothing at all to do with the messiah? Yeah. I’m the one taking the book out of context.)

But too many Christians also speak in general terms. They never give specific examples. I aim to do the opposite. Here are some real examples of Paul completely contradicting what Jesus taught.

 
Jesus never says one word about homosexuality. Not one word. In fact, I’d like someone to demonstrate to me any kind of passage in the Bible that shows that Jesus was celibate. Show me where Mary Magdeline made an oath to chastity. And please show me why when Jesus calls John, "the beloved disciple," please show me how that does not mean what it sounds like.
 
(And don’t go quoting other people’s interpretations of the text. Let the Bible justify itself. This is the word of god, after all. It doesn’t need external justification. It justifies itself.)
Meanwhile, Paul makes it quite clear that his god does indeed hate fags.
In Romans, he calls for the murder of gays, saying that homosexuals are "worthy of death."
 
In Corinthians, he makes a list of ten things that will keep you out of heaven. One of them is "acting effeminate." 
In 1 Timothy, he calls them unholy and profane.
 
In 2 Timothy, he notes that the end times (he’s always talking about the end times), that people will become obsessed with unnatural affection.
 
Of course, he doesn’t just hate fags. He hates women, too. While Jesus took a scorned and shamed woman to his bosum, Paul would prefer if they just stayed out of his way, kept their mouths shut and knew their place.
 
1 Timothy is the best place to find Paul’s attitude toward women. He says that they should cover their faces "with shamefacedness." That they should learn in silence and subjugation and never be allowed to teach men. He says that women are inferior to men and, in a screed of unparalleled hatred, goes on to say that we should feel no pity for widows because they are just victims of god’s wrath and that we should ignore them and let them die.
 
Later, in 1 Peter, as the definitive authority on everything that god wants, he orders that women should be obedient to their husbands. When they speak, they should do so with "chaste conversation, coupled with fear." 
 
And this isn’t even all of it. I could go on and on and on.
 
How does any of this fit with the teachings of Jesus? What would Jesus say about all of this?
 
Let me ask that question again…
 
If Jesus heard you talking to a woman this way, instructing her as Paul did, what do you think Jesus would say about it? Would he pat you on the back and say, "Good boy. Go teach more!" Or, would he shake his head and tell some kind of parable about the wicked man with the just wife. You can decide that one for yourself.
 
___
 
Needless to say, I found a lot I didn’t like about Paul. There’s some bits that Jesus said that make me scratch my head (and some I’m convinced he didn’t say at all) but for Paul… nah. 
 
I like the scene near the end of The Last Temptation of Christ when Jesus actually meets Paul. Jesus confronts him and says, "I never said any of that!" Paul doubts that Jesus is who he says he is and after some conversation, Paul comes to a conclusion…
 

How Is Anyone Falling for This?

Mark 11:15-16
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there.

He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.

And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: " ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers."