I was a Christian Reformed campus minister at a secular Canadian university for 15 years. Once, I was talking with a student-elected leader I just met. We were having a great cordial exchange of ideas until I explained that I am a Christian pastor. The student leader abruptly ended the conversation and immediately turned away. I noticed pain and anger in her face. To varying degrees, this was not an uncommon experience in my campus ministry.
The North American church has committed too many sins and has hurt too many people that we are losing our moral credibility to share the gospel.
My experience is that most North American secularists—non-religious folks like atheists and agnostics—are increasingly aligning Christians with homophobic, racist, sexist, anti-science, anti-climate change and judgmental positions. Let me be clear: this is their perception of us. I am not here talking about whether it’s reality. This is anecdotal, of course, but I think it rings true to many.
Hence, secularists increasingly see us Christians as dangerous and maybe even evil. Goodwill, trust, and credibility are increasingly difficult to earn. And earning our right to be heard is even harder now than before.
It is with this missionary lens that I am reflecting on the Christian insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Let me be clear, I publicly denounce the Christian insurrection of Jan. 6 with its violence, racism, and nationalism. But I believe North American Christianity’s witness and moral credibility have been tarnished by its perceived links, fair or not, to the insurrection’s violence, racism and political nationalism.
Is it fair to call what happened Jan. 6 a Christian insurrection? Yes.
First, the Christian presence in the mob was undeniable. Christian sayings and symbols were everywhere among the rioters. Many were waving Christian flags or flags with Christian sayings, such as “Jesus is My Savior.” Some carried crosses (and no, I am not talking about that cross erected at the Michigan Capitol, although that protest is connected to the same movement as the Washington, D.C., riot). There was a prominently displayed huge “Jesus 2020” banner that was captured on TV news channels across the globe. There is a video of the insurrectionists praying a Christian prayer in the Senate chamber.
To be fair, I suspect there were many nonviolent Christians in the crowd who were probably caught by surprise at the sudden turn of events from what started out, for them, as a peaceful protest march. A ProPublica article analyzing hours of video footage of the day shows nuances among the mob. But it is, unfortunately, too late. Those Christian images, symbols and prayers are now indelibly linked with the insurrection.
It is also appropriate to call it an insurrection. Many in the mob aimed to overturn the U.S. presidential electoral college vote count. There were security threats to lawmakers. They erected a gallows with chants of hanging U.S. Vice President Mike Pence for his failure to overturn the election of U.S. President Joe Biden. They attacked the police. They breached the Capitol and briefly occupied parts of the building. Plans to occupy the Capitol circulated among social media prior to the march. The violence, the rhetoric, and the motivations all seem to fit the definition of “insurrection”: an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.
And no, we cannot blame Antifa for this. That claim has been proven false. These were various far-right groups, conspiracy theory groups, racist groups, and pro-Trump supporters. (See here, here, here, here and here.)
Tragically, the day included violence and deaths. Five people died including one Capitol Police officer. Hundreds were injured. We mourn the tragic loss of life. We denounce the violence.
Our Christian witness is tarnished by this connection to a violent insurrection.
Racism and Anti-Semitism
But worse, Christianity is also tarnished by being linked to racism and anti-Semitism. Amid the Christian flags among the insurrectionists were also Confederate flags. Technically the Confederate battle flag, it has a long history of being associated with racism and often used by racists and white supremacists. But there were other racist symbols on display. At least one rioter wore a shirt emblazoned with “Camp Auschwitz,” a reference to the Nazi concentration camp.
In a report by the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute, at least seven hate groups were identified to be involved in the insurrection. Two of them were neo-Nazi groups and four others were white supremacist groups. Two white nationalists known for racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric were livestreaming the storming to their followers. A number of Black police officers reported being called the N-word while being attacked by rioters, some who ironically waved Blue Lives Matter flags.
It is a travesty that Christianity should be in any way associated with any racist symbols. But we know from history that Christianity and its symbols have been associated with racism, especially on Black and Indigenous peoples. How can we forget the burning crosses of the KKK? How many churches and clergy in the U.S. South supported chattel slavery? What about the church-run residential schools in Canada that forcefully separated Indigenous children from their families and culture?
But many can claim those were relics of a darker past. Not anymore. The many images of Christian flags waving alongside Confederate flags on Jan. 6 have crossed the globe, searing into people’s imaginations a present-day connection between Christianity and racism.
I won’t go into the world of conspiracy theories like QAnon that have infiltrated churches. I am more concerned with Christian Nationalism that brings all the above elements under its bigger umbrella.
Sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel Perry (Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, 2020), defined Christian Nationalism as “a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life … the ‘Christianity’ of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion. … (It) includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious” (p. 10) (quoted in a Christianity Today review). Christian nationalism joins together political violence with white supremacy and racism.
According to the statement by Christians Against Christian Nationalism, “Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” The distortion to the Christian faith borders on idolatry.
This is no longer a fringe movement in North American Christianity. Millions of Americans are influenced by this political ideology. According to Paul D. Miller, research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in an interview with Christianity Today, for many U.S. Christians this may be the only version of Christianity they know.
Miller suggests that “78% of self-identified evangelicals are either ambassadors or accommodators of Christian nationalism.” Ambassadors are hardcore Christian nationalist believers and activists, while accommodators are those who are accepting and tolerant of Christian nationalism. In Miller’s opinion, we need to engage these two groups differently. Accommodators, the larger group, should be approached as lost sheep who need correction. Ambassadors, unfortunately, might need to be approached as false teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The church’s public witness is always tarnished when it aligns itself too closely with any political movement. This is not only true of Christian nationalists on the political right but also a warning to progressive Christians on the political left.
“Christian nationalism in a nutshell,” according to Miller, is “advocating for Christian power rather than Christian principle” in the arena of politics. The church loses its moral credibility when it becomes more concerned about winning political power rather than infusing the political realm with Christian principles of love, justice, and truth. Or worse, if Christians aim to gain power at the expense of those Christian principles.
Again, as noted above, it might not be that all of the Christians at the insurrection were hardcore Christian nationalists bent on violence and spewing overt racism. Many might be simply accommodators of Christian nationalism who might have originally intended on a peaceful protest. If we show grace to Black Lives Matter protestors over last summer, which we should, we ought to show some grace here too.
Unfortunately, the world might not see the fine nuances between Christianity and Christian nationalism; they might only see moral hypocrisy.
Regaining Our Witness
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7). Has this insurrection sown seeds into the popular imagination that links Christianity with violence, conspiracies, racism, and nationalism? I am afraid of what we might reap in the future. Will these seeds grow into stumbling blocks to the faith?
What we now do in response is important. Yes, we need to pray, lament, and repent. We need to publicly denounce and disassociate Christianity from what happened Jan. 6. But we need to do more.
We need to take Christian nationalism seriously, as we would any heresy that infiltrated our theologies. I can only hope that Christians who were so vigilant and critical about critical race theory will be as equally vigilant and critical of Christian nationalism. We need to discern and teach the difference between healthy Christian patriotism and the distorted Christian nationalism.
We need to re-disciple Christians and get back to the entire biblical story and worldview, not just to our favorite bits and pieces of that story. Knowing only bits and pieces allows us to be co-opted by other ideologies, like Christian nationalism. Such re-discipleship might also require unlearning and detoxing from misinformation, lies, and conspiracies.
But to regain our Christian public witness, we need to regain our moral credibility in the public eye. We need to regain the public trust that we seek the common good, not Christian power. We need to earn the right to be heard.
To do this, we need to be fertilizer. Anthony Bradley explained that ancient agriculturalists skillfully used salt (sodium chloride) as a fertilizing agent often mixed in with manure. This is likely what Jesus had in mind when he described Christians as the “salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). Therefore, Christians, according to Bradley, “are intended to bring life and flourishing out of decaying manure piles and arid soil where nothing grows—spheres of society that are dead, barren, or rotting because Christians are not there. Wherever the world is not the way God in his goodness intended it to be, that is where Christians should be encouraging and training one another to go.” We need to stimulate and help the growth of God’s kingdom in the broken places of the world.
But in addition to fertilizing, we also need to sow good seeds. We need to sow seeds of faith, hope, and love from God’s kingdom. Seeds that benefit not only Christians but everyone. Seeds that inspire, that are winsome, that gives people hope and draws them into wanting more. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (Gal. 6:9-10a).
Exactly two weeks after the insurrection, at the U.S. presidential inauguration, a young Christian woman stood at the scene of the riot and delivered a poem that went viral. Amanda Gorman, a Black Catholic, gave a poem that was infused by Christian principles, including a quote from Micah 4:4: “Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” It might not be overtly Christian, but it was an example of Christian witness. She sowed good seeds. The poem sought to lift people’s spirits and give them hope when they most needed it. It was a poem for Christians and non-Christians alike. Gorman ends her poem by reminding us, “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
To regain our witness, Christians need to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And we need to sow seeds of God’s kingdom. Even if the seeds seem small, like a mustard seed, by God’s faithful power, they can grow into the largest of garden plants (Matt. 13:31-32).
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