Reflections on a Christian Insurrection

| , |
Unfortunately, the world might not see the fine nuances between Christianity and Christian nationalism; they might only see moral hypocrisy.

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.

Violent Insurrection

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.

Christian Nationalism

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).

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

You can follow him @shiaochong (Twitter) and @3dchristianity (Facebook).  

See comments (26)

Comments

Amen, Chong, amen! Your editorial speaks to the silent members who may nod their heads in agreement with Christian nationalism. Our witness must model God's idea of a church from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  

Your best words in this article, Chong, are:

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.

Subject to definitional nuances, I have, do and probably will always abhor "Christian Nationalism."

But similarly, and again subject to definitional nuances, I have, do and probably will always abhor "Critical Race Theory" (and the other derivitives of "Critical Theory").

In both cases, our adoption thereof and advocacy therefor will tarnish the church's public witness.  More importantly, the adoption thereof will seriously deviate from the gospel and the overall biblical message.

I live just south of Portland, Oregon (which of course is no so far south from Seattle).  We've seen plenty of insurrection acts here for a long time now, not just by people pushing the cause of Antifa and BLM but also by elected officials who acquiesced, even supported, the insurrectionists (quite publicly even).  And these insurrectionists did not limit themselves to a one-time event but repeated their insurrectionist activities for days, weeks, even months (they are still ongoing).  And yes, during this time, they received the support from some who called themselves Christian. 

Of course, I've taken note that the CRCNA, whether via the Banner or via its Exec Dir and Agency heads, have said nothing in condemnations of these insurrectionist activities. 

Might it be that such silence resulted from those within the CRCNA's bureacracy having too much "aligned" with a "political movement"?   I think so actually.

Thanks, Shiao, for a thoughtful article on the impact that Christianity is increasingly having on our Western culture. Christian insurrections may only be part of the story, but still definitely a part, including conspiracy theories which fuel such insurrections. I have noticed that conspiracy theories on the whole have an appeal especially to those who have some background association with Christianity, even if such association is minimal. Such theories tend to be non intellectual and are grounded in fiction rather than fact. Like a cult, its tenets have to be accepted by faith, much the same as for the tenets of the Christian religion. And so conspiracy theories have an easy time of hiding within the Christian message of a fallen world being rescued by a God/man come down from heaven (Is that conspiracy theory or Christianity?) So it would seem that conspiracy theories have an easy target by hiding within Christianity’s message of hope, which in turn fuel insurrections, as we have recently seen, often under the guise of Christianity.

I would imagine the student leader at the secular university you mentioned was offended, not so much by any insurrection, Christian or otherwise, but by the non intellectual approach to life that all religions take. If it’s religion, Christianity or otherwise (all religions), its tenets are spiritual rather than factual or objective and have to be accepted as true by faith. And so, more than likely, this student leader and many other students in the academic setting of a secular university don’t appreciate the imposition of religion on their secular academic education. And I think such a mind set is increasingly impacting Western society. To many, Christianity itself is a form of conspiracy theory (promise of a kingdom led by Christ). So, I would suggest that Christians have a difficult task before them if they hope for acceptance in our increasingly secular and academic society. The missional task of Christianity is increasingly becoming more difficult, as you experienced firsthand at this university. Thanks, Shiao, for challenging our thinking.

Thanks Chong for your forthright and prophetic perspective that is so needed. I appreciated the book Jesus and John Wayne in helping me understand the increasing militarism, patriarchy and nationalism in evangelical subculture. It seems that evangelicals need to feel under threat, first communism/cold war - then Islam/war on terror. It is important that we build on the strengths of the Reformed tradition of engaging God's world that belongs to Him.

Chong, I am so deeply thankful for your courage to speak so clearly on this issue from your position as editor of the Banner. Thank you for drawing our attention to the ways in which are faith is being weaponized against vulnerable, marginalized, and scapegoated people! I also experience what the folks at Barna have been saying for years: Christianity has become unChristian (both in perception but also in many of our practices).

Thanks, Chong, for this fine analysis and call to regaining our witness.  It will be difficult work in today's society, but work we must do.

Chong,

Thank you for the uance with which you address this troubling issue and for your courage in clearly calling these events what they are and imploriing us to be better than this and separate ourselves from this cancer on the body of Christ. 

Mike Borgert

Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.  Christian Nationalism warrants more extensive and broad-based discussion to understand how it has infiltrated Reformed circles and develop multi-layered strategies to exorcise it and replace it with a clear Reformed witness for our context today. 

Thank-you for writing this article.
You have given us much to think about.
I lament all the ways none beleivers have been turned off from seeking God.
My aim is to love God, love the one in front of me and pray for 'the world'.

Amen, Shiao Chong.  There is nothing more destructive to the North American Church than its tendency to impede the work of the Holy Spirit.  It does this by silencing the prophetic voices in the Bible, those in the Old Testament, and above all the witness of our Lord, Jesus the Christ, in the New Testament.  Sometimes this is accomplished by muting the Bible’s rich message by a too-rigid adherence to traditional interpretations nailed down in doctrinal statements.  Often, and more ominously, as in the situation you describe, the prophetic dimension of the Bible’s witness is suppressed altogether, leaving people to use the words “Christ” and “Christian” as swords with which to defend their own destructive tribalism.  I see this as a blatant violation of the third commandment.  Thank you so much for your courageous editorials.

It may just be that Christians need to be better at contending for the true faith against an arena of antiChrists, false gods, and pseudo-religious political ideologies.

Jesus promises there will be false christs, and Paul constantly encourages congregations to know the biblical difference between true and false apostles. Fakery is not a new enemy of the Church, even though it is just as destructive. Unfortunately, neither Paul’s enemies, nor Paula White, or Richard Rohr, or Pat Robertson, or Tony Campolo (and others on ‘the right’ and ‘the left’) seem interested in changing their message. We can pray and call on them to repent, but the greater call is on us is be light in darkness, proclaiming and showing the truly biblical, attractive, and satisfying Christ.

Every time I think the bandwagon has run out of room, it grows larger and sets its sights on yet another target.

As believers, we must always be on guard against those who would co-opt the teachings of the One True God for their own political, social, and/or economic gain. That could be followers of the Q-cult. Or it could be followers of the Manmade Climate Change Cult.

Which of those 2 are most active in the CRCNA Inc?

As a denomination, we have fires flaring up and threatening to consume us. Denial of Jesus' subsitutionary atonement on the Cross. Celebrating gay "marriage." Promoting Black Lives Matter Inc and Critical Theory. Ignoring our own rules of Church Order.

And yet those who are currently in charge of the CRCNA ignore the fires burning on the inside (probably because many of them have fanned the flames), and instead wag their fingers at a fringe minority of right-wingers on the outside?

This needs to stop.

The power of Jesus Christ is Truth. We need to stop embracing the world's lies and bringing them into the Church. We need to stop using the tactics of the world (marginalize and demonize) within the Church. We need to stand firm on the power of the Gospel and truth of Scripture. Doing so may mean that some of those who are lost will turn away from us when they find out we are Christ-followers. So be it. Didn't Christ Himself warn us that would happen?

Are we here to please God, or men?

Chong, thank you for this thoughtful analysis. I fear that for many white Christians, Christian Nationalism is simply Christianity, and any objection raised to Christian Nationalism will feel to them like a rejection of Christianity. Thank you for speaking articulately of the dangers of Christian Nationalism as a counterweight to some leaders who espouse it. "For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (1 Tim. 4:3)

Why are Richard Rohr and Tony Campolo on your list of enemies of the church? Seems harsh and uncharitable. I say the same for Paula White and Pat Robertson even though I strongly disagree with much of what they have to say.  This article by Chong is pointing out the flaws and dangers in ideas, not specific people.  We can use strong language when speaking against ideas, but we should be generous to people.

Appreciated the convicting and thought-provoking article, Shiao. Our Federal Building in Portland looks like a disaster zone. I'm more comfortable visiting Oregon State Prison than visiting the Federal Building of which I've done both. Having said that, I agree with your strong warning about the dangers of Chrsitian Nationalism and the witness of we who call ourselves Christian.

I asked a couple of employees of a company where I serve as chaplain about their New Year's Day.  They respond to property damage by nature and by humans. Here were the two strong contrasting responses. The first one said, "I worked the whole day boarding and cleaning up buildings in downtown Portland. It's what we have been doing non-stop for months now. It keeps me working and getting a great paycheck. I don't mind those folks destroying property. They have a right to express themselves."

I asked his coworker the same question. He asked me to step into the warehouse so he could talk privately. He said, "I am so tired of living in this country. My parents told me the Bible said this kind of stuff was going to happen. We go downtown almost every day to clean up the damage and destruction from the night before. I see people burning and trashing the American flag and nothing is done. But when someone burns a protesters flag, they get handcuffed and arrested. I am so tired of all the hypocrisy. I just want to get out of this country."

It is a mess here in downtown Portland and the downtown business community is suing the city because they can't survive in this climate.  Now I know the D.C. insurrection tops it all - though it was not nearly as much damage as the continual damage that is done in and around Portlan.

It seems there are hypocrites everywhere and we Christians need to pray hard and look to Jesus so that we are not right there in the midst of them. We need to be part of the answer, not part of the problem.

Wow, kudos to you Shiao Chong. Was hoping to see just such a statement coming from the Banner already four years ago. Much of the Christian Community in North America has become an embarrassment. Rebuilding our Christian image as a source of light and love for those around us will take a very long time. With humbleness of heart and prayer we can take trust that God will lead us again to be true witnesses of his kingdom, for today and tomorrow.

I don't think this column belongs in a Christian magazine. First of all, it's lazy writing. I could find a similar column in nearly any US newspaper I pick up. Or I can hear it on CNN, MSNBC, etc. If you are so concerned about Christians who act this way, why don't you go out an talk to some of them? Instead you decide to sit in judgement of them and  question their faith and motives. No, you didn't do the Banner or the CRC any good with this one-sided column. Maybe next month you can talk to some CRC pastors who supported a president who not only uses taxpayer dollars to abort US babies but now exports these dollars under the label of "health spending" to abort babies in other countries. 

I agree with Gary.  It's sub-par.  The writing is not very good, either, which is almost more alarming since this was written by the Editor.  The sentiments regarding Christian Nationalism are well taken, though.  True Christian Nationalism is a repugnant intersection of a strident civic religion and fundamentalist Christianity.  We ought to stand apart from it.  And, in that limited measure, the article succeeds.   The issue with the overall article though, aside from the writing, is the declaration that the January 6 event was a Christian Insurrection.  I don't know for sure, but I suspect that non-Christians who were there (and there probably were some) and who participated in the breach of the Capitol Building would not describe the event as a Christian insurrection.  Because there were "Christians" rioting at the Capitol, and just because Christian symbols were deployed by some, does not make what happened a Christian Nationalist event, and does not make it a "Christian" insurrection.  If one must call it an "insurrection" (I'll indulge the author), then simply say that there appeared to be an insurrection carried out by a mob of people who had slurped up a lie, some of whom we can only assume were Christians based on the signs they were carrying.  Lament that, because that is lamentable.  Insurrection, perhaps.  Christian Insurrection - that goes too far.   The author should know better.  

This whole essay rests on the idea that Christian Nationalism is a real thing. Is it? In doing a cursory search of the internet one would be hard pressed to find any reference to CN before 2016. Why 2016? So the work of two left-wing political hacks who clearly seek to delegitimize Christians who supported President Trump is the standard for defining the perjorative term CN?

Over the past several decades seculartists have chiseled away at the Christian foundations of the  American experiment. The monolith is growing larger, swallowing up Christian liberties along the way and the arena of combat has moved from Smallville USA to Washington. Its no suprise that the combatants have taken the fight to the steps of the Captial. So if I believe that abortion is bad, the election was stolen, children are being secularized by public education, etc. then any political pushback is defined as CN? How does Shiao feel about Abraham Kuyper? And the goal here is what? For Christians to align themselves with the American Democrat Party? Maybe Shiao and Gorman are misintrepreting the changes in Washington and now we are entering the darkness instead of the light. Many Christians think so, but it is a stretch, on any level, to call 75+ million Trump supporters CN. 

The editorials are becoming very political.  I think it's a mistake for the Banner to go down this road.

Thank-you for this important and timely article.  While some might criticize the church commenting on politics, the way that religion and politics have become so dangerously intertwined requires more than just a mere comment from the church.  We need only look at history, in multiple times and places, to see how the church can most certainly be culpable for playing a role which gives rise to corrupt and even evil governments. There would have been Christians on "both sides" in all of those situations. We are living through such a time right now, and to not address this would be folly.  

I want to forward this article to some family members who are not part of the CRCNA.

What's the easiest way to do that?

Thank you so much for writing and publishing this article!

Amen Gary, Amen! So be it...

Thank you for the critical insights you've given here for reflection at such an important moment in the life of the church.  And thank you for the way you've done this so faithfully, with an unshakable grounding in the Word of God and the clear gifting of the Holy Spirit.  The Banner has grown into a rich resource of depth and focus under your leadership.

Thank you for offering up these prophetic words. It needed saying.

X