Here we are a week later, and it’s still so difficult to come to grips with what we witnessed when a thousands of protesters rioted in Washington D.C. wreaking havoc, destruction, terror and death inside our nation’s Capitol building. Desecration like this hasn’t happened since the War of 1812!
What’s especially heartbreaking for me as a follower of Christ and a pastor is to realize that others who also claim to be followers of Christ have their fingerprints all over this tragedy. Where do we go from here? Three thoughts come to mind.
This Is Us
The first step toward addressing this in any sort of redemptive way is to acknowledge that this behavior, and the thinking that birthed it, is found in the wider American Church. For any that are in denial on this point, the evidence is overwhelming.
Certainly, there were good, law-abiding people that were part of the initial rally to show support for President Trump, who had no intent of getting swept up in mob violence. But suggesting that Christians weren’t an instrumental core of the mob, or the ridiculous assertion that the violence was incited by Antifa, is just head-in-the-sand foolishness.
Christian symbols were everywhere on shirts and banners. Crosses were being carried through the crowd. Christian music was blaring in loudspeakers. The Proud Boys gathered for prayer, crying out for “reformation and revival”, after which the leader shouted out to the media, “Get the hell out of my way!”
Furthermore, the eruption at the Capitol did not appear in a vacuum, nor was it simply the result of the President egging them on in his speech. This was the first-fruit (and sadly, surely not the last fruit) of months of seed-sowing and build-up taking place in pulpits and social media platforms and conservative media outlets across the country.
The most stunning display of it came in December with a prayer-and-protest rally in D.C. called “The Jericho March” organized by nationally known Christian writer and radio host Eric Metaxas. Leading up to the rally, Metaxas said in an interview regarding the outcome of the presidential election, “Everyone who is not hopped up about this…you are the Germans that looked the other way when Hitler was preparing to do what he was preparing to do.” And “Who cares what I can prove in the courts.” And “We need to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood, because it’s worth it.”
Metaxas is just one of the best known examples of this, but this thinking seeps all the way down into local churches. Tennessee pastor Greg Locke calls himself part of the “black robe regiment”, referring to clergy who fought in the American Revolution.
A friend of mine who pastors a small church in the southeast tells me that his congregation is infected with what’s now being labeled “Christian nationalism”. Though he wants to share some of his concerns from the pulpit, he doesn’t dare for fear of losing his job.
Conservative and Christian writers and speakers across the country are warning those who will listen of a vicious and unhinged “Trumpian cult”, which unleashes its wrath on anyone who speaks ill of Trump, or denies that the election was stolen, or denies the claims of QAnon, or questions the narrative that Trump was raised up by God like an anointed Cyrus to save us from the diabolical schemes of the Left. (Dr. Michael Brown offers a list of 7 questions to ask of those who have swung off-the-cliff-right into the Trump cult.)
It would be easy to look at last week’s mob as nothing more than “red-necked Visigoths” as one columnist described it. And when you look at photos of rioters climbing the Capitol walls, dangling from chandeliers, rappelling into the Senate chambers, or taking selfies in the Rotunda (I wonder, would Genghis Khan have taken a selfie while smashing through a door?) it’s easy to wonder. This was not Washington crossing the Delaware.
But the sad truth of the matter is that this toxic thinking fills the heads and hearts of a wide-swath of congressmen, pastors, teachers, and otherwise clear-thinking professionals.
In my novel “A Sparrow Could Fall”, about a country church that battles a hate group, the church doesn’t realize that the leader of the hate group is one of its own. It’s chilling for me to realize how possible that scenario has now become.
Forget the threat of civil war in the culture, or in the Republican Party. The chaos and division that Trump seems to delight in unleashing since he first came on the scene fills the wider evangelical church like a fog.
This Is Not Us
Authentic Christianity has always been a big tent faith. There’s lots of room at the cross for those drawn to Jesus Christ, and this is obvious in the church’s diversity. East-West, main-line and conservative, Protestant and Catholic, Pentecostal and Liturgical – heaven will look a lot different that the average congregation’s homogeneity.
But those who will be there will have one thing in common – a faith in Christ and the desire, however muddled, to learn to live like him. Though it will look slightly different from church to church, there is such a thing as the Christian life.
It’s often used as a sermon illustration. A woman is walking alone through a city one night, and sees a gang of men approaching. Fear starts to fill her as they get closer, until she sees that each of them are holding Bibles. At once she sighs in relief. Why is that? Because she knows something of the Christian life. That those who claim to follow Christ are somehow different than the average Joe. More respectful. Kinder. More trustworthy.
Invariably, that difference is because of Christ himself. Those who bother reading the gospel stories about him will readily see that Jesus is unlike any other person who’s ever lived (he even blows all the so-called ‘holy men’ away). He teaches people to love each other, serve each other, forgive each other (even enemies!), and care for each other, even those whom society kicks to the curb – the weak, the sick, the poor, the outsider. But he doesn’t only teach it, but he lives it and models it in broad daylight right in front of everyone else.
But his isn’t just a moralistic “obey these ten commandments and call me in the morning” message. He also teaches plainly about the inward evil that infects every human being’s heart. Evil isn’t out there, and so you scrub down the outside and all will be well. No – its malignancy infects my heart, then worms out from there. And so, truth be told, it’s impossible to love and care for each other as we should, unless we first fix our hearts.
Which we do by coming to him, and first humbling ourselves like a child, admitting our vanity and inability. The closest Jesus came to outlining ordered steps toward a holy life was something called the “Beatitudes”, and the first steps on the journey are becoming “poor in spirit” (humility), and “mourning” (confession).
And so the source of our moral power is not a rule, or our own will-power, or self-righteousness. Our moral power comes from him, and staying as closely connected to him from this day forward. “Follow me,” was his call to all. “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
The cross and resurrection become the feeder spring of this new life he promised his followers. But the bottom line is: his followers are to commit themselves to the lifelong journey of following him, and then showing evidence of becoming like him. They are to show evidence of the Christian life.
Fast-forward to last week, and all that led up to it.
A woman walking alone on a city street at night who came across any of these people, holding up their Bibles and chanting their slogans and waving their flags, would have every reason to be afraid. (Especially if her last name was Pelosi). They might very well beat her over the head with their flags and Bibles (as in fact we saw happen.)
However you define “Christian nationalism” (which is a label still very much in flux), its blending together of Christianity and patriotism and Trumpism and militarism, along with a lacquer of white supremacy and conspiracy mongering is most definitely not the gospel – the good news – which Christ commissioned his followers to share with others. Dorothy we’re not in Kansas anymore.
This Is A Warning For Us
Where do we go from here? Christian writer David French says plainly, “Only the Church can truly defeat a Christian insurrection”.
It goes without saying that the violence we saw last week will be forcefully and rightfully dealt with. In case there is any doubt, this was an insurrection. The purpose of the mob was to disrupt and overturn the official certifying of a national election. That’s insurrection, plain and simple.
Thankfully, the mob was dimwitted, and had no plan other than establish a beachhead in Nancy Pelosi’s office, put their feet on her desk, and declare victory.
(However, there were elements within the mob with far more sinister intent. Placing gallows outside the Capitol steps, then chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” was a chilling foreshadowing of future possibilities in a collapsing democracy. And heaven forbid, if a professional terrorist or two had imbedded themselves within this bumbling hoard, I tremble to think of what we’d be talking about today.)
It goes without saying that the political Left will capitalize on this tragedy for all its worth. And already has, with Big Tech wasting no time bringing down its guillotine of censorship on dissenters it abhors, all of them linked to conservative and Christian voices. (And should the Left, especially its progressive wing, double-down on its hostility toward conservatives, it will only fuel a counter-reaction, making it very difficult to see how this ends well. As we saw in the 60s, violence can become contagious.)
And so this becomes a moment for the wider Church to find a way to bring its own back to the basics, back to the foundations, indeed back to the Founder of the Faith.
We see how Jesus handled the mob elements within his own band of disciples. When James and John, brothers nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” (no doubt they wore T-shirts with skull and lightning bolt decals), volunteered to bring fire down on a non-Jewish village that had kicked Jesus out (so they were racist too), Scripture tells us that Jesus rebuked them, and told them, “You don’t know what spirit you are.” (Luke 9:55). In other words, Boys, that’s not how I roll.
In some fashion, this teaching-moment needs to be duplicated a thousand times over in churches and conferences around the nation. I suspect that at the root of all this deception is a pall of biblical illiteracy filling the chairs, pews and pulpits of the nation.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another,” we’re told (Colossians 3:16). The word translated ‘admonish’ is a strong one, meaning to warn, exhort, or rebuke. Scripture has authority to teach us, rebuke us, correct us and train us (2 Timothy 3:16). Pastors and teachers are told in their preaching of the word to “reprove, rebuke and exhort” before the day comes when people won’t “endure sound teaching” (Titus 4:2-3), which could very well be the problem in my friend’s church down south.
Only the Church can truly defeat a Christian insurrection.
This becomes a moment for the wider Church to find a way to bring its own back to the basics, back to the foundations, indeed back to the Founder of the Faith.
Not only do we need to learn how to think biblically again, but we need to learn how to think theologically, where we learn some of the skills related to interpreting Scripture properly. Any teacher or prophet can come along and spout Bible verses, but lies are still lies even when they come with a Bible verse attached to them.
All truth is God’s truth, it is said, and so no follower of Christ needs to be dumpster diving into piles of conspiracy rubbish. If the prophet tells us, “Thus says the Lord, Trump will win”, and then Trump is soundly trounced, Scripture tells us you now have learned something about that prophet (Deuteronomy 18:22). Run the other way. Run toward truth. Run toward Christ, who claimed to be the way, the truth and life.
Anything less is rank idolatry. Which the wider Church reeks of in America.
Charles Colson, who died in 2012, was a true modern day prophet, and were he alive today he would rebuke the Church for running after politics and presidents and parties, thinking that the nation would be saved through them, and not through Christ. He wrote in his seminal book, “God and Government” (which every believer who loves their country should read today):
Christian values are in retreat in the West today, primarily, I believe, because of the church itself. If Christianity has failed to stem the rising tides of relativism it is because the church in many instances has lost the convicting force of the gospel message.
Colson’s message was not that we should avoid politics. Followers of Christ have an obligation to advocate for righteousness and justice in the public square, using all the freedom and influence at our disposal. However we must never confuse the Kingdoms of Men with the Kingdom of God, being mindful of the how power inevitably corrupts those who wield it.
Once a Christian too closely aligns themselves with a person or a party, they become blind to the sins and weaknesses of that person or party, which inevitably leads to the Christian compromising his or her own values and spiritual vitality. They lose the ability to speak truth to power because they fear losing the power more than preserving the truth.
Welcome to American Christianity in 2021.
Colson knew well the seductive power of politics, for he went to prison for his role as Richard Nixon’s ‘Hatchet-Man” in the Watergate scandal. It was in jail however that he discovered the life-changing power of following Jesus Christ, whom he served the rest of his life.
Maybe a good number of us who claim allegiance to Christ need to rediscover what it was that transformed Colson’s life. Maybe a good number of us need to sit at Jesus’ feet all over again, and fall in love with him all over again. And hear him rebuke us (in parental tenderness) that we don’t know what spirit we are.
Maybe our nation will be saved not with a vote, or an insurrection, or by shouting, or rioting, or by any such thing. But by a Cross. And by the love and grace of the One who died upon it.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.