I John 2:5-6; Mark 1:1-11
It hasn’t been a good week for America. Granted, America hasn’t had a good week in a long long time but this past week we hit a new low as rioters smashed their way into the Capital building, shouting obscenities and threats, and some carrying the confederate flag. It was heartbreaking. And the delight that the mob took in their own violence, the welcome offered them by the President who glorified this act as courageous and patriotic, was stomach churning. I was thankful to see the quick condemnation of the violence by both our Democratic senators, Schumer and Gillibrand, and by our Republican representative, Tom Reed, and I took a small measure of comfort in seeing that as divided as we have all been on political matters, that at least in this moment our area’s political representatives found common ground. Moreover, because I know all of you, I know that no matter who we each voted for in November, we are also united in our condemnation of the violence and hatred on display this past Wednesday. How could we as members of this church not be appalled when we so recently celebrated the announcement of Jesus’ birth with the words “Peace on earth, good will to all?” What does our allegiance to Jesus mean if it doesn’t include a belief in peace and decent treatment of others?
I wish that were only a rhetorical question but the events of this past week make it clear that the question is a real one because on Wednesday, it was apparent that not all Christians agree that peace and good will are central to the gospel and our commitment to Christ. One of the first rioters to enter the Senate Chamber was carrying a Christian flag. In the crowd outside, people waved “Jesus Saves” banners; they held Bibles; they knelt in praise of the moment; and they unfurled a huge flag across the Capital steps proclaiming “Jesus 2020,” in a copy of the Trump 2020 rally flag. The people storming the capital may have been there because they were angry about a lost election but through their use of Christian symbols they were also claiming that they believed their attack on the Capital was striking a blow for Jesus. It was heart-wrenching enough to watch our citadel of democracy get stormed by an angry mob but to see those people doing it in the name of Jesus was an affront to my faith as well. As I looked at all of those Jesus signs in that angry crowd, I wondered how members of that mob and I could have such a fundamentally different view of what it means to be a Christian. Now, I’m used to having disagreements on the nature of faith and religious practice — I’m used to debates over infant baptism versus believer’s baptism, or chalice communion versus pew communion, or debates on the nature of Jesus’ divinity but for the most part, even when we disagree on practices or theological issues, the churches that I know — mainstream, progressive and evangelical — are all united in our assumption that followers of Jesus are supposed to emulate the character of Jesus. You may be Methodist or Presbyterian or Catholic or Mennonite or Baptist or high church Episcopalian with clouds of incense and the sound of bells filling your Cathedral but whatever your denominational affiliation, you regularly hear words from the pulpit urging you to emulate the life of Christ in your own behavior.
“Make us of one heart and mind,” the hymn says, “gentle, courteous, and kind; lowly, meek, in thought and word, altogether like our Lord.”
Consequently, today on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, churches around the world are reading the story of Jesus’ baptism, the inaugural moment of Jesus’ ministry, and from now until Easter, we will track Jesus’ journey from the Jordan to the cross. We will watch him feed the hungry and heal the sick; we will listen to his teachings and struggle with his commandments to forgive our debtors, pray for those who have hurt us, and love our enemies; and we will kneel at the cross where Jesus willingly took on the brutality of the world and did not lift a hand against his tormentors. And in churches across the globe, Christians will pray that we will have the strength, courage, and humility to walk in Christ’s footsteps for “By this we may be sure that we are in Christ,” the scripture reminds us, “Whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.” It’s not easy to be Christ-like in compassion for others, and we fail frequently, but never do we doubt that our calling is to be more like him: to be people of compassion, mercy, and peace.
And so, I look at the mob on the capitol steps holding bats and shouting angry obscenities, and wonder how can they wave flags espousing their faith in Jesus when I don’t see Jesus anywhere amid the anger and violence of that day.
And this is more than I rhetorical question. I needed to know the answer to that question — it wasn’t enough for me to just wave them aside as Christian nutters because there were too many of them to be disregarded as a weird fringe group — and so I did some research this week. I quickly discovered that sociologists have labeled this form of Christianity, “Christian Nationalism.” It is important to say right off the bat that Christian nationalism has nothing to do with patriotism. You can love America but still believe that your primary allegiance is to the Christ who humbled himself on the cross. Moreover, it is important to say also that though some Christian Nationalists may belong to conservative evangelical churches, not all conservative evangelicals are Christian Nationalists. Progressives have a tendency to write off all evangelicals as flaming lunatics but they most of them are not: most of them are sincerely trying to live lives modeled on the compassion of Christ just as we are, even though we may differ profoundly (and often heatedly) on how that is expressed in social and political issues. Christian Nationalists however, literally worship a different Jesus than any of us do. In Christian Nationalist preaching, Jesus steps out of the baptismal waters, skips over all of that uncomfortable teaching about helping the poor and turning the other cheek, and strides right toward Armageddon with a sword in one hand and the American flag in another. For the Christian Nationalist, Jesus is not the lamb of God but is a fierce warrior who will cleanse the earth of the unrighteous and secure it for his followers, and the vehicle God that uses to usher in this new kingdom is in their thinking the United States.
This spring, sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry published the book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States looking at the rise and influence of Christian Nationalism in the US. What they discovered through their exhaustive interviews with adherents of Christian nationalism is that this theology has little to do with personal religiosity and everything to do with acquiring power. Their belief system is formed from a collection of traditions and stories that idealize the nation’s past and sees America as the nation chosen by God to bring the world into line with a moral order grounded in white supremacy, patriarchy, and heterosexuality. The preaching of Christian Nationalists most often cites militaristic passages from the Old Testament or from the book of Revelation which is why on Wednesday, some of the mob storming the capitol blew horns and marched around the grounds in a re-enactment of Joshua’s siege of Jericho. Christian Nationalists look to those stories of conquest because they believe that we are living in the final days when God will establish a new Jerusalem and that God will accomplish his aims — and I use the male pronoun for God purposely because for Christian Nationalists God is unequivocally a guy — God will accomplish his aims through the power and might and moral example of America. We often hear our politicians describe America as a beacon to the world or a city shining on a hill but Christian nationalists take that literally. They believe that God’s ability to accomplish his goals is inextricably tied to the strength of America. In other words, if America fails, they believe, God fails, and our world will be overrun by the forces of Satan which are whoever it is that the Christian Nationalists most dislike.
What I found most revealing, and in an odd way, most comforting about the research of Whitehead and Perry is that a person doesn’t even have to go to church or hold common Christian beliefs to be a Christian nationalist. For many Christian nationalists, Jesus is not a teacher, nor a man of sorrows acquainted with our grief, but is simply a general. Jesus is the King of Kings, the Sovereign Lord, the Lord of Hosts commanding mighty angelic armies — and this Jesus requires nothing more from his followers than absolute loyalty as they go into battle. Christian Nationalists have co-opted Jesus to give divine sanction to their desire for control, to give them a sense of assurance that they will be on the right side when the end days come, and to bring a holy stamp of approval to their personal biases and beliefs. Jesus didn’t come to make them into better people they believe, but to make the world look more like them.
So, take heart, those “Jesus Saves” signs waved by people bashing others over the head are not simply a perversion of the gospel; they have very little of Christianity about them. It’s like, if an Episcopalian were a poodle and a Baptist were a Springer Spaniel, a Christian Nationalist would be a platypus. They’re not even the same species. This certainly begs the question, however, of what we do with Christian Nationalism. How do we respond to this strange perversion of the gospel and ensure that the world will know how far it has strayed from the life giving gospel of Christ?
Drew Strait, who teaches at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, says, “Our work is one of …. repairing the damage [done by Christian Nationalists] by offering the world a Christianity rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus. This work will not happen through Tweet storms and late night parodies…. it will happen through the …. habits of incarnation: table fellowship, listening, prophetic critique, repentance, organizing, and showing up in the midst of human difference with a message of good news. The good news,” he says, “is not that Jesus is taking America back for God. Rather, the good news is that Jesus, the Lord of Peace, is at work to create a global “fellowship of difference”…. [because] there is only one Christian nation in the world, and that nation is called the ekklesia (the church)—it is multi-cultural, borderless, weaponless, and [it is] the primary context in which God is at work to pacify enmity between humans and God, and humans and one another.” (1)
When we see people misusing the name of our Savior to justify violence and bigotry, it may feel inadequate to say that our best response is to continue to do what we have been doing — preaching the teachings of Jesus, praying for forgiveness, inviting all people to Christ’s table, and walking in his footsteps — but we have to believe that Christ’s Word is reliable and that Christ’s call is trustworthy. He has called us to bring the world into God’s realm by bringing ourselves into closer alignment with him; by walking in his footsteps and living as people of compassion, mercy, and peace. May we walk with him every day and trust that in doing so, we will bring the true gospel to the world sorely in need of a word of peace.