I wrote last summer about how I don’t want to write these personal opinion pieces anymore about religion. I wrote it while decrying the heinous act of the same man that spurred on the reason for writing again today. If you are somehow unaware of the events of January 6th, 2021, please let me know what rock you live under especially if there’s room for a few more. I am a former Christian, former evangelical, and then mainline denominational Christian. I’ve since let that all go, and have felt free. That is until things like this happen, and prove to me that the decision I made was the correct one.
You may have heard Christians, maybe even your own pastor or priest, denounce what was done in their name this past Wednesday. The problem is one that I’ve been struggling with for a while. Last summer I was at a Black Lives Matter rally with my family. A priest was asked to be one of the speakers. When he took the stage he introduced himself and added, “…and I’m a racist.” It was an attention grabber. He went on to talk about how he never thought that he was because he was the son of the clergy, and grew up in the church. But he began to examine his own biases. Biases were just a part of the culture that was around him. It was like breathing, he said. When I thought more about that, I realized my own biases. I realized that even though I’m a white-passing Latinx man who thought I couldn’t possibly be racist, I too was biased. I am a part of the problem. That is exactly what the problem is. The decrying of those who are doing this in the name of Jesus, and Christianity are very much a part of the church. Those Christians and clergy who denounce them are part of the problem as well, even if they refuse to recognize it for themselves.
If you’ve ever gotten help for a problem, doesn’t matter what type, there is a first step in getting help. You have to first recognize there is a problem. Those who refuse to acknowledge their part in the creation of the problem can’t be part of the solution. The reason being, they don’t realize what the problem is! For many, like Ed Stetzer of the Billy Graham Center, the terrorist insurrection at the nation’s capital on Wednesday was a Revelation. It was a revelation of how far the church has gone off the deep end. He, Stetzer, did say that Evangelicals have changed their morality to back a man who conned them into believing he’d give them what they’d wanted all along. Stetzer, though, did not fully own up to his part of the problem. He does state in his opinion piece published in USA Today several times a “We”. But never states, I.
On Wednesday, January 6th, 2021 terrorists with signs that read “Jesus Saves”, carrying crosses, and posing in traditionally Christian Prayer poses for pictures stormed the Capitol Building in Washinton, D.C. They did this at the behest of the man they’ve come to see as the savior of the country. That man revels in that image. He doesn’t care that it is far from true, he just enjoys the power that it gives him over these, and those like them. These White Supremacist Terrorists, don’t call them protesters, were grown in the western church. I can hear people commenting to me, “You don’t know that!” Yes, I do actually, I was a part of the problem that created them. I helped to create those like them. I tried to do my part to undo what I feared might come, maybe way too late, in my career.
Notice that I said the western church and not just Christianity, or evangelicals. This problem lies heavily in the control that Nationalism has enjoyed over the western church. The concept of the founders seeking “religious freedom” created this country left an avenue wide open for Nationalism to walk right in the front doors of the church on a red, white, and blue carpet. Yes, a few of the early settlers and colonizers were looking to worship their gods in their ways away from the strict dogma of the organizations they left, some fled, from. However, if you’ve ever taken a U. S. History class you know that wasn’t the full story. You also know those horrible things were done to the people who already lived here to create this country. This violence, hate, and discrimination are very much entwined with the story of this country as much as that religious freedom idea. When Nationalism walked in, it brought with it those parts of the story as well. It came in like a virus, replicated, and changed the very DNA of the western church to have those things become part of the church and its unspoken ideals as well.
Now before you “Not my church!” me take a look next time you are in the sanctuary. Take a look at the hymn book. Are there “patriotic” hymns like “God Bless America”, or “America the Beautiful”? Is there an American flag somewhere displayed in a place of honor such as near the altar? Are there other “innocuous” symbols of nationalism that otherwise escaped your notice until I said something? In one of the very first churches that I worked for, I often would go and hide the American flag that bookended the altar along with the crusader flag, that’s a long story for another day, on the other end. People would get upset that the flag was missing. I don’t know if anyone figured out it was me. A lot of those things that people felt were just harmless taking pride in where you are from. Nope, it is a much deeper symbol. It tells people from a very early age that these symbols and what they stand for should be revered as much as the cross. It’s subtle but the message has been there for a long time.
When a country is worshiped as much as the god the church claims to follow, it becomes easy for those who know how to manipulate the reigns to create zealots in their favor. This has become almost the very story of this country as well. A lot of cults found their way out of these churches. This current president is only one in a long line of cult leaders who have used this manipulation to their advantage. The difference with this cult leader is he’s pulled on the Nationalism string. This string brings with it the inherent violence, hate, and discrimination that it brought with it. Not only did he manipulate the people, but he also took a few of the big primary leaders of “Evangelical” Christianity along for the ride. These leaders then persuaded their followers to follow this guy making it a much bigger beast than it should have been, to begin with.
If you grew up as I did in the Evangelical Christian church in America, you know that that environment is ripe with magical thinking. It almost can’t help it. The stories that are held so dear are full of that. Magical thinking begets conspiracy theories because the simple answers are almost too simple. There must be something bigger at play. Sorry for the imagery, but magical thinking and conspiracy theories make for a conman’s wet dream. It was easy for this to happen. I mean there was even a popular series that made it mainstream a few years back that told of the odd interpretation of the book of the Revelation called “Left Behind”. In fact, for many years, there have been a ton of people trying to get the church to listen. These people are usually called a heretic and thrown aside. People like Rob Bell, William Barber, Peter Gomez, and many more. Again, they didn’t pull the strings because they didn’t want the whole thing to come unraveled. It is almost inextricably combined at this point.
It’s incredibly difficult to get someone to see that they have a problem if they don’t believe they do. The church has refused to believe there were problems for a very long time. They took the line that they were the persecuted, and not the persecutor. Nationalism took root in the western church, and it was never seen as a problem until it was too late. This revelation of this past Wednesday was the sign that it was too late. The western church should take some responsibility for the environment that created this situation. They won’t though, they refuse to admit there is a problem.
You can’t force someone out of a cult. The human brain is wired to dig in and fortify when a perceived secure position is obtained. Cult leaders are masterful at re-assuring the followers that where they are is safe and everyone outside is out to get them. The New York Times had a great article a few years ago on how to get someone out of a cult. Some may think I’m being alarmist or exaggerating by calling this political movement a cult. Leading psychologists have debated this after all, and some have solid evidence that points to it being cult-like. I do believe that the followers can recover, but it’s going to be a long hard road for us as a country to help people realize there is a problem, and possibly to help fix the problem.
The church has a very long history of denying its involvement in issues where it was partially if not fully to blame for horrific events throughout history. A former Christian book author, and current business marketing author, once wrote about how he set up a reverse confession booth. I’m not going to tell his story here because honestly, the guy isn’t that nice and I don’t want to publicly call him out. Anyway, the point of the story was that one of the biggest things that come to mind when people hear the word, Christian, is these atrocities committed in their name. When one of the core beliefs of Christianity is the idea of forgiveness, the picture isn’t very forgiving. The treatment of the LGBTQ+ community immediately comes to mind in recent years, then you have the concept of women’s health and the misunderstanding of medical abortion in this country, and the historic racial injustices still being committed by the Christian church and on the church’s behalf. It’s not a forgiving picture, and it’s one the church needs to reveal and reckon with. It is one of the reasons why I can never return. I have seen time and again how those in the leadership of these churches have committed heinous wrongdoing and are unrepentant or even unacknowledging the harm that it has done. I know that mostly the leadership is afraid, as followers aren’t forgiving at all for the leadership. That’s the problem though, the attitude follows the leader. If a leader is forgiving, gracious, and merciful so would be the congregation.
I have known very few priests and pastors who live up to that ideal in my long career with the church. I tried to live up to that ideal. I was honest with my failings when I could be, and I caught flak for even that. I wish it were different. I wish we could hold up the church and its leaders as shining examples of all the good there could be in the world. Instead, they got caught up. Power corrupts institutions. Power in those institutions corrupts people. Corrupt people will do everything within their power to maintain their power at whatever cost. We saw that this weekend and even this last week of report, after reports, after report, of pastors and priests in their continued support of this man and their status quo of power. It’s time this stopped. It’s time that we not only hold our government leaders responsible but also our religious leaders. Yes, religious leaders are human beings and they deserve grace, forgiveness, and mercy too same as the political leaders. However, true leadership can only be found in those willing to be vulnerable and to admit when they messed up. Taking the consequences of that wrongdoing and showing that in the future they will be better.
What happened on Wednesday, Jan. 6 was wrong. Unequivocally, it was wrong. There are no mincing words here. The church created these terrorists that committed these acts, and it will again. This cycle will repeat until we stand up and say, the status quo is bad. Leaders should be held accountable. Good leaders will fess up to what they did wrong. Good leaders will be better in the future. Cults will continue to form from this nationalism coopted western church. These cults will be increasingly dangerous. Until we do actually unite as a country to say, no we can’t do this anymore. We need to bend the curve of history toward justice. Because, as a man that we remember on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr., once said,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Those who committed this injustice this last week trying to invalidate the votes of the American people should be brought to justice. This affected everyone, not just those who voted for Joe Biden or the cult leader. The church needs to answer for the injustice they helped create, and attempt to be part of the solution. May the revelation of this past Wednesday drive us all to be more cognizant of our symbols, be better about admitting our faults, and being better in the future.