Saturday, January 9, 2021
Because so much of the “Stop the Steal” movement – which culminated in Wednesday’s deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol – has been covered with a veneer of Christianity, I think our response has to include a dimension grounded in an authentic Christian understanding of the world. Among the many heart-breaking images emerging from this week were the “Jesus Saves” banners being held by rioters entering the Capitol, right alongside the confederate flags, nooses, and Holocaust sweatshirts. This followed weeks of “Jericho marches,” prayer meetings, and rallies premised on the idea that God ordained Donald Trump to serve eight years as President, and that those who stood in the way were attempting to thwart God’s will. So let’s talk theology for a moment.
Reinhold Niebuhr was a very influential 20th century theologian whose legacy needs to be reclaimed and relearned. Niebuhr was a leading figure in a tradition known as “Christian realism,” and his work aimed at recapturing the reality and relevance of original sin. He lamented modern society’s failure to recognize that, no matter how impressive its achievements, “there is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there is not some corruption of inordinate self-love.” We all have “a darkly unconscious sense” of our “insignificance in the total scheme of things,” and we perpetually strive to compensate for that insignificance. Human conflicts are thus not simply about survival; they are, according to Niebuhr, “conflicts in which each man or group seeks to guard its power and prestige against the peril of competing expressions of power and pride.”
Niebuhr was a significant influence on Martin Luther King. In King’s words, “Niebuhr made me aware of the complexity of human motives and the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence,” including “the glaring reality of collective evil.” King was optimistic about the arc of history, but his optimism was not the sort that allowed him to sit back and watch society’s natural tendencies work themselves out over time. King credited Niebuhr’s work for helping him see liberalism’s sentimentality and false idealism. He saw that humans have an uncanny ability to “use our minds to rationalize our actions,” and he worked to keep the capacities for both good and evil in clear view. King knew that the capacity for good made his struggle for civil rights possible, but the capacity for evil made the struggle necessary.
So what insights does this hold for us today?
First, if we refuse to recognize the possibility that our political tribe is capable of evil, we are denying the reality of sin. If our initial response to news of Wednesday’s atrocities was to conclude, “Antifa must have dressed up as Trump supporters and infiltrated the protest,” we have lost sight of what the Bible teaches us about human nature. This was not a problem that just emerged out of the blue on Wednesday. When Donald Trump observed, at a campaign stop in 2016, that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” he was tapping into a human tendency seen clearly by Niebuhr and King: the willingness to overlook our own tribe’s evil because we seek to maintain our significance.
Second, Christians should be as committed to grasping reality as anyone. We are not called to escape to a fantasy of the world as we wish it would be; we are called to engage and minister to the world as it is. That requires us to invest time and effort in understanding reality, not a tribal narrative presented in You Tube videos and anonymous internet messages. The fact that Christians have a leading role in Q Anon and other outrageous conspiracy theory movements is a scandalous departure from the dictates of our faith.
Finally, when Christians stand up to oppose the rhetoric and behavior of “Stop the Steal” proponents, we are not being partisan. We are attempting to reclaim the real-world relevance of the Gospel. The pitfalls warned about by Niebuhr and King apply to liberals and conservatives alike. Indeed, when King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he was not writing to conservatives – he was writing to moderate liberal pastors. Those pastors supported many of the goals of King’s movement, but they had urged King to be patient, to stop being disruptive, and to give white residents time to embrace the movement’s goals gradually, over time. King called out the liberals for being unwilling to recognize reality: that white people would not change the deeply unjust system without disruption. Sin is a human issue, not a partisan one. When Christians avoid speaking out about this for fear that they’ll be accused of partisanship, we are forsaking a noble tradition of speaking truth to power.