By Ric Hudgens (Quarantine Essay #88 )
Wednesday morning, January 6, I was elated with the results from Georgia. Two Democratic Senate seats won and a chance for the Biden administration to make some real progress in repairing the past four years’ destruction. I began to write an essay focused on Van Jones’s CNN comments on “Black joy won over White rage in Georgia” (still a recommended listen). The proven impact of both grassroots organizing and the extension of voting rights gave me a glimpse of hope for the American future. Maybe 2021 would not be as bleak as 2020.
But the mob activity in Washington, DC that afternoon, plus the subsequent investigation that revealed some of the intentions of those invaders, left me in agreement with Elaine Godfrey in The Atlantic – “It Was Supposed To Be So Much Worse” (The Atlantic, January 9, 2021).
As Zeynep Tukecki reminded us in November, “America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent.” (The Atlantic, November 6, 2020). It also seems clear now that another right-wing invasion of Washington, DC is planned for the week of the inauguration. (Trevor Hughes, “‘It needed to happen’: Trump supporters defiant after Capitol attack, plan to do it again for Biden’s inauguration,” USA Today, January 7, 2021). More local actions in state capitals are expected, similar to the statehouse invasion in Michigan and the planned kidnapping of Governor Whitmer last May. (Kathleen Gray, “In Michigan, a Dress Rehearsal at the Capitol on Wednesday,” New York Times, January 9, 2021).
Extremely sobering to me was the visible Christian presence involved on Wednesday. These were not people of faith kneeling peacefully in defense of the environment, health care, or immigration rights (See Beth Reinhard, Neena Satija and Tara Bahrampour, “Arrested by Capitol Police? You’re Not Alone”, Washington Post, January 8, 2021). These were violent Christian militants intent on having their way.
Emma Green writes in The Atlantic:
“The name of God was everywhere during Wednesday’s insurrection against the American government. The mob carried signs and flags declaring JESUS SAVES! and GOD, GUNS & GUTS MADE AMERICA, LET’S KEEP ALL THREE!. Some were participants in the Jericho March, a gathering of Christians to ‘pray, march, fast, and rally for election integrity.’ After calling on God to ‘save the republic’ during rallies at state capitols and in DC over the past two months, the marchers returned to Washington with flourish. On the National Mall, one man waved the flag of Israel above a sign begging passersby to SAY YES TO JESUS. ‘Shout if you love Jesus!’ someone yelled, and the crowd cheered. ‘Shout if you love Trump!’ The crowd cheered louder. The group’s name is drawn from the biblical story of Jericho, a city of false gods and corruption,’ the march’s website says. Just as God instructed Joshua to march around Jericho seven times with priests blowing trumpets, Christians gathered in DC, blowing shofars, the ram’s horn typically used in Jewish worship, to banish the ‘darkness of election fraud’ and ensure that ‘the walls of corruption crumble.’ (“A Christian Insurrection: Many of those who mobbed the Capitol on Wednesday claimed to be enacting God’s will.” The Atlantic, January 8, 2021).
I have written more recently about religion and faith. I am probably qualified to do that more than much that I comment on. So today, let me stay in my lane.
I suppose my political leanings are clear, and also clear is that many, but certainly not all, of my political convictions are rooted in the Christian tradition. I’m aware of that, confess that, and won’t apologize for it. Everyone speaks from somewhere, and one great benefit of our postmodern era is that we can be honest about our perspectives.
But telling you I’m a Christian doesn’t tell you much. I could be Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Pentecostal, or New Age. In fact, telling you I’m a Chicago Cubs baseball fan or listen to country music might tell you more about me. The label “Christian” is broad, ambiguous, and has always been what Scottish philosopher WB Gallie called an “essentially contested concept.”
From its beginnings two thousand years ago, Christianity was a diverse, pluralistic phenomenon. We see evidence of this in the Christian Bible when the Apostle Paul laments “that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 1:12). Attempts to eliminate Christian pluralism through creedal consensus or institutional uniformity have always failed. There are many different types of Christians. There always have been. There always will be.
The Christians present in DC for the insurrection on Wednesday are one particular type. I am offended by them and wholly opposed to what they stand for. But I cannot, I believe, legitimately denounce them as “not real Christians.” That epithet seems meaningless and confusing—anyone attempting to define a “real Christian” only adds to the definition’s diversity and ambiguity.
Today some try to solve this dilemma by calling themselves “Jesus followers” to differentiate themselves from “those Christians.” Perhaps it makes them feel better about themselves, but it doesn’t distinguish them in the eyes of their neighbors. Unless your character and conduct are distinctive, the name on your Christian t-shirt or over your congregation’s front door means next to nothing.
So here I am, staying in my lane and talking about the Gospel passage that will be read in many churches tomorrow – not every church because many churches don’t follow a common calendar of readings.
The reading is from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1, verses 4-11, and is about the baptism of Jesus. Mark (one of four gospels) doesn’t begin his telling with the Christmas story (which already reveals pluralism even within the Bible). He begins with this baptism.
I’ve learned much from my friend Ched Myers. I agree with him that this is at least a story about Jesus apprenticing himself to John the Baptist. (I recommend Ched’s treatment of Mark 1:4-11 in his article “What Does It Mean That Jesus Apprenticed With John the Baptist?”; and, of course, his foundational commentary on Mark in Binding the Strong Man (Orbis Books, 1988). Baptism means many things to Christians, but perhaps a comparison with apprenticeship is a comparison everyone might understand (important criteria for me).
The life of Jesus reflected what he learned from John. Those who knew John could later look at Jesus and see their resemblance. This is similar to how those who later looked at “Christians” could see evidence of their apprenticeship to Jesus.
The problem in Christian history has been that there are many views of Jesus and many Jesuses that Christians have apprenticed themselves to. Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s recent bookJesus and John Wayne (Liveright, 2020) is very revealing about this topic – especially this week.
My point is not to lament the corruption of some “pure” Christian faith. Christianity was never pure. My point is that we are all forced to choose. What type of Jesus do we apprentice ourselves to? How do we embody this apprenticeship? What type of character and conduct are we developing by that apprenticeship? What politics flows from that into the public square?
We must choose. That great sociologist of religion Peter Berger called this necessity The Heretical Imperative (Doubleday, 1980); and I, as a (poor) representative of the Mennonite Christian tradition, like to call this choice “the anabaptist imperative.”
And that brings me back to baptism. The Anabaptist tradition (look it up on Wikipedia if you must) has differed on many things but has almost always agreed that baptism must be a choice. This conviction and a commitment to nonviolence have made the Anabaptist Christians distinct from others.
So I’m substantially confident that there were no Mennonites involved in the insurrection in Washington, DC, this week (although not entirely confident). That doesn’t make Mennonites morally superior (take my word for this), and I’m not arguing that we are. I’m arguing that Christians come in many varieties. Some are militant and violent, and some are militant and nonviolent. If you claim to be a Christian, then you have to choose which type you will be. You have to decide what kind of Jesus you will apprentice yourself to.
I could pose arguments to persuade you one way or the other. That’s not my purpose. My purpose is to confront you with the necessity of choosing – and the divine and human necessity to accept the consequence of the choice you make.
Those Christians present in DC on Wednesday have done that. In my opposition to them and my commitment to democracy and nonviolence, I am doing that too.