On January 6, 2021, I sat in my COVID home office and watched the insurrection in real time. I had two livestreams open on my laptop and was switching between raw footage and curated news reporting as it was being developed. It was a trainwreck for US democracy and for all the horror, I couldn’t look away. And we shouldn’t.
I heard them chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” in real time. I saw the violence.
My chest tightened when Steve sent us The Twelve schedule and I saw my name listed for January 6. In a visceral way, I wish I didn’t need to think about it. But, with apologies to non-US readers, the January 6 insurrection is too important to ignore. Ignoring something sometimes communicates things we don’t intend. We remember and reflect on peril to prevent having it (or something worse) happen again. You can watch a sober reconstruction here.
In the past few days, I’ve read dozens of commentaries and histories of January 6 and the net effect is that for all the illumination, I remain as angry, sad, and worried as I was watching it occur from the safety of my internet portal a year ago. Whatever distance a year may bring to soften the shock is mitigated and erased by the fact that a large fraction of our country, against all reason and goodness, is aligning itself with the chief instigator. The big lie and its spinoffs are being pushed in a thousand ways large and small, to the point where truth itself is bending like light at the event horizon of a black hole.
A prominent New York Times editorial entitled “Every Day is Jan. 6 Now” (1) resonates because it decries the ongoing assaults on US democracy in terms of new laws restricting suffrage under specious claims of rampant voter fraud, violent threats directed at public servants responsible for conducting elections, partisan gerrymanders, and cynical promotion of the big lie that President Biden’s election was stolen and therefore illegitimate. It also resonates in a very personal way. I believe in an activist Christianity. Salt and light.
There is a blizzard of commentary. One can be grateful that most of it recognizes the horror of the insurrection and the on-going threats spun off and fed by trumped-up grievances that undermine our democracy. But how is it that revulsion at an attack on our democracy as violent and damaging as the January 6 insurrection fails to rise above partisanship except for a notable few?
They chanted to hang the vice president. They went hunting for the Speaker of the House. They beat overwhelmed police officers. Some 140 officers were injured. Concussions. A severed finger. Gouged eyes (2).
They broke into the well of the evacuated Senate and invoked the name of Jesus.
The low-level rioters are being tried and sentenced; the ones unlucky enough to be identified. Evidence coming from the House January 6 commissions indicated that the insurrection was planned, from the foot-soldiers to the highest levels of the Executive branch. I want accountability. I want justice. I want deterrence so I never have to worry about something like this again.
I’ve been writing and re-writing parts of this post for days. Second-guessing myself and wondering what there is to add. But in the spirit of introspection and with acknowledgement of The Twelve readership, I would point you to the Uncivil Religion (https://uncivilreligion.org/home/index) project–a “collaborative digital project between the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.”
It would be hard for any observer to miss the overt Christian iconography and ritual (e.g. performative prayers) in the January 6 footage. But it goes deeper. The Uncivil Religion project is a curation of digital media associated with the “Stop the Steal” rally and the ensuing insurrection and provides interpretation of the religious dimensions of those media from scholars who are experts in the study of religions and politics. The researchers “contend that religion was not just one aspect of the attack on the Capitol, but, rather, it was a thread that weaves through the entirety of the events of January 6.”
The scholars find varied religious representation including a sort of mock-religion. But the dominant religious thread is clearly evangelical Christianity morphing itself into a politically conservative civil religion–or trying to. It’s a Christianity centered on a nostalgia for a medieval model where heroic white men are militant guardians of a faith under siege. So, for example, rioters carried the “Deus Vult” cross (Latin for “God wills it”), the putative cross of the medieval Christian crusaders (3), and Calvin University’s Professor Kristin du Mez interprets a Trump-as-William-Wallace sign as an outcome of evangelicals adopting Mel Gibson’s ahistorical avenging movie depiction as an archetype (4)–effectively a John Wayne for the moment.
This is challenging stuff. But to the extent that Reformed Christians share any historical or theological DNA with the wider evangelical moment we need to confront a poisonous patriarchal white supremacy in the genome. The Uncivil Religion scholars see it in the belligerent politics surrounding January 6; Charles and Rah (2019) see it in the doctrine of discovery and the subjugation of native peoples (5); I see it in the church’s unwillingness to take the climate crisis seriously. It’s been the sad backstory to several recent Twelve posts about the experiences of women in ministry. Calls to “Hang Mike Pence” make sense if you allow that extra-judicial lynching is acceptable when white men say so (6). Some part of us knows. Some part of us sees. Some part of the responsibility we bear as Reformed Christians is to address this apostasy in our own social media circles, communities, and churches.