When compiling the list of Top Presidential Moments of the 21st Century, one could easily argue that President George W Bush climbing the mountain of rubble at Ground Zero belongs in the top spot. I remember watching it on TV. But I actually have MORE chills thinking about it almost 20 years later. Here was a man getting within inches of the people he serves in their time of unspeakable grief. He hugged a fire fighter. He stood next to the people doing unfathomable acts of mercy and heroism.
Perhaps number two on that list was when he visited a mosque less than a week after the attacks. There had already been violence against Arabs and Sikhs. America was of course traumatized. We were also too ignorant about Islam to know that those who destroyed buildings do not accurately represent Islam. As we know, the combination of trauma, outrage and ignorance often produces deadly outcomes. In this new era of American trauma, President Bush visited a mosque, shared words with its leaders and tried to teach a nation about the peaceful teachings of Islam. Despite his efforts, the term ‘radical Islam’ because commonplace in the first 15 years of the 21st Century.
Two weeks ago, another terrorist attack struck America. This time the perpetrators came from within. The images of violent insurrectionists crawling through the US Capitol building, bludgeoning to death a Capital Police officer along the way, chanting about assassinating the Vice-President, breathing threats against the Speaker of the House…these have been seared into our memory. Again, we are traumatized. This time, there is no outside force to blame. We must look inward. We are our own enemy.
While one can look at the words of the current president as incitement for this violence, I am looking at my own house. As people were assaulting police at the entryways, there were people with bullhorns shouting about the power of God leading their path of destruction. People carried bibles along with their various weaponry. And mere seconds after leaving a written death threat to the Vice President, an insurrectionist leads a bombastic prayer in the Senate chambers. (This montage of footage shows this aspect in full view. Credit: New Yorker magazine.)
The words of Jesus come to mind:
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.Matthew 6:5
Right now, part of me wonders if I have blood on my hands. I am, of course, appalled at what happened. And I hold deep fear for the well-being of President Biden and Vice-President Harris. At the same time, I have watched this brand of Christianity emerge, and I have not countered it effectively enough. I have sought to avoid offense, rather than speak truth. I have called myself patient when, really, I have just been complacent. And the ineffective defense of actual Christianity has led some to be caught up in the demagoguery of others. This demagoguery ‘wraps itself in the American flag and carries a Bible’. Nevermind that the Bible is carried awkwardly and the words of Jesus ignored or bastardized. Nevermind that the book itself warns of wolves in sheep’s clothing. This time the wolves didn’t even hide. They just claimed the power of God and took off into the barricades. And I let them.
In 1934, a group of German theologians issued the Barmen Declaration (PDF here, scroll down to page 280). They were responding to the radicalization of Christianity in their own home land. I am NOT saying that Trump is Hitler. What I AM saying is that the seeds of radicalized American Christianity have been sown. One can even argue that Trump harvested the first crop or fertilized the ground for future growth of this movement. In this scenario, I wonder if an American Barmen Declaration is necessary. Should someone more devious and competent emerge, the power of radicalized Christianity could be manipulated into an even scarier force of oppression and brutality. it is imperative that authentic Christians preach the whole gospel, love truth, love mercy, do justice, exude grace and kindness and walk humbly.
(Researching as I wonder, I have discovered that some have been working on this very thing. You can find a renewed statement created by students at Father Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. Read “Barmen Today” HERE.)
If the first 15 years of the 21st century were defined by ‘radical Islam,’ could it be that the next era in American history is defined by ‘radical Christianity’? Might there be a need for President Biden to go to a church and declare that “Christianity is a peaceful religion”?
I remember first learning about the Interfaith Youth Corps. It’s founder Eboo Patel was interviewed by Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith (now called On Being). During this interview he calls Al-Qaeda the best youth organization in the world.
So when people say to me, ‘Oh, Eboo, you know, you run this sweet, little organization called the Interfaith Youth Core, and you do such nice things. You bring kids together.’ I say, ‘Yeah, you know, there’s another youth organization out there. It’s called al-Qaeda. And al-Qaeda’s been built over the past 25 years with lots of money, and with lots of strategy, and with lots of ideas of how you recruit young people and get them to think that this is the best way they can impact the world.’https://onbeing.org/programs/eboo-patel-religious-passion-pluralism-and-the-young/#transcript
We saw in Washington that there were plenty of well-resourced people who have been radicalized to believe that they are patriotic for besieging the capital. The perpetrators’ public statements since have ranged from the dumbfounded to the heavily entitled. But I have yet to hear much actual sorrow for the 5 resulting deaths, much less responsibility. Money is certainly a big factor in the assault on the capital. Lower income people with grievances were greatly outnumbered by the privileged with anger that seems to be based on nothing. This being the case, perhaps a clear defense of authentic Christianity may not do much to stem the tide of people’s rage. Nevertheless, carrying crosses en route to mob violence is an offense to the faith.
So what are we to do? While the moment will fade, the outrage remains. Those of us who follow the prince of peace, those of us who pick up OUR OWN crosses and follow Jesus, must reintroduce the world to the authentic Christ: the one who teaches us to love enemies and pray for those who persecute you, the one who offers us the bread of life even in a land of oppression and violence, the one who shunned the allure of the murderous mob but who acted justly, loved mercy and walked humbly with God.