Editor’s Note: Gregory E. Sterling is Dean of Yale Divinity School. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
As someone who has devoted his entire life to understanding, exploring and teaching the truth about Christianity, I saw the use of Christian symbols and rhetoric as part of the violent assault on the US Capitol as a desecration of democracy’s chapel and a blaspheme of my faith.
Watching the events unfold, I was deeply ashamed as an American and horrified as a Christian that these perpetrators were associating Christianity with their misguided efforts. I wonder how these self-declared patriots and Christians – rioters, in reality – could square their racism-fueled attempt of a forceful takeover of our government, a cause emboldened by evil lies (and longstanding support of the Christian right’s leadership), with the Bibles many of them carried.
Christians believe that we demonstrate our faith by our actions and how we treat others. In words from a final message of Jesus in the Gospel of John, “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What the world witnessed at the Capitol was instead a warped and dishonest portrayal of Christianity, a mob hijacking an entire faith in the same way the 9/11 terrorists hijacked Islam. While the latter was an attempt to bring America to its knees economically, this was an attempt to bring the nation to its knees politically. While one was committed by an avowed enemy of the United States, the insurrection in our capital city was committed by individuals who demonstrated no regard for the will of the majority of the American people, much less for Christian living.
Carrying signs like “Jesus 2020” or “Jesus or Hellfire,” Bibles, and a massive cross and marauding around our nation’s capital in a “Jericho march” – in imitation of the biblical story of the fall of Jericho – the rioters imitated quite well the President, who held up a Bible during his egregious summer photo-op in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, amid protests over racial injustices.
The mob that stormed the Capitol and the President who sees my faith as a cynical and convenient political tool both show an utter disregard for the highest values contained in Scripture. Where was the value of non-violence celebrated in the Sermon on the Mount? Where was the value of “putting away falsehood” and speaking the truth? Where was the spirit of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God? They made a mockery of Christianity.
The attack was an assault on American identity, too. My father and uncle served during the Korean War. The names of some of my boyhood friends are engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a short walk down the National Mall from the Capitol. My son-in-law served in Iraq. Those gleefully parading around Washington were spitting on the graves of the fallen and dishonoring those who wore a US armed forces uniform. Wielding the weapon of faith, they attacked the country they profess to love.
The thousands who gathered and chanted and stormed and, yes, killed heeded the words of their political deity – President Donald Trump, a man without a moral compass. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” These were the President’s words at the “Save America March” just hours before his eager audience would take him up on his request. I have never understood how Christians could support him in the name of Christianity. How do you align lying, bragging about immorality, the egging on of violence and cruelty, and the violation of a sacred oath (to “protect and defend the Constitution”) with Christianity? It is as far from the principles of Christianity – or any faith that I know – as a person can get.
Those Christians who continue to be Trump supporters are models of cognitive dissonance. They are a puzzle for the ages. The dissonance exists between their claim to be loyal Americans and Christians, on the one hand, and their trampling upon the principles of democracy and Christianity, equality before God and non-violence on the other. Efforts to resolve these irreconcilable tensions have resulted in wild conspiracy theories that strike sober-minded people as bouts of delusion. I can only hope that as they ponder their next move – with rumblings of more violence in Washington around the inauguration – there will be some soul-searching among the throngs. God help us if there is not.
To show how far our country as fallen, I only need to look back at my own childhood. I grew up in a conservative American home. My parents were committed Republicans who held traditional values. My father was a minister for 46 years. Twice in my boyhood during the tumultuous year of 1968, my mother woke me with the news that an American leader had been slain. The first was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the second was Sen. Robert Kennedy during his run for the White House.
Both times our household was devastated. When I told a friend the story of how my mother was visibly shaken as she told me about Kennedy, he wondered why she was so upset if she would not have voted for him? My answer was an easy one: She was a better American than she was a Republican. And she was a better Christian.
It is time for us to be Americans, whatever our party affiliation or views on specific issues. It is also time for those of us who are Christians to speak out against the misuse of Christianity as a legitimating force for evil. Democracy is a treasured value and quite fragile. We need to protect it, and given last week’s events, we need to pray for it.