In the waning days of 2020, I came face to face with the white supremacist hate that fueled the deadly mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — and that poses the biggest security challenge to President Joe Biden.
One day in November, a stranger jumped in front of me on the street. “We are the Proud Boys,” he shouted as he pounded his chest, used the N-word, screamed profanities and threatened to kill me. He had the fire of hatred in his eyes that made it clear there was no room for reasoned conversation or calm discussion.
I recognized him as my attacker from a picture law enforcement officials showed me weeks later, after he was apprehended by authorities. When they arrested Eduard Florea, they found knives, more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition — and an explicit threat to assassinate newly elected Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Black religious leader from Georgia who has been a student and trustee at my own Union Theological Seminary. The FBI filed federal charges, and the New York Police Department has my report on file.
Grotesque misreading of Christianity
My frightening encounter that day in New York was a foreshadowing. I saw that same look on the faces of those who ravaged the Capitol on Jan. 6. As a theologian, I’m dismayed that a far-right interpretation of Christianity helped motivate their actions — and might do so again.
Many members of the mob that stormed the Capitol carried Bibles, a large cross and signs that read “Jesus 2020” and “Jesus or Hellfire.” They hunted lawmakers and congressional staff as self-identified Christians, and a distressingly large number of far-right pastors and other religious leaders either tacitly supported the violence or backed the falsehoods about a stolen election that helped provoke the deadly attack.
Sadly, that grotesque misreading of Christianity isn’t new. Evangelical white Christianity in America has a long history of identifying its followers as an oppressed, innocent minority that needs to defend its faith against the dominant powers of government and popular culture.
Many of those who attacked the Capitol had been fired up by sermons that said they were part of a small righteous remnant called to defend the faith against its detractors. Donald Trump and his supporters fanned the flames of these misguided beliefs, and at least five people died because of it.
In Christian theology, we are taught that God is a force for grace and love, who ultimately forgives all, and that hatred of any sort — even toward one’s enemies — is ungodly and dangerous.
On the other hand, Christian theologians insist that a commitment to truth and a strong belief in justice are necessary for Christians of moral conscience. Balancing forgiveness and justice is the most complex challenge of the Christian life.
Taking America for Jesus: Christian nationalism is a threat, and not just from Capitol attackers invoking Jesus
This means I can forgive my attacker, but I also need to explicitly say that his actions run counter to Christianity’s core beliefs. It also means that those who participated in the attack on the Capitol, and all those who did not but hold the same sentiment — unabashed white Christian supremacy and the will to violence — must be called out, held responsible for their actions and stopped.
The sickness that has taken hold of this far-right Christianity is a disease that will kill our democracy if left unchecked. These beliefs have a centuries-old history in this country, and the silence of many in the progressive faith community have allowed unfettered abominations under the guise of Christianity.
Reclaim our faith as a force for good
Too many leaders of faith have spread lies about election fraud and largely refused to criticize Trump for inciting the violence. To take one example, Franklin Graham refused to condemn the assault on Capitol Hill as the attack was gaining steam. When he finally acknowledged Biden’s victory, Graham ludicrously said that “both parties bear responsibility for the problems we face today” — even though Republicans were the only ones to encourage it, support it or try to defend it.
Statements from leaders like Graham provided cover to cynical Christian politicians like Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, who made an unprecedented attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election. Both lawmakers seem unable to grasp that their adamant insistence that only they know the truth about our democracy is a perfect example of the sin of pride — the arrogant belief that you know what God wants and are acting accordingly.
The lifetime I’ve spent studying Christianity has left me with the clear-eyed knowledge that tyranny unchecked never magically abates. It only grows deeper roots and stronger limbs. I ask my siblings of faith across the nation to not be silent or naive about what is happening around us. Our faith is being used as a weapon of mass destruction, and the sacred duty of our time is to find a way of reclaiming it as force for good and justice.
The Rev. Serene Jones, Ph.D., is president of Union Theological Seminary and the Johnston Family Professor for Religion & Democracy. Follow her on Twitter: @SereneJones
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White supremacy and a will to violence are a sickness, not Christianity