My 6th grade VFW essay trophy.
Many of you have read plenty of reflections on the events of January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol. I will totally understand, therefore, if you want to skip this one. I do promise to give you information next week about how to inspire generosity in your congregations and organizations. Teaser: 2021 Stewardship Calendar. But that’s next week’s work.
I grew up in a very patriotic household. My mom was a Scottish immigrant and nothing gave her more pride than when she became a U.S. citizen. As a kid, I went to Nixon rallies and I wrote Tricia Nixon telling her that she was my role model. In sixth grade, I won third place in the state of California for my essay, “Why We Should be Loyal to the Flag.” My bedroom was painted red, white, and blue.
My mom thought it was important that I should go to church but that it shouldn’t rule my life. Sad for her, by seventh grade I had become a Rebel for Jesus. Mom was none too excited. The Jesus Movement had started in Southern California where I lived and my MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) leaders were all in. I was fed a steady diet of “A Thief in the Night” and Revelations. Most Saturday nights found me at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa going to Jesus concerts. It was “Me and Jesus” all the way. We were Best Friends. My patriotism was still there – but Jesus was in the front seat.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I went to a decidedly evangelical college in Santa Barbara that I started to have another, and even less patriotic, view of Jesus. This was all thanks to reading Sojourners and attending required chapel four times a week. During chapel, I started hearing about a different Jesus. One who cared about the poor. One who came to proclaim “Good News.” A Jesus who wanted to end suffering, who cared about real (and not just symbolic) prisoners, whose message to “feed my sheep” literally meant to do just that. I was a proud evangelical. It was now “Jesus and me impacting the world.”
The Moral Majority came along right about that time and started this weird mix of Jesus and patriotism mashed together. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t buy it now. Watching evangelicalism devolve over forty years has been painful. And while I have been struggling for years with it, I felt like my crisis of faith came to a head last year when I questioned, “If I’m not an evangelical, what am I?” I’m proudly United Methodist but my identity has been so wrapped up in being an evangelical that finally saying “no” to it has, frankly, been very unsettling to my soul.
Watching what happened at the U.S. Capitol last week broke my heart, as I know it broke many of yours too. It was deeply troubling to see Christian nationalism on display. I’m not foolish enough to believe that every “believer” at the Mall thought tying Jesus and America together was a great idea, but a frightening number of them did. “Jesus Saves”? While storming our Capitol? On Sunday, I was appalled at a high-production video a friend showed me basically calling for a Holy War on Inauguration Day. The speaker had the gall to end the video with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer while the camera focused on an image of the United States from outer space. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” Lord have mercy.
How do we love these our – my – Christian brothers and sisters?
I wish I had the answer. I know what Jesus says I should do: “Love God. Love neighbor.” The Word also cries out for justice. Holding those competing notions in my hands is what is so difficult. How do you love a person and at the same time despise their cult-like and conspiracy-laden theology that bears little resemblance to the Scripture you have come to know and cherish? What does accountability look like?
This morning on NPR, Ed Stetzer, head of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College talked about 'How Did We Get Here?' A Call for an Evangelical Reckoning on Trump. I was especially taken with his idea that we – and this includes both mainliners and evangelicals – need to recommit ourselves to discipleship. It means spending time regularly reading the Bible, in prayer, away from social media, and with people who sincerely want to be followers of Jesus. It means figuring out what it means to be a Jesus follower and an American. It means determining who has our ultimate allegiance. Becoming better disciples is something we can do. Even in a pandemic. It may help us love more.
There are no easy answers. We need to sit with this and pray. Pray for our country in a way we haven’t before. January 20 will not come quietly. There will be no joy in the streets. Pray too for our brothers and sisters who have gone down a path that celebrates the destruction of our norms and character. Pray that we might be able to find it in our hearts to be reconciled one with the other. Somehow, I still hold out hope that it is possible.