This is a religious piece. But it needs to start with current events.
On January 6, a violent mob of rioters invaded our national Capitol with mayhem and murder on their minds. That evil act was encouraged by the then-President of the United States. For this outrageous behavior both he and they merit our condemnation. Those who cried out for the murder of the Vice-President and the Speaker should face time in prison. And those who supported them from a distance should be ashamed.
But, as we move forward, and try to heal as a nation and people, how do we manage that? How do we bring together people who have grown so far apart?
Insights from our religious tradition can help. I am a Christian. One of the basic tenets of our faith turns on our remembering who, that is, whose, we are. We are not individuals. That’s what we used to be. We are now, as we say in the language of faith, members of Christ’s body. We got here not by our own merit, but because God loved us first. As Luther famously said, “sola gratia” (grace alone). Therefore, having received grace ourselves, we offer grace to others. We need to ask, what would graceful living look like in our time?
To guide us, let’s look at one of the best books in the past generation, No Future Without Forgiveness, by Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop in South Africa. The book is his telling the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which followed the end of the Apartheid regime, and the beginning of Black majority rule under Nelson Mandela.
There were unspeakable atrocities done to Blacks by the White government. As Tutu knew, for the nation to heal, Black folks had to come to a place where they might be able to forgive the perpetrators in the security forces who committed the crimes, and the majority of White South Africans who turned away, and didn’t acknowledge what was going on in their names. But for this to work, there needed to be a request for forgiveness, accompanied by some contrition for the wrongs done. That’s where Bishop Tutu’s commission came in. It provided a public space for people to admit their wrongs.
Moreover, Tutu believed this was especially true for the leaders of the White churches in South Africa, who lent their spiritual and theological support to the whole system of Apartheid. When the religious leaders in the Dutch Reformed Church began to come forward and admit they were wrong, and ask for forgiveness, it opened the gates for ordinary people to follow.
In Tutu’s theology the Black folks who were wronged were now obliged to forgive the wrongdoers. That was very hard to do, but for Desmond Tutu, and for South Africa, it was the only way forward.
Back to the United States — tens of millions of self-described Evangelical Christians gave not only political support for Donald Trump but religious support to back it up. How did Bible-believing people who subscribe to a religion that knows no boundary of nation, language or culture give support to “America First,” and to exclusionist attitudes about immigrants?
Some partial answers came, at least for me, in reading an editorial written after the January 6 insurrection in Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of Evangelical Protestantism, and of conservative Protestantism generally. The magazine was founded by Billy Graham and Carl Henry in the 1950s.
The editorial was by Tish Harrison Warren. It merits our attention. She begins by placing the blame for the riot on Donald Trump. Warren wrote, “For more than four years, Trump has shown that he is more than willing to say any lie and ignore any standard of decency. Through manipulative disinformation he incited an insurrection.”
Warren goes on: “Though it saddens me deeply, it must be admitted that yesterday’s atrocity was in large part brought to us by the white evangelical church in America.” She specifies what she means: “The storming of the Capitol cannot be understood outside the heresy of Christian nationalism peddled by the likes of Josh Hawley, Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress; the unhinged apocalyptic Trump-worship of Eric Metaxas; the blasphemies of the Jericho March; and the millions of evangelicals who see Jesus as a means to ill-conceived ideas of American greatness.”
Our vocation of Christian witness calls us to be supportive of this fellow Christian’s wrestling with her conscience, and for the appeal to her fellow-Evangelicals to repent. She asks them how they could proclaim the true gospel “under the long shadow cast by a cross draped in a MAGA flag on the Capitol lawn?”
Warren concludes, “we have to take up the slow work of repair, of re-forming our churches around the deep, unchanging truths of the light of Christ. We must reconstruct communities where we can know and speak truth, serve the needy and the poor, love our neighbors, learn to be poor in spirit, rejoice in suffering, and witness to the light of Christ amid darkness.”
I hope that those of us in churches other than Evangelical might support and embrace our siblings like Tish Harrison Warren, who now know how badly they were misled by some of their leaders. The violent and murderous insurrection of January 6, as awful as it was, need not be the event that typifies us. Rather, we can all turn toward each other: we are all Americans, many of us Christians, and we must find the grace to say that we belong to and with each other. To paraphrase Bishop Tutu, there is no other worthwhile future for us.
Correction: an earlier version stated that the Christianity Today editorial was written by Daniel Harrell. Tish Harrison Warren was the actual author. Apologies for the confusion.