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On January 6, 2021, I sat in my COVID home office and watched the insurrection in real time. I had two livestreams open on my laptop and was switching between raw footage and curated news reporting as it was being developed. It was a trainwreck for US democracy and for all the horror, I couldn’t look away. And we shouldn’t.

I heard them chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” in real time. I saw the violence.

My chest tightened when Steve sent us “The Twelve” schedule and I saw my name listed for January 6. In a visceral way, I wish I didn’t need to think about it. But, with apologies to non-US readers, the January 6 insurrection is too important to ignore. Ignoring something sometimes communicates things we don’t intend. We remember and reflect on peril to prevent having it (or something worse) happen again. You can watch a sober reconstruction here.

In the past few days, I’ve read dozens of commentaries and histories of January 6 and the net effect is that for all the illumination, I remain as angry, sad, and worried as I was watching it occur from the safety of my internet portal a year ago. Whatever distance a year may bring to soften the shock is mitigated and erased by the fact that a large fraction of our country, against all reason and goodness, is aligning itself with the chief instigator. The big lie and its spinoffs are being pushed in a thousand ways large and small, to the point where truth itself is bending like light at the event horizon of a black hole.

A prominent New York Times editorial entitled “Every Day is Jan. 6 Now” resonates because it decries the ongoing assaults on US democracy in terms of new laws restricting suffrage under specious claims of rampant voter fraud, violent threats directed at public servants responsible for conducting elections, partisan gerrymanders, and cynical promotion of the big lie that President Biden’s election was stolen and therefore illegitimate. It also resonates in a very personal way. I believe in an activist Christianity. Salt and light.

There is a blizzard of commentary. One can be grateful that most of it recognizes the horror of the insurrection and the on-going threats spun off and fed by trumped-up grievances that undermine our democracy. But how is it that revulsion at an attack on our democracy as violent and damaging as the January 6 insurrection fails to rise above partisanship except for a notable few?

They chanted to hang the vice president. They went hunting for the Speaker of the House. They beat overwhelmed police officers. Some 140 officers were injured. Concussions. A severed finger. Gouged eyes.

They broke into the well of the evacuated Senate and invoked the name of Jesus.

The low-level rioters are being tried and sentenced; the ones unlucky enough to be identified. Evidence coming from the House January 6 commissions indicated that the insurrection was planned, from the foot-soldiers to the highest levels of the Executive branch. I want accountability. I want justice. I want deterrence so I never have to worry about something like this again.

I’ve been writing and re-writing parts of this post for days. Second-guessing myself and wondering what there is to add. But in the spirit of introspection and with acknowledgement of “The Twelve “readership, I would point you to the Uncivil Religion project–a “collaborative digital project between the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.”

It would be hard for any observer to miss the overt Christian iconography and ritual (e.g. performative prayers) in the January 6 footage. But it goes deeper. The Uncivil Religion project is a curation of digital media associated with the “Stop the Steal” rally and the ensuing insurrection and provides interpretation of the religious dimensions of those media from scholars who are experts in the study of religions and politics. The researchers “contend that religion was not just one aspect of the attack on the Capitol, but, rather, it was a thread that weaves through the entirety of the events of January 6.”

The scholars find varied religious representation including a sort of mock-religion. But the dominant religious thread is clearly evangelical Christianity morphing itself into a politically conservative civil religion – or trying to. It’s a Christianity centered on a nostalgia for a medieval model where heroic white men are militant guardians of a faith under siege. So, for example, rioters carried the “Deus Vult” cross (Latin for “God wills it”), the putative cross of the medieval Christian crusaders, and Calvin University’s Professor Kristin DuMez interprets a Trump-as-William-Wallace sign as an outcome of evangelicals adopting Mel Gibson’s ahistorical avenging movie depiction as an archetype –effectively a John Wayne for the moment.

This is challenging stuff. But to the extent that Reformed Christians share any historical or theological DNA with the wider evangelical moment we need to confront a poisonous patriarchal white supremacy in the genome. The Uncivil Religion scholars see it in the belligerent politics surrounding January 6; Charles and Rah (2019) see it in the doctrine of discovery and the subjugation of native peoples. I see it in the church’s unwillingness to take the climate crisis seriously. It’s been the sad backstory to several recent “Twelve” posts about the experiences of women in ministry. Calls to “Hang Mike Pence” make sense if you allow that extra-judicial lynching is acceptable when white men say so.

Some part of us knows. Some part of us sees. Some part of the responsibility we bear as Reformed Christians is to address this apostasy in our own social media circles, communities, and churches.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

15 Comments

  • Mark says:

    Thank you – it seems like you are just the right person for this Jan 6 post. Blessings on you and your work.

  • John says:

    Tim and others,
    January 6, 2021, will go down in American history as a Day of Infamy.
    The Trump inspired demonstration at the Capitol shows the extent of his disconnect with “Reality” and ability to infect his deluded followers in an alternative universe, revolving around him.
    Now it is the feckless Democrat’s turn to try their hand at governance. We go from one extreme to the other, careening recklessly right and left with few giving credibility to “moderate” leaders who want lead with sanity (instead of insanity).
    Trust in people and institutions has been broken. We are in tatters. Covid’s effects have further isolated and assaulted us. Fear borders on paranoia.
    ‘Accountability for sure. Admitting my share of responsibility. Listening to opponents. Caring deeply about each and every person, their hopes and fears.
    The journey to sanity (being in our right mind) demands the best of each and all. We all need a Prodigal Son moment to say nothing of the Gerasene demoniac. “Cleanse my heart, O God, make it ever new.. . . .Let me be like you.”

    • Janice Zuidema says:

      Fitting that you should term this a Day of Infamy. You’re right, except this time the enemy is within, characterized by the inability of so many to seek the common good instead of personal gain and power.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you Tim. Thoughtfully, grievously, humbly, and confessionally written

  • George Vink says:

    Tim, thanks for putting it out there, and doing it well. Your closing paragraph calls for a response that is a challenge to those of us in pulpits and other leadership positions in the Reformed community. President Biden put it well in his address today. Truth needs to be heard from whomever and recognized as such.
    Thanks again.

  • Pat Cavanaugh says:

    Thank you. Words that need to be said and amplified in our churches and Christian communities.

  • James Schaap says:

    Your reluctance to take up what the blasted calendar assigned you is perfectly understandable. That I am in every assertion and exploration right there with you, doesn’t mean I wasn’t blessed and happy not to have to face what you did. Tomorrow’s my day. But thanks much for this thoughtful and just analysis.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Powerfully and beautifully expressed. Intelligent. Tragically accurate about the lost condition of christian religion in our country. Thank you for carrying the burden of this message and for expressing it so well.

  • Anthony J Diekema says:

    The Truth shall make us free, Tim……………and you told it courageously and superbly in this fine essay. I am deeply grateful. Thank you so much, and God bless!

  • Jack Ridl says:

    I hope the church, all the churches, no longer have separation of church and state prevent standing firm against separation of church and morality. This is not political. That’s a hiding place.

  • Elbert van Donkersgoed says:

    A good read, Tim. Apology to this non-US reader not necessary (Guelph, Ontario, Canada) as I have been paying more attention to US political news than Canadian for some 6 years. Admittedly, I am just a voyeur and do not have as much at stake as you do, but I do not see a “poisonous patriarchal white supremacy” nor do I see a US “in tatters” (comment from John).
    What I have observed reminds me of my own life experience – I learn more from my mistakes than that which develops swimmingly smoothly. From where I read and listen, your institutions are not in tatters. I note:
    • Trumps henchmen could not get election staff in the six “contested” states to knuckle under the barrage of browbeating to which they were subjected.
    • Not even Trump, himself, could get the Georgia election official to cave to his badgering.
    • No judge in the six states swallowed the claims of widespread election fraud.
    • Mike Pence stood firm on his institution, the vice-presidency.
    The US will learn from the imbroglio that Trump has foisted on America. January 6 was Trump’s way of “giving the finger” to ordinary America for not caving to his six-state assault on quite ordinary Americans involved in ballot counting. Ordinary Americans stood firm.
    But, from where I sit, there is a growing shadow over democracy in America, a shadow that also risks democracy in Canada and elsewhere – a shadow that has grown substantially while Trump has and is taking up all the political oxygen. That shadow is the vast and growing gap between the have-lots and the have-littles. Wealth buys Candidates. Wealth buys votes.

    • Timothy Van Deelen says:

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Elbert. I agree with you completely about the problem of wealth disparity. With respect to the problem of cultural white patriarchy (CWP), I would offer that the two problems are not mutually exclusive and likely are related. I suspect that where wealth (and therefore, power) accumulates, it accumulates disproportionately in the hands of white men – likely facilitated by CWP.

  • Henry Hess says:

    It needs to be said and you said it perfectly.
    Thank you!

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