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Essay: To the Christian nationalists who attacked the Capitol in Jesus’ name

US Washington US Capitol attack

As second anniversary of the US Capitol attack passes, SHANE CLAIBORNE, activist, author and co-director of Red Letter Christians, urges – in an article first published on Religion News Service – Christians not to abuse our Christian love in the pursuit of political power…

United States

In the New Testament’s Letter of Paul to the Galatians, the apostle Paul wrote, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different Gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” 

Those words ring true today. “A different Gospel…which is really no gospel at all.” That’s what Christian nationalism is: a confusing perversion of the Gospel of Christ. It uses the language of our faith, and the symbols of our faith, but betrays the heart of our faith. As Amanda Tyler, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty has said, Christian nationalism “uses Jesus as a mascot” to disguise racism, xenophobia and hatred.

US Washington US Capitol attack

In this 6th January, 2021, file photo, a man holds a Bible as Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol in Washington. The Christian imagery and rhetoric on view during the Capitol insurrection are sparking renewed debate about the societal effects of melding Christian faith with an exclusionary breed of nationalism. PICTURE: AP Photo/John Minchillo.

The word Christian means “Christlike,” meaning that Christians are supposed to act like Jesus, the person we remember this Christmas season as “the Prince of Peace.” On this Epiphany (which means “to make manifest”), we remember Jesus is God’s love made flesh. To be a Christian is to model our lives after Christ.

This is why the insurrection is especially offensive to us as Christians. There is nothing Christ-like about what happened on 6th January, 2021. Those who assaulted the Capitol two years ago may have had Jesus on their banners and flags, but there was nothing Christlike about their actions.

“There is nothing Christ-like about what happened on 6th January, 2021. Those who assaulted the Capitol two years ago may have had Jesus on their banners and flags, but there was nothing Christlike about their actions.”

It was Christ who said, “They will know you are my disciples by your love” – not by your flags or bumper stickers or T-shirts, but by our love. No matter how many “Jesus saves” flags you wave as you demonstrate, if it doesn’t smell like Jesus, and sound like Jesus, and love like Jesus, it is not Christian.

We know what the love Jesus proclaimed looks like. In another letter, to the Christians at Corinth, Paul describes it as kind and patient. Love doesn’t envy or boast. It is not easily angered. We know that love isn’t arrogant or rude. Love is not self-seeking. Love is not forceful or violent. Love doesn’t kill people. Love protects. Love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

What happened on 6th January was not love, was not Christlike, was not Christian at all. It was a perversion of the gospel of Christ. It was no Gospel at all. We know because at the heart of the word “gospel” is good.

What we saw on 6th January was the deadly, perverted “gospel” of Christian nationalism.

Mother Teresa once said, “Sometimes our problem is that the circle we put around our family is too small”. That’s what nationalism is: too small. It is putting too small a circle around our human family.

In my evangelical Christian tradition, we like to say that being a Christian is about being “born again.” To be a Christian is about having a new sense of family, a new way of belonging, a fidelity that runs deeper than biology, an allegiance to something bigger than a nation.

Jesus is continually stretching the confines of our love. It’s why He said that we are not just to love our friends, but also our enemies. It’s why He had some hard things to say about biological family, because that’s often where love stops. Jesus invites anyone who would dare follow Him to be “born again” – to love beyond DNA and biological family. We are to love beyond our own nation.

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This is why “America First” is a theological heresy, as is Christian nationalism. It’s not wrong to love our own people, but our love should not stop at the border. We are to recognise that if someone is hurting on the other side of the border wall, their pain is as tragic as if they were our own mom or dad or daughter.

It is not wrong to let our faith inform our politics, but Christian nationalism puts faith in the service of politics. My friend Tony Campolo, with whom I co-founded Red Letter Christians, often says: “When you mix Christianity with political power, it’s like mixing ice cream with cow manure. It doesn’t really hurt the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”

On this solemn anniversary of the attack on the Capitol two years ago, our faith is still being perverted. It is being abused in the pursuit of political power. It is as if many Christians have never heard the words of our Saviour, “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul?”

shane claiborne

Shane Claiborne is an activist, author and co-director of Red Letter Christians. This commentary was adapted from remarks Claiborne made at a sunrise prayer vigil for democracy on Capitol Hill in Washington on 6th January, 2023. 


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