What do you say after watching a violent mob at the Capitol mercilessly beat a fallen police officer with American flags, while chanting Pro-Trump slogans and hurling profanities?
What do you say, especially if you are a pastor?
While the past year has been hard on everyone, my heart goes out to pastors. They have been tasked with reinventing weekend gatherings, distance-shepherding, budget shortfalls, and attempting to hold together congregations divided by political and social disagreement.
Then came January 6th.
How do pastors and Christian leaders respond to that?
Perhaps it is worth noting some of the different approaches on the table.
- Ignore it, because anything you say will be used against you.
This is the coward’s way, but I sympathize with it. Even the blandest statements will be challenged on social media, so it feels like there is no way to win. I’ve seen pastor-friends excoriated for what I take to be the most basic and biblical repudiations of such violence. Seemingly anything can be met with a digital conflagration of “Whataboutism.”
The temptation, then, is simple: Just talk about the new women’s Bible study on Esther (Er… bad example, she confronted the king; Ruth? No, she left behind her nation’s gods. Okay, maybe something on the Enneagram.)
- “We just need to pray.”
This approach is like the first, with the caveat that it acknowledges some vague problem. Call it division, discord, unrest, anger, polarization, upheaval—but don’t get into specifics. Don’t renounce or repent, just lament.
I sympathize with this approach too. We should pray, even when we don’t know what to say (Rom 8:26). And in some contexts, this may be the only path that will not result in a full-fledged revolt (still a metaphor?) from certain factions.
Nevertheless, in at least some instances, both Christ and the prophets were specific. They were willing to call out specific sins committed by specific groups. They weren’t cowards.
That’s why the mob killed them.
- The “both sides” approach
I sometimes choose this path too. After all, if all people are fallen, then “both sides” in any given dispute usually have done something wrong.
Clearly Leftist groups have engaged in violence too, even in recent memory. And that too should be condemned.
But the danger of adopting a “both sides” approach to every incident is that of falsehood and false equivalence. If one of my children beats the other senseless, I do not denounce them all because the others have also acted out at various points.
Prophets like Isaiah and Amos did not worry about allotting an equal word count to the sins of Israel and those of pagans. Nor did Jesus focus equally upon the failings of Gentiles, tax collectors, and Pharisees.
In some cases, the “both sides” approach is warranted. But not on January 6th.
- Pick a partisan team and go “all in.”
If the prior approaches suffer from a lack of courage, this one suffers from a lack of truth.
In polarized times, it’s tempting to choose Always Red or Always Blue, and then call balls or strikes to support that conclusion in every instance. You can build a big “platform” that way.
In this approach, “My side is never wrong.” And if the evidence appears otherwise, it must be a well-hidden conspiracy. “It must have been Antifa.”
To be honest, most pastors do not choose this path. It simply does not lend itself to leading a congregation.
Unfortunately, the so-called “leaders” of evangelicalism today have not been pastors—they have been self-appointed Thought Leaders™ without any theological training. They are “shepherds” who have never smelled like sheep. Or as they say in Oklahoma, “Big hat, no cattle.”
This approach produces cult members, not Christ-followers.
- Use discernment on when and how to speak the truth in love.
I’m convinced that Options 1-3 are sometimes right. It is not a pastor’s job to comment on every item in the news. Sometimes we should be silent. Sometimes we should simply pray. And sometimes we should stand between opposing factions (like Jesus between Pharisees and Sadducees) and say “Both of you are wrong.”
But in other moments, we should reject false equivalence and partisan Kool Aid-drinking to speak a clear word with truth and love.
What happened at the Capitol this week was the predictable result of idolatry.
One segment of that idolatry was rooted in a so-called Christian nationalism (see here and here), conspiracy theories, social media silos, and a consistent rejection of the way of Jesus.
Not all evangelicals are implicated in that failure. Neither are all Republicans, or even all people at the rally, many of whom were peacefully protesting what they thought was an injustice.
But the endless game of “Whataboutism” and false equivalence should not prevent the church from speaking clearly when the banner of Christ (literally, in the form of “Jesus 2020” signs and other Christian symbols) are aligned with behavior that is, in fact, demonic.
It’s one thing to be assailed by angry flag-wavers, it’s another thing when some of those flags have Jesus’ name on them.
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