The first world war, boys
it came and it went
the reason for fighting
I never did get
but I learned to accept it
accept it with pride
for you don’t count the dead
when God’s on your side
In one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, the great poet describes the perennial American pattern of always assuming God is on our side. More American than apple pie, this is. In a not-so-subtle way, he traces this absurd pattern through American history. The slaughter of Native Americans, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, the two World Wars, the Cold War – all was permissible, all was baptized, all was blessed because God was on our side. I imagine there is a label for this kind of thinking but I’m not quite sure what to call it. Is this Christian nationalism? American exceptionalism? a form of Christian syncretism? Whatever one calls it, it dangerous, wrong, and remarkably unChristian.
Dylan’s song “With God On Our Side” has been playing on repeat in my head. It’s a helpful lens to think about the crisis of the church in America. You can listen to it here:
What follows is not a robust political theology – I merely offer a few thoughts and questions for the faithful to consider as we reflect on recent events.
As a Christian and an American, I have been deeply, deeply disturbed by the recent actions of some Christians in America (or at least those who claim to be Christians – I make no judgment). I am referring specifically to the seditious insurrection of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. In her piece “A Christian Insurrection” in the Atlantic, Emma Green reports about how “the name of God was everywhere” during the insurrection. From prayers to posters, many amongst the mob proudly wielded Christian symbols. In so doing they did great violence not only to American citizens and institutions, but also to the name of God. What they were doing was, at least in part, motivated by their faith. They firmly believed they were doing the will of God. The protests, the vitriol, the violence, the sedition – so much was motivated by a kind of Christian nationalism.
For me, one of the most disturbing examples of this was the prayer offered by Jacob Anthony Chansley after he and small group of insurrectionists broke into the Senate chamber. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of Jacob: he was the shirtless man with patriotic face paint, a fur hat and horns (hereafter referred to as organic-horn-boy-Jacob).
You can watch the prayer in the video here (warning: offensive language and behavior):
This is an excerpt from the prayer offered in the Senate chamber by an insurrectionist:
“Thank you heavenly father for gracing us with this opportunity…for this opportunity to stand up for our God-given unalienable rights…Thank you divine, omnipotent, omnipresent creator God for filling this chamber with your white light of love and your white light of harmony. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and love Christ.”
Organic-horn-boy-Jacob knows how to pray. He clearly thinks God is on his side. I think every Christian in America or anywhere else ought to be disturbed by this kind of syncretism. As a Christian, as a priest, and even as an American, I absolutely reject and condemn this.
With all of this on my mind, I watched today’s powerful inauguration of Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States of America. I found myself deeply moved by much of the ceremony, grateful for a peaceful transition of power, grateful that we are finally at 46. And yet, I also found myself deeply disturbed at the inclusion of Christian symbolism throughout the inauguration.
From Christian prayers, to Bibles, to cherished Christian hymns like John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” the inauguration was absolutely soaked with Christian symbols. It was baptized. Perhaps this is always the case with inaugurations? Perhaps I am just now seeing it because the shock of the Christian nationalists on January 6 made it so that I can’t not see it? In any case, I think it’s clear that Joe Biden thinks God is on his side. To be fair: this isn’t a critique of Biden per se. This could be applied to everyone who has held this high office in which the inauguration was suffused with Christian pageantry. I would venture to guess that many Christians who were (rightly!) repulsed and outraged by the Christian nationalism on display in the January 6 insurrection did not bat an eye at the same on display in the January 20 inauguration. This ought to give us pause.
Though these two events could not be more different (in terms of legality, rightness, goodness, etc.), I’d like to suggest that the syncretism at them may not be. I’m left scratching my head: should I be as disturbed by the Christian symbolism wielded today to build up American institutions as I was with the Christian symbolism wielded to tear it down?
Another way of asking it is this simple question: who’s side is God on?
My answer is simple: God is not on the side of any politician. God is on the side of justice. God is not on the side of any political party. He is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the ones who seek peace. I believe Christians go dangerously off course when we baptize any politician or political party. The Church ought always play the prophet and be wary of getting too cozy with kings (any other kings but Jesus, that is.)
I believe a reckoning is coming. The line between the sides do not align with nations, or political parties. The Church in America (and in every land) would do well to inventory its alliances and allegiances. She would do well to be self-reflective, self-critical, and to repent. Are we on God’s side?
I’ll end with how I started: some lines from the great poet to think about.
Through many dark hour
I’ve been thinking about this
That Jesus Christ
was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side