Like many, my news apps and social media feeds were dominated by one thing today: the US Capitol riots. But how have Christian leaders around the world responded to these violent scenes in Washington?
On Wednesday 6th January – Epiphany – Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building, forcing the suspension of a joint session of Congress to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Protestors made it to the senate floor and it took the police almost four hours to secure the building. One protestor was shot dead inside the building and three others died from “medical emergencies” over the course of the protests, according to police.
World leaders respond
World leaders were quick to condemn the horror unfolding in Washington. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter:
“Disgraceful scenes in U.S. Congress. The United States stands for democracy around the world and it is now vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tweeted that “democracy should never be undone by a mob”.
Democracy – the right of people to exercise a vote, have their voice heard and then have that decision upheld peacefully should never be undone by a mob. Our thoughts are with everyone who is as devastated as we are by the events of today. I have no doubt democracy will prevail.
— Jacinda Ardern (@jacindaardern) January 7, 2021
In India, the world’s largest democracy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said:
“Distressed to see news about rioting and violence in Washington DC. Orderly and peaceful transfer of power must continue. The democratic process cannot be allowed to be subverted through unlawful protests.”
The events shocked America’s close ally and neighbour to its north. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter to share his thoughts:
Canadians are deeply disturbed and saddened by the attack on democracy in the United States, our closest ally and neighbour. Violence will never succeed in overruling the will of the people. Democracy in the US must be upheld – and it will be.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 6, 2021
Trump, in a brief video posted on Twitter, empathized with the mob, maintaining it was a “fraudulent election”, but he did ask the protestors to go home. President-elect Joe Biden in brief remarks demanded “an end to this siege” and asked Trump to intervene to end the violence.
Capitol Christians respond
As pro-Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, Joe Biden’s campaign team hosted a prayer event, calling on God to heal the nation and bring peace. A number of prominent faith leaders were featured on the Zoom call, including author and activist Shane Claiborne, Rev Dr William Barber II and Hispanic evangelical leader, Rev Luis Cortés.
In a notice announcing the call, the Biden team quoted civil rights leader Martin Luther Jr:
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
During the call, Claiborne prayed for the fruit of the spirit to be upon the country at this tumultuous time, and asked God to forgive the rise of idolatry, nationalism and racism that has grown during the Trump years. He prayed that God would bring forward a new season of hope across the US:
“Purify our anger so that we will transform our country.”
Once President-elect Joe Biden’s victory was finally certified, Barry C. Black, the Senate chaplain, said a prayer in the chamber, acknowledging the violence and urging unity in the face of division:
“We deplore the desecration of the US capitol building, the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life and the quagmire of disfunction that threaten our democracy. These tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue…Lord, you have helped us to remember that we need to see in each other a common humanity that reflects your image.”
Church leaders respond
As the news unfolded, church leaders around the world also united in condemning the violent actions of the US Capitol Building protesters.
The Archbishop of Canterbury encouraged Christians to pray for the situation:
There will be many lessons to be learned from the scenes in Washington. For the moment let us pray for the USA, the world’s greatest defender of democracy until now, as it faces this huge shock. May God bless America with peace and reconciliation.
— Archbishop of Canterbury (@JustinWelby) January 6, 2021
Mega-church pastor Rick Warren called the activities in the US capitol “anarchy” and urged godly leadership:
Here’s what God says: “When the leader is concerned with justice, the nation will be strong, but when he is only concerned with money, he will ruin his country.” Proverbs 29:4 (TEV)
— Rick Warren (@RickWarren) January 6, 2021
Evangelist Franklin Graham argued that the mob “had a right to protest”, but he did urge Christians to unite in prayer:
I am deeply saddened by what took place in our nation’s capital today. Our country is in trouble. We need God’s healing and we need God’s help. Pray for peace and the protection of our nation. Let’s come together—on our knees.
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) January 7, 2021
Pastor JD Greear, on the other hand, urged Christians to submit regardless of whether the election went the way people wanted it to:
Peaceable transitions of power have marked our Republic since the beginning. It is part of honoring and submitting to God’s ordained leaders whether they were our choice or not. We need you, @POTUS to condemn this mob. Let’s move forward together. Praying for safety.
— J.D. Greear (@jdgreear) January 6, 2021
In Jesus’ name?
One shocking thing about the protests were the numerous banners depicting Christian slogans, suggesting that the mob was somehow committing these atrocities in Jesus’ name. Church leaders were quick to point out that the Jesus being paraded around these awful scenes bears no resemblance to the Jesus they know and love.
Author and speaker Beth Moore took to Twitter to share her thoughts:
I don’t know the Jesus some have paraded and waved around in the middle of this treachery today. They may be acting in the name of some other Jesus but that’s not Jesus of the Gospels.
— Beth Moore (@BethMooreLPM) January 6, 2021
These violent protests raise an important, if terrifying, question: were Christians to blame for these atrocities?
Columnist Michael Gerson said this on Twitter:
There will be many ramifications from today’s events. But one is clear. Trump evangelicals have tightly connected their movement to insurrectionists and domestic terrorists. They have done massive damage to the reputation of Christians in politics.
— Michael Gerson (@MJGerson) January 7, 2021
The disturbing scenes we witnessed this Epiphany demonstrate the prevalent idolatry of nationalism within some wings of US Christianity and it alerted us to the grave dangers of Christian nationalism.
Author Jemar Tisby responded to the event with a thought-provoking tweet:
Don’t miss the religious elements of what’s happening at the Capitol. They said, “Critical Race Theory is the biggest threat.” What they’re showing us is that Christian Nationalism is and has been the biggest threat not only to Christianity in the US but to democracy as well.
— Jemar Tisby (@JemarTisby) January 6, 2021
Tragically, more disturbing undertones were at play than damaged Christian reputation. These riots demonstrated the disastrous inherent institutional racism, summed up by television host Joy Ann Reid on MSMBC:
“White Americans are never afraid of the cops. Even when they are committing insurrection.”
“White Americans are not afraid of the cops. White Americans are never afraid of the cops. Even when they are committing insurrection.” –Just a few words from @JoyAnnReid moments ago on @MSNBC, in one of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard on television.
— Ibram X. Kendi (@DrIbram) January 6, 2021
As many, including author Robert P. Jones, pointed out on Twitter, Christians have got to work harder to eliminate racism:
Pay attention to the symbols being carried: crosses, “Jesus saves” sign, Confederate flags.
This unholy amalgamation is the legacy of white supremacist Christianity. We have to name this heritage if we’re going to heal our nation from this deadly disease.#WhiteTooLong.
— Robert P. Jones (@robertpjones) January 6, 2021
Return to Epiphany
The morning after the events at the Capitol building, the Anglican Bishop of Leeds in the UK, Nick Baines, shared some thoughts on BBC Radio 4. He reminded listeners that the Christian season of Epiphany recalls not just the journey of the wise men, but also the violence of King Herod:
“The romance of the Christmas card crib gives way to the brutal reality of powerful people who are driven by fear and not drawn by hope or love or mercy. According to this story – the one that has supposedly shaped those protestors carrying banners proclaiming ‘Jesus saves’ – strength and power have been powerfully reinterpreted in the scandal of a man on a cross. Not a man with a gun. This story challenges me to re-imagine what power looks like when coloured by love and mercy rather than entitlement and fear.”
Epiphany reminds us that our God refused to remain distant, but came into our broken world as a vulnerable baby. He weeps over injustice, hatred and disunity and we should too.