NOTE 6/12/22: This piece was written within a few days of the attempted coup of January 6, 2021, which means it was written before President Biden took office. As a result, any references to the “current occupant of the Oval Office” refer to the former guy.
This week has felt like quite the, well, year in the US, hasn’t it? Specifically, the last few days. In this blog post, I plan to respond to one strain of responses to the seditious coup attempt that led to the first breaching of the US Capitol building on Wednesday, January 6, 2021 since 1812: the “Not MY Christianity” rhetoric. See, I totally understand the impulse to fully disclaim the twisted toxic kind of spirituality on display during this insurrection. But as you will see, while I think it’s important we fight back against this kind of unhealthy spirituality, I think it’s also important we inquire more deeply into its roots lest we miss out on many of the lessons this horrific set of events and its precursors have to offer us.
After all, this attempted coup came wrapped in signs saying “Jesus saves” and the singing of “Amazing Grace” and under the auspices of a cross. News articles here and here talk more about the unhealthy ways Christian symbolism was used during Wednesday’s seditious storming of the Capitol.
My Early Socialization into Christian Bothsidesism
Here’s the thing: I totally recognize the impulse to disclaim these actions as “not having anything to do with Christianity”—associating them with not being REALLY Christian.
Believe me, I’ve been there. As I’ve stated many times before in this space, I’ve actually been socialized into a moderate right-leaning denomination that taught me to do just that—to disclaim all violent actions done by those who claimed to be Christians.
As though it was ever as easy as that.
Ironic that we also believed we could never be without sin. (Mine were a complex bunch.)
Our Theological Bothsidesism
Especially because, as I’ve stated before, my peops were just as, if not more, horrified by those who identified as Christians who were theologically and politically to our left.
See, we didn’t think either of those groups were REALLY Christian. I mean, maybe we’d see them in heaven—after all, that was up to God, after all—but we were deeply disturbed by the idea of that, too.
From our view, it was pretty clear that the blatantly aggressive Christians, those supporting the empire, wouldn’t enter the kingdom of heaven. (Well, to be clear, I don’t really know about that now, but I do really hope not.)
What We Were Blind To
But as I can see now, as a scholar of stress, trauma and conflict communication, we were completely blind to the ways our toxic Christian nice (which I’ve talked about many times, starting here) was enabling the bullies while doing an extreme injustice to the more progressive Christians, through participating in their demonization (I’ve talked, for instance, about socialism as a “devil term” to be fought at all costs here).
We were also completely blind to the ways our right-leaning political views went way beyond the rhetoric of “nice” to enable the bullies in our midst, and had concrete consequences that hurt people.
And we were completely blind to the ways our false equivalencies that were just as, if not more, concerned about left-wing and right-wing Christians were ripe to be exploited by fascists and authoritarians known for their whataboutisms and bothsidesist propaganda.
And I’ll be honest—as I’ve noted before, it took me decades to figure this stuff out myself—and the journey wasn’t easy to get there.
Those Who Did Not Have Ears to Hear—or Ability to Reflect
The thing is this—a lot of us as “moderate Christians” were so busy tut-tutting about “those other Christians” that we failed to be properly introspective about our own complicity in bigger systemic problems.
Many too many of us were so d*mned caught up in our own sense of moral rightness about not being like either camp, and in what I’m calling here the Doctrine of Non-Assertiveness, that we failed to see the dangerous ways that the rhetoric and policies of militant masculinity, of white supremacy, of toxic xenophobia, etc. had already taken hold in our consciousnesses.
Some of Us DID Become More Introspective and Aware
Of course, some of us did recognize—and the tools that ironically had crept in (partly through study of the Bible, but also from wise practices of listening carefully and openly as we were able to people of different traditions—helped us gradually realize the real state of things.
That Christianity as a whole was—and is—a gigantic dysfunctional family. That even those who decided to fully leave its ranks still came from this family. And if we are to break this family’s intensely strong patterns of intergenerational trauma, we really need to face the problems of this dysfunctional family—including the ways our own unhealthy tendencies are often rooted in where we came from—head on.
Analyzing the Whiplashy Gaslighters That Claim Not to Be Complicit While Supporting Most of the Rhetoric
The thing is, not everyone is so introspective. Others I know switched in a whiplashy dizzing pace from promoting alt-right propagandistic talking points one moment about the election being stolen—the very type of rhetoric that laid the groundwork for and egged on this attempted coup—to the next moment disclaiming the aggression.
These people don’t have to say that aggression on “both sides” would be wrong for me to know they would be quickly evoking these kinds of false equivalencies if I pushed them.
And that’s the problem with cordial hypocrisy—it can beget the appearance of reason and empathy when someone is actually supporting evil. And they will gaslight you if they need to to maintain the “moral high ground” for themselves.
Defending “the Moral High Ground” at Expense of Truth and Reality
Let me say this again—the type of “Christian nice” that supports the rhetoric and policies behind the attempted coup while disclaiming the violence of the attempt actually cares more about their own senses of morality at others’ expense, and at the expense of truth.
Because here’s the truth—the rhetoric and the policies and the violence are, and have been, a package deal with this occupant of the Oval Office. Experts—including me but definitely not only me by a long shot—have been telling anyone who listens that since at least 2015.
So for anyone to say that they disclaim the violence while propping up the rhetoric and policies—is either delusion or disingenuous, or both.
Why It’s So Tempting to Just Dismiss the Attempted Coup’s Abuse of Christian Symbols
Again, I get the impulse for those of us not doing this to dissociate from the far-right and those trying to pretend they haven’t been radicalized—to dismissively say the violence is not okay, or they’re “not real Christians,” and leave it at that.
That’s a natural trauma response, to distance ourselves from those things we find morally disgusting. And let’s be clear—this kind of fascism, both in rhetoric, policy, AND violence, is and ought to be deeply disgusting. It’s just that the subtle forms ought to be just as disgusting as the extreme ones.
Here’s the thing, though—none of us is immune from the dysfunctional patterns in this really disturbing family so many of us identify with.
I’m not saying we have to be the person who must have close relationships with those the far-right unhealthily aggressive forms of Christianity at our peril.
Recognizing My “Good” White Family’s Complicity in Slavery
What I am saying is this, and let me continue to use family history as an important analogy here: Awhile back, thinking carefully about the stories I’d grown up with that taught me how incredibly evil slavery was, I dove into Ancestry.com to make sure my family didn’t own slaves. I was honestly relieved when it seemed that we didn’t.
Until this summer, when I was listening to a book on the history of cod (yes, the fish), of all things, only to find that that industry, which was rooted in one of the towns much of my family had lived in New England, was deeply complicit with the slave trade.
Hm…..it seems living in the North didn’t remove our family from the consequences of white supremacy and privilege. Now THAT was uncomfortable, but an important discomfort for me to sit with.
Soooo….Let’s Talk about WWII
When I realized that, and started reflecting on the last four years, I realize that something similar had happened with how my peops taught us to be on the “right side of history” regarding WWII and Hitler and the Holocaust.
See, as I’ve discussed here before, I was raised among a people who claimed deeply to hate Nazis. They told us stories about Anne Frank and Corrie Ten Boom, etc., etc., etc. When I grew up I also learned about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Churches that resisted Hitler.
But at the same time, I was taught with shake of head and clucking of tongue that Europe had become “so post-Christian.”
Defending Our Virtue and That Of the “True Church” Erased Part of the Story
And here’s the thing: because we were so busy “right-siding” ourselves to the type of Christianity that had resisted Hitler while insisting that Europe, not the complicit church in Europe, were the reason people had left church in droves, we failed to realize the broader picture we needed to know to cut out the gangrene inside of ourselves and our broader community.
We were so busy looking down on Europe for being “post-Christian” that we failed to fully recognize the strengths they had in learning their own lessons better than we had.
We were so busy looking down on Europe for being “post-Christian” and congratulating ourselves for being better than that that we failed to recognize how much damage was caused by the church in that era.
Restoring the Whole View
Because plenty of churches went along with Nazism, kowtowed to it. Very few churches actually worked against the system by signing on to be part of the Confessing Church system, part of the resistance.
By saying the resistors were the only real Christians, we failed to see the whole picture. By doing that, we failed to see how exactly Europe become “post-Christian.”
Now, in light of the last four years in which f*scism has been steadily arising in the US out of disturbingly deep roots, I can see how it happened.
Why It Would Make Sense for America to “Become Post-Christian”
And if large swaths of America ends up “post-Christian,” let me be clear. It will do so at least in part as a way to try to heal themselves from this unhealthy dysfunctional family and some deep-rooted intergenerational trauma.
Trying to tell such people that “that’s not real Christianity” is, respectfully, both accurate and inaccurate. After all, let’s be clear: many healthier strands of spirituality DO exist in Christianity, as many dysfunctional families have safe, reasonable members.
But it also makes sense that those who have been deeply wounded by the bullies in Christianity would blame those who don’t stand up against its bullies. Who proclaim a doctrine of non-assertiveness.
We Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Keep Doing Our Best
This doesn’t, of course, mean that the healthy people and organizations who still identify as Christian ought to be perfect or anything—we all have our limits in what we can do to speak truth to power—but we can all do what we can do.
And we are rightfully blamed if we don’t do whatever we can do to make things safer and hold the bullies to account, especially when they come carrying a cross and draped in a flag.
What Can We Do?
So, then, what should those who have reasonable spiritualities, or just those who are reasonable, do after this earth-shaking yet predictable and traumatizing coup that carried with it such Christian elements?
Let us do the following:
- Keep Speaking Truth to Power! Assertively call out not just the violence but also the unhealthy theologies that made this possible, including the doctrine of nonassertiveness that comes with Christian nice. Disclaim this specific event, yes—but also call out the broader patterns that it’s tied to.
- Keep Pushing For Healthier Policies and Rhetoric! Keep pushing for and vote for policies and rhetoric alike that helps fix as many of the issues this incident and the last four years have brought into high relief as possible. That includes calling the perpetrators to be held truly accountable—all of them.
- Care for Ourselves and Others Through This Stressful Time. Recognize our own natural stress responses that come with this intergenerational trauma that comes with unhealthy Christianity that gets all wrapped up with toxic masculinity and white supremacy, etc., and work through our own stress cycles (and go to trauma therapy where we are able and have access) to deal with our own parts of the trauma.
- Be Reflexive About Bigger Patterns and Our Part in Them. Examine ourselves and our own traditions, whether we still consider ourselves part of them or not, for signs of unhealthy toxicity to be shifted to break the trauma cycles.
- Educate Yourself. That includes listening carefully to those who have been hurt by the bullies and the theological abuses in the church (BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+ folx, etc.) for help in diagnosing and healing these broader problems.
- Be a Witness to Fight Back Against Gaslighting. Write down these stories of what you’re learning about the toxic sides of things and how to heal them. Pass them on to others and to future generations. Keep the efforts going, friends!
There are more things, I’m sure. But this ought to give us something to be going on with, as the Brits say.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let us work to honestly and openly fight against the unhealthy intergenerational trauma patterns both in and outside of the Christian family, and may we keep working for a literally healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
Looking for more resources toward speaking up for what’s right and dealing with the conflict that results?
Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you. It actually helps you with conflict both online and off. To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. As soon as we feasibly can we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.