The seventh hearing of the congressional committee investigating the sedition at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was much about violence: who did it, who encouraged it, who knew it was coming yet did not intervene.
“The crucial thing is the next step: What this committee, what all of us, will do to fortify our democracy against coups, political violence,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) toward the end of the hearing. Political violence, he said, is “the problem of the whole country now.”
Raskin is far from alone in raising alarm about the possibility of political violence—seeking political ends through violent means instead of normal, peaceful processes like voting, running for office, lobbying, or protest.
“We know from other countries that have descended into really serious political violence that this is a trajectory, and we’re on it,” researcher Rachel Kleinfeld warned in a Washington Post article Monday. “We’re actually pretty far advanced on it.”
Kleinfeld said we could see rising right-wing militia violence as well as violence from a “disaffected left.” She ominously projected that the “percentages of Americans endorsing violence are approaching Northern Ireland’s Troubles at their height in 1973.”
(The scale of this kind of political violence can vary widely, from an individual’s attack to a revolution, but the Troubles are a good example of what many anticipate happening in the US—“episodes of violence were largely localized, and in the background” yet normal life continued though “everyone was more fearful and depressed.”)
There’s reason to be skeptical of the survey results she’s likely referencing; for example, some who may tell a pollster “violence against the other party [is] at least a little okay” may also be far from willing to commit such violence themselves.
But “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). There’s no denying Kleinfeld’s point that Americans’ political rhetoric and animosity has worsened in recent years. Maybe Kleinfeld is right that we “need to realize that paramilitary groups could become a normal part of our political life.” Maybe political violence is on the way. Christians should have nothing to do with it.
You might believe that goes without saying, but there are two reasons I think it needs to be explicitly stated.
One is due to the current reputation of American evangelicals in much of mainstream media. Pundits and experts warning about the risk of right-wing political violence often include a mention of Christianity, Christian nationalism, and/or white evangelicals. Kleinfeld, for instance, argued that Russia is giving “a White, Christian, traditional hierarchy, very masculine, led by a strongman” model of politics, which is attractive to some on the antidemocratic US right.
This association makes sense to many Americans because of the proliferation of Christian symbolism among the crowd that stormed the Capitol, the record-high support former President Donald Trump consistently received from self-described evangelicals, and the Christian nationalist rhetoric from Republican figures like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. If this is not how we want our compatriots to think of us, unequivocally rejecting political violence is a good place to start.
The second reason is that I worry American Christians’ conception of acceptable political violence is too much shaped by our history and beliefs as Americans—particularly our understanding of the American Revolution as a laudable example of political violence—and not enough shaped by what Jesus taught about violence while living in a society with a far more brutal government than our own.
With Fourth of July festivities wound down, consider what we’re celebrating in the Revolution. There are serious complaints in the Declaration of Independence, but taxation was a prominent concern—without representation, yes, but also at declining rates we would now find laughably low. Is that a good enough reason for Christians to kill Christians?
That’s a lot of what the Revolution was, after all: Christians killing Christians over political issues. And maybe with hindsight of more than two centuries we judge it a positive outcome. Or maybe—examining the ability of other ex-British colonies to gain independence without war, or even the history of England’s abolition of slavery compared to our own—we don’t.
I could talk myself in circles on the subject, but I can’t come around to saying it was right for Christians to kill other Christians over tax rates. I can’t come around to it because I can’t square it with what Jesus said about violence, especially in the Sermon on the Mount:
I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. … You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:38–41, 43–45)
Christians have debated the implications of these verses and others like them (John 18:36; Rom. 12:17–21; Eph. 6:12) for millennia, and I know my conviction that Jesus here is calling us to nonviolence isn’t universally shared among faithful followers of Christ.
For a long time, I didn’t share it either. I believed the pacifist interpretation to be too strange and hard and impractical. Eventually, however, I concluded Jesus had already spoken plainly; it was simply a command I did not want to hear. And an important realization, as I changed my thinking, was that Jesus was speaking in a violent political context.
We use “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile” metaphorically to describe interpersonal strife. Jesus used them literally, speaking to an audience at real risk of physical abuse by an occupying power—in fact, a government that did not offer them any of the outlets for peaceful political expression we have available to us.
There’s a lot wrong with our government and politics, but by global and historical standards, we enjoy remarkably free, functional, and democratic governance. If Jesus told his original hearers to eschew violence in favor of peaceful, surprising, and potentially self-sacrificial behavior, how much more should that command apply to us?
In that light, even if you interpret these verses differently than I do, perhaps you can see the gap between what the American Revolution says about political violence and what Jesus says about it. And if we can’t see that gap, or if we find ourselves spinning scenarios in which we’d be justified doing violence over politics—harming our neighbors and hating our enemies because we did not get the president or policy we wanted—perhaps our minds have been conformed to the Revolution more than the mind of Christ (Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 2:14–16).
Perhaps political violence is indeed coming to America, but it should not be by Christian hands.