If you dropped onto this planet somewhere in America in the past few years and learned about what it means to be Christian or Catholic-Christian strictly from what you saw from vocal national church leaders and from church-aligned media, you might draw some conclusions about the nature and purpose of Christianity and the Church.
You might believe Jesus is American, white, patriotic, a Republican. You might think He came to Earth to bring an end to abortion and gay marriage, to provide low taxes for the wealthy, second amendment protections, and a consolidation of power at the highest levels.
If you’d never experienced Jesus through the Holy Spirit, or an encounter with the Scriptures or the Sacraments, or the kindness and charity of some of His friends, if you never heard the relatively quieter voices that are doing the hard work of reminding people who Jesus really is according to the Gospels, you might think the ‘Jesus Saves’ signs you saw at that horrific attack on the Capitol yesterday were about Jesus saving the election for Trump, or about saving a particular idea of America, and you’d be right because that’s what those signs were made for, which is tragic and sad and shameful. Because what if you didn’t know that the thing Jesus actually came to save was souls; yours, mine and theirs. What if you didn’t know how humble Jesus is, how self-sacrificial, how loving and kind, and what if you might never get to know the real Jesus if this perversion is the loudest image of the Church you ever see.
Someone who reads or sees incendiary, hateful, partisan commentary on “religious” websites and feeds could think that the message of Christianity, the Gospel even, is about political ends in this one country on the planet in this time. That the cross is a symbol you bring to a riot, and that “good news” equals the hope that Trump will win a second term even after he lost the election, even though it’s been certified, proven, and done, over and over. Someone could believe that’s the point of who we are as ambassadors of Christ, and how terrifying is that.
Maybe someone sees that American priest who used an exorcism rite in order to sway this lost election back into Trump’s favor, asking God to disenfranchise millions of voters and they think that’s the purpose of a religious ritual. Maybe they hear the many American priests and bishops who wrote and spoke and prayed for that very thing – the miracle they all longed for while ignoring the material and spiritual needs of the flock during a pandemic and racial injustice – and they believe that any twisted road the Church takes to accomplish that goal is a means to a “higher” end.
When I saw the ‘Jesus Saves’ signs at that criminal attack on the Capitol yesterday, it made my stomach turn, because though I see how these people have been manipulated and I have confidence in my own rooted faith, I know that for generations of people who have struggled with the church or who don’t know the beauty that can come from a faith practice, the damage these extreme right-wing voices are doing is like a sledgehammer to the institutional church they profess to love. And more dangerously, these forces of darkness are making it nearly impossible for scores of people to ever return, or trust or seek God through the church because they see the hate, the hypocrisy, and the disordered priorities, but they do not see God. There’s nothing here to attract people or bring them in, none of what the Apostle Paul called the fragrance of Christ. And how do we recover from this chasm? How do we find our way now?
When my kids saw examples of “faith people” doing unflattering or hypocritical things in the name of the church, I’d tell them “that’s not the kind of Catholics/Christians we are.” I’d talk about the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who healed and forgave, who spoke respectfully to women and children, who told his followers to lay down their weapons, who brought in a wide array of people into the family of God. I’d point them toward modern-day people of faith who were serving the needy, who emphasized care for our brothers and sisters as a way to live out the faith we profess. I’d tell them we’re the kind of Christians who love and serve, and not the kind who excludes, or at least we try not to be.
But what of the people who need God now, today, in this country that’s on fire and they no longer know where to look for Him. As the country and the world look on at a Confederate flag next to a ‘Jesus Saves’ sign next to a large wooden cross next to a hangman’s noose on a beam at the US Capitol, these symbols can blend into one hideous narrative. Some will find these symbols synonymous, part of a shared language of “Christianity” and wonder who would ever want any part of this hateful, racist group of people who have made God into their own ugly image? Who would want any part of this heretical caricature of God? I wouldn’t.
There will be so many issues to tackle in America in the upcoming days and weeks and months, but for me the broken witness of the American church is a big one. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know how we begin to heal from this time, there is so much damage. God help us as we look for the light.