How did we get here?
A few years ago, I started studying deaths of despair: drug overdoses, suicides, extremist violence, mass violence, gang violence. I wanted to know what draws people to these awful ends. And whether it was those who work in gang intervention programs or those who work with people trying to leave white supremacist groups, there’s a set of common themes. People – all of us – need to feel like we are safe, that we belong, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that our lives have purpose. If we can’t see those things in our current life, we either try to numb the pain of their absence (through addiction and suicide) or we look to cast our lot with those who promise a semblance of belonging and purpose, no matter how warped those semblances may be (gangs, extremist groups). And, generally, those groups that can’t offer an authentic community, can’t offer a positive sense of belonging and purpose, will define themselves as opponents of some great evil. If we can’t be sure of what we are for, we will pound the table about what we are against.
I get the sense that those that stormed the Capitol on January 6 included some people for whom this is their story: people who felt lost and excluded until they connected with others who resonated with a message of grievance and created a bandwagon of triumphalism that felt good to jump on. Some had been fighting against their perceived mortal enemies for years, and some were new to the cause. But the lack of meaning so many of us see in our lives, and the loneliness so many of us feel, disappeared for a while in those people who gathered to hear the President in person and join him in descending on the Capitol to fight his fight.
Those people were there, but they weren’t the most troubling elements of the crowd for me. What I have been wrestling to understand is this: how can people with whom I share a common faith in Jesus Christ consider a seditious cause to be part and parcel of that faith? And if I can see the motes in their eyes that blind them to the idolatry of their allegiance, what logs block my own vision?
Anthropologists and sociologists have long established that, since we lived in tribes, institutionalized religion has played a role in legitimizing the political, economic, cultural, social and moral order of societies by bestowing divine authority upon the society’s leaders and the mores, ethics and norms of the culture. This happens in remote tribes today and in those of ancient history, and this has happened through the history of the developed world. Those who lead the religious institutions and those who lead the other major institutions may not nefariously conspire to dupe the masses, but for any of a range of motives, be they prudence and security or ego and power-lust, societies hold at their center a religion that sanctifies the “good life” as defined in that culture by communicating that it is not only “a” good life, it is “the” holy life. Religions set the rules for who is in and who is out of the circle of acceptance; who has sex with, marries, and has children with whom; what is good business and what is immoral; what people do with their time; what they wear; how they structure their days and weeks and lives; and what it means to be alive. They don’t define these norms alone, so much as they bless the norms of those who lead that society.
Religions playing this role communicate an ultimacy and eternity to the moral decisions of a community, even if the same professed religion endorses different ways of being in different societies or times. Even so, what the authoritative religion dictates in your community feels like a universal norm that has existed forever.
This is a weird role for Christianity to play, because at its heart, it is a subversive faith. Jesus was an outcast from the beginning to the end of his life. He did not hold or even seek temporal power. His actions and words supported extending the circle of acceptance to those explicitly deemed unacceptable by the culture and religion of the day. His teachings were to love those outside the ring of the lovable as the highest form of worship. And he was executed at the instigation of the official religious leaders. His early followers met much the same fate, for centuries, until Emperor Constantine’s conversion at the end of the 4th century and the transformation of Christianity from outcast cult to state religion.
It’s a weird role for Americans to embrace. The earliest European settlers in the American colonies were religious outcasts, sent here to flee persecution from their countries of origin. This acceptance of outcast religions included not only the Protestant offshoots that first settled but subsequent waves of Catholics and others; even the Latter Day Saints, formed in America, followed the same path as an outcast faith fleeing into the wilderness. And yet each of them, in their sphere, became institutional religions that played the role that anthropologists predicted.
Since the mid-20th Century, America has been undergoing a radical change that has largely undermined the traditional culture that American Christianity legitimized. The racial hierarchy has been exposed as fundamentally immoral; the sanctity of marriage has been eroded by the rise of divorce; the definition of gender and sexual roles has dissolved into fluidity; the economy has shifted from male-dominated industry to an information economy that requires entirely different skill sets; and the fastest growing religious affiliation is “none”.
If the Christianity you were raised in was the American Christianity that sang God Bless America in church on national holidays, the one that believed America was the shining city on the hill, the one that told men to be manly and women to be submissive, the one that, yes, did not consider people of color worthy of equal footing, then what you see in our culture today looks a lot like godlessness.
For traditional American Christians, who have been raised in allegiance with political and economic and cultural norms that put the church in the center of town until the 1950s and 60s, the choice has been to fight for the resurgence of a cultural Christianity known most for bringing back the hegemony of traditional norms, or to give up the myth of ultimacy, eternity and legitimacy of those norms. For many believers of traditional American Christianity, the core of identity is a thick one that includes not just professing the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed but also the supremacy of traditional American life. To call one part of that culture into question is to call the entirety of identity, faith first and foremost, into question. And that isn’t tolerable.
Many of the people who stormed the Capitol will likely say that they were not loners and lost before joining the Trumpist movement. They will say their participation in MAGA culture is the logical continuation of a life devoted to Jesus Christ, as defined by institutional American Christianity. They see in Trump a rare voice clamoring for the elements of traditional life that are part of their institutionally thick core of identity. And whether you agree with their moral assessment, you can see how, if faith is interwoven into a tapestry of cultural norms like theirs, the fraying of the tapestry looks a lot like an attack on their faith.
It’s said that Whoopi Goldberg, when asked who she most admired, said Pope Francis, “because he’s going with the original program.”
I learned this from listening to Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, the nation’s largest gang intervention program. That makes sense in a lot of ways.
Throughout the history of Christianity, there’s been a dance, a dialectic, between playing the role that anthropologists predict and remembering the subversive nature of the “original program.” The outcast Christianity of the first few centuries wasn’t lost when Constantine created the Holy Roman Empire; it endured at the fringes, in powerful and quirky ways. The Desert Fathers and Mothers and other groups of hermits. Religious orders like the Franciscans and Jesuits, many of which sought to reform the institutional church by bringing it back to “the original program.” The Reformation (before the descendants of the Reformers were similarly suckered into establishing institutional religions). And renewal programs ever since. The through line on these subversive, radical reinterpretations of Christianity was and is to pull away all the institutional thickness that comes with a religion’s role in carrying the weight of legitimizing a society and to restore that essential thread that made “the original program” such a threat to the status quo:
God is Love. We are broken but loved beyond measure. Our calling is to love God and each other, especially those outside the bounds of acceptability. And everything else in our lives is subject to the test of whether it assists or impedes us in refining our ability to love as God loves.
That Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope, and the first from the periphery of the new world, preaching a message that even from Whoopi’s distance looks clearly like the original program, explains a lot about the opposition he’s encountered from those whose core is thick with commitment to the institution of the Roman Catholic Church.
All of us who claim allegiance to the Trinitarian God are idolaters in practice. We all have things we tack on to the simple purity of a God of unrelenting, all-including Love. We all say we put God first, but have parts of our lives that, when push comes to shove, we wouldn’t let go if God asked us to, and we wouldn’t keep God without. When we believe that God would never make that ask, we are, if we’re honest, shoving those lesser loves into the God-shaped part of our hearts, rather than letting them play the role for which they were intended.
I can tell you until I’m blue in the face that my love for April and Betsy is a training ground, a practice field for learning to love like God loves that stretches me to get better at willing the good of the other. But if I lost April or Betsy, would I also lose God? I know the correct answer, but I can’t promise I’d choose it. And my temptation to say that God would never ask for that choice belies the experience of many widows and widowers. Go read the book of Job.
There is daylight between even the best thing in your life and the love of God, and until you can sit peacefully with that fact and appreciate that daylight, you still have work to do, just as I do. It’s been said that we spend the first half of our life pulling together the elements that make it our life, and the second half of our life learning how to hold those elements so loosely that we’re ready to let them go when it’s time. That loose-holding is what distinguishes true love from domination, and it applies to everything on this side of heaven. That is the original program that drives people into the wilderness, the original program that makes us say, as believers in The Way, to any politics and country and economy and culture that you are good to the extent that you help us learn to love, but you aren’t God.
We have failed, we American Christians, in not giving people that news at the outset. We have allowed the lure of security, access and power to lull us into silence when God becomes God+. God+Country. God+Culture. God+Church. God+Politics. And in doing so, we have allowed believing brothers and sisters to wander even farther off the past than we are by celebrating causes that offer mirages of purpose and belonging instead of the original program.
I don’t know how it got this far. I don’t know if or how we turn the ship. But as with all change, it starts within, by examining our own consciences, by eliminating all that blinds us from the truth of the original program, by reminding each other that we’re not here to be allegiant to a religious institution and the culture it legitimizes but to love the seemingly unlovable as God does.
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