I believe that conventional American Christian theology bears much of the responsibility for the takeover of the Capitol building by Trump’s cult followers last week. I make this claim not as someone antagonistic to Christianity, or against religion in general, but as an ordained Christian minister actively serving a church.
The central metaphor of conventional Christianity is God as an absolute monarch. His primary activity (I say “His” because God is always a male in this strain of theology) is the establishment of laws. In this worldview, humans are subjects to the King, and the primary measure of our value is obedience. In conventional Christianity, God does not need to be consistent, coherent or explain His dictates. He simply must be obeyed and worshipped. Of course, since most people do not hear personal instructions from King God, there must be intermediaries. Priests and pastors take the role of directing subjects on behalf of God, by way of either hearing from God themselves or interpreting the rulebook, also known as the Bible.
Many liberals are understandably confused as to how a self-styled “law and order” demagogue effectively flaunted laws and encouraged violent disorder. If it appears inconsistent, guess what … it is! In the same way that megalomanic preachers pay lip service to the Bible while using it to advance self-aggrandizing agendas they concoct, Trump speaks of law and order and the Constitution while grabbing wildly for more power.
Monarchical theology is ultimately not about honoring the law, but about obedience to the law-giver. The only ethic is submission. To be valid, you must simply demonstrate fealty to the will of the monarch. Such a theology offers its adherents the psychological benefit of feeling justified and confident that they are good. It tells them what to do, which in a world of too many options can feel deeply comforting. As the supervillain, Loki, says in the first Avengers film, “I come with glad tidings, of a world made free [from] freedom!” This theology has a sinister appeal made more alluring when you find that you are failing to receive what your culture has promised you (in the case of American capitalism, those promises are wealth, happiness and celebrity).
Yet, I remain a member of the clergy and follow this path, because there are theological alternatives. Rev. Warnock, a newly elected senator from Georgia, is an iconic example of this. He carries forward the tradition of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose pulpit he now occupies. In their combination of Christian mysticism and Black liberation theology, God’s primary identity is not power itself, but rather love itself. This Divine Love is not a passive emotion, which MLK called “sentimental bosh,” but a force that has personal and political dimensions. This Divine Love stands against oppression and repression, and thus politically it is embodied by toppling tyrants from their thrones and filling up those whom society has deemed lowly. May we in the church be increasingly bold in denouncing a gospel of coercive power and brave in proclaiming a gospel of emancipatory love.
Rev. John Helmiere is the convener of Valley & Mountain in South Seattle.
Read more of the Jan. 13-19, 2021 issue.