Let me be clear: The confusion is the point. Humans are meaning-making creatures, but this is not a story with a plot that tracks with our understanding of history, politics or shared reality. This story being told on our screens, and storming the nation’s capital, is about abolishing all other stories in a pile of garbage and lies.
The best way to understand what happened on Jan. 6 is to understand that the people’s anger and hatred expressed in mob outrage is the result of decades of fear that they are losing their central story about the world. To find out that whiteness and cartoonish masculinity are not, in fact, divinely sanctioned as superior is a hard lesson for many. To have installed a broken man who embodies this broken story as our national leader, well that is a perfect recipe for the whole pot to boil over.
“To have installed a broken man who embodies this broken story as our national leader, well that is a perfect recipe for the whole pot to boil over.”
Roots in toxic masculinity
Cruelty is the point of this movement. Pain and suffering are the point. This is the work of propaganda and old racial grievances, of lost boys of the South and simple folks caught up in a wildfire bigger than their momentary anger. This is also and crucially the embodiment of online toxic masculinity.
It is impossible to understand this moment without a working knowledge of, which gave rise to the modern alt-right, which gave rise to our current national leadership operating like thugs out in the open. If you don’t know about meme-warfare, then you are as helpless to defend your mind from the chaos as a soldier with a pillow for a shield.
Facebook/Twitter/Reddit and 24-hour news have rotted our souls and trapped many of our friends and family in conspiracies and fantasy worlds. Have you ever read though a men’s alt-right message board? Don’t! But I have, and it is a dark place of loneliness, anger and violence. Rape jokes and self-hatred are normal discourse, often mixed in the same messages. It is a place of profound brokenness, and its high priests are coming out of the shadows of online culture and into the streets.
That is why so many of the images from the mob riot looked like goofy play acting with men dressed in animal skin and Viking hats. It is toxic gamification of culture, and this is just one more move as the mob approaches the Final Boss Level. Except in this ideology, the final goal is to give permission and a mandate to dominate anyone seen as inferior.
“It is toxic gamification of culture, and this is just one more move as the mob approaches the Final Boss Level.”
So women and people of color will be first, as will sexual minorities and the disabled. Same targets for those who have made hatred and loneliness their religion across time. The Bible would use the language of widows, orphans and strangers.
This dominating culture is deeply influential in our military and police forces, those we charge with the power of life and death in our country. This is partly about white grievance, but also is about class prejudice and gendered hatred. This ideology is also very influential in evangelical Christianity.
The price of avoiding ‘politics’
Let me be clear again: There is no goal but chaos and suffering. It is people in deep pain turning that pain outward to their neighbors rather than heal the wounds at the source. Our inability to speak clearly about this is part of the problem. Well-meaning Christians drew a big red line around the topic of “politics” in Christian discourse, silencing wisdom and discernment in the process.
Give me a break. Political realities are all through the Bible, because politics is really about how we self-organize in complex societies. Of course the church of Jesus Christ has something to say about that, often as a voice of conscience spoken into a system built upon sins and brokenness.
Love responds with light
In these days, we must not confuse merely being nice and polite with showing love. Now is the time for precise speech about the state of things, which is always the first step in God’s story. While we were yet sinners … that kind of thing.
“In these days, we must not confuse merely being nice and polite with showing love.”
Did we forget that sin sits so close to the bone for our shared humanity? It is part of who we are, and when our brothers and sisters run up into the halls of power to make a mockery out of those they deem enemies, we would be foolish not to see it for what it is: Sin spilling off of screens and into the real world, with all the attending chaos and violence often found in sin’s wake.
Jan. 6, a new date our kids and grandkids will study in history textbooks — assuming there is still a shared understanding of history in our future — was not just the day of clumsy insurrection, but also the day when Christians celebrate Epiphany. That’s right, Epiphany, the day we remember that the light of Christ burst into our world with its clarifying luster — which is to say, Jan. 6 is the day we recognize that God has invited us to see more clearly so that we may act more justly.
While Christians around the world celebrated the light of Christ, here at home many of our own fellow citizens brought down the lights and let loose the monsters that thrive in the shadows of sin and brokenness.
And we all have a share of the blame.
“God is calling us into a much larger family of reconciliation than we first thought.”
Not just those who continue to support the mad king, but also those of us who have sat in churches for years while a soft version of this broken story was peddled in side conversations and fears of slippery slopes if we allowed a new story to emerge. The new story trying to emerge is actually a deeper realization of the gospel, that God is calling us into a much larger family of reconciliation than we first thought.
This never has been an easy project, which is why Jesus always talks about the struggle that will arise from such a vision of the world. The Evil One, the spirit of the air, the powers and principalities, the father of lies (take your pick of titles) is categorically against our salvation. And our salvation necessitates a concern for the salvation of our brothers and sisters across the painful lines of difference.
There is a quote from Martin Luther that was shared with me this week that I find helpful: “Toward those who have been misled, we are to show ourselves parentally affectionate, so that they may perceive that we seek not their destruction but their salvation.”
Speak clearly about pain
So we will not demonize our lost brothers and sisters, but we will speak clearly about all that has been lost in their violence and anger.
And most importantly, we will not ignore the specific pain and trauma of those most targeted by the violent rhetoric and outright physical threat presented in this new movement of hatred and fear.
The last image I saw from Washington, D.C., on Wednesday was of a noose the mob had fashioned out of cords stolen from journalists. I say that to remind all of us that these images affect people differently, and as much as I would love to tell you all to turn off the news and go be with people you love, this week has brought trauma to many of us, especially our friends and families of color. Confederate flags were flown across the Capitol hours after Georgia elected its first Black senator, a pastor from the church of Martin Luther King Jr.
“These events are not disconnected, and politics never is morally neutral.”
These events are not disconnected, and politics never is morally neutral. Our national sins are all wrapped up in our official structures and institutions, and our collective wounds have not healed.
Race and belonging
A few weeks back, a group from our church concluded an extended study on race and belonging. In that study we were able to bear witness to the stories of pain and trauma that our friends of color carry in their hearts and bodies. These wounds from living in a country steeped in racism are not a theory; they are sitting next to you in the pews on Sundays.
Please do not turn away and pretend this is an overreaction or an isolated incident. This is an apocalypse and is unveiling the world as it really is. Our church family is pleading for us to pay attention and stand with them in the struggle for justice and healing. But we have to be honest about the state of things.
I am not saying that everyone who voted for the mad king is full of this violent anger and fear. But I am saying that a sizable group of fellow citizens have moved into a cultish stage of loyalty that threatens the stability of our nation and the safety of our more vulnerable brothers and sisters. So as Christians, we are commanded to pray for and work for their salvation, which means their sins must be named and rebuked (especially the sin of racial domination, toxic masculinity and white supremacy). But these are still and must be understood to be children of God as well.
Do not allow your anger to turn to hatred. Do not become another home for the Evil One in your reactions to evil. Be sons and daughters of light, illuminating the truth of our world and the power of God to save us still.
The complacency of the comfortable
And do not allow yourself the complacency of the comfortable. We have real sins to name and resist and real pain to heal within our own church family. I have spoken to many of our congregation this week, felt their wounds from this rise in racism and desires for domination. I am sorry, and we will not turn away from their pain or cries for justice and recompense.
“There is no real healing without repentance.”
There is no real healing without repentance, and our institutions have to lead in this honest appraisal as well. So in the weeks and years to come, we will stand firmly in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, loving one another fiercely and compassionately. I will invite our congregation into some hard conversations, born from love and filled with grace for the difficulty of all we must reconsider about how we understand one another.
Beyond all this, I will continue to invite the church into the worship of God — together — as a way to reorient our community toward the gospel that refines and redefines our affections. I will keep reminding us all that there is nothing to fear save God, and that death already has been defeated in Christ. We are to live as free people, free to love and free to speak the truth love requires.
John Jay Alvaro serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.