Two Days after the Insurrection at Capitol Hill: Brief Reflections

I’m usually not one for “hot takes,” because often these hot takes merely fall back into intrenched perspectives, surface-level reasoning, and unhelpful trashing of the people and ideas we already don’t like. I was reading a newsletter by the Trinity Forum today that reminded me that hot takes are often at the expense of deep and thoughtful exploration into truth.

That being said, I’ve got some thoughts I’d like to share before they become too stale: reflections on the reactions to what happened on Capitol Hill two days ago. I’ve got a feeling these thoughts aren’t going to win me many friends.

I’ve always disliked Trump and hated much of what he says and stands for. I’ve always been wary of his claims to Christianity, and I’ve been appalled at how many prominent Christian thinkers, leaders, and theologians have bent over backwards to defend him these last 4 years. I never voted for him, but I also didn’t want his opponents to take office, and I was grateful for those thoughtful and sincere Christians and conservatives who thought through the issues and voted for the candidate they believed would do a better job leading the country and supporting good policies, even if I didn’t ever feel comfortable voting for him. Most of the people I know who voted for Trump did so “holding their noses” and saddened that he was their best choice. I never faulted them for voting for him, and I often faulted those who voted for Hillary and Biden simply because they hated Trump, even if the policies of his opponents were antithetical to what they said they believed. I also faulted those who voted for Trump because they loved him and put their hope in him to fight the culture wars and win battles for the church.

Often I even felt a little ashamed that perhaps I was being hypocritical: if asked who I wanted to win between Hillary and Trump or Biden and Trump, I would have said Trump, and of course for that to happen millions of people needed to vote for him; but I was never willing to vote for him myself because I didn’t trust him, I didn’t think his approach to leading was good, I thought he was a fool who was mostly loyal to himself and not the country, I was concerned with how many military leaders and former staff denounced him, and I didn’t want to feel responsible for all the bad things he did and might do. On some days, I think it was wise to not vote for him; on other days I wondered if I was just a hypocritical coward.

But in the end, I don’t think many of us thought what happened at Capitol Hill would ever happen. Even we who were very wary of him and disliked him and who were quite concerned with the growing conspiracy theories, election challenging, and the recent and ridiculous Jericho March–I don’t think we ever thought a Trump rally/election protest would turn into an insurrection. Some, of course, might stop me right there and question whether it was an insurrection. We could quibble over words, but my later points will show why we need to view it that way.

Some might say that it was willful ignorance that made this such a surprise. Many people had been warning that Trump could incite wide-spread violence because of his baseless election claims. I’ll leave it to the many other voices to talk about how this confirms their fear of the far-Right, how this shows why Trump was a horrible person who should have been impeached, why conspiracy theories are so dangerous, why this justifies social media censorship, etc. etc. Since so many others are talking about that, I thought I’d go in a different direction and talk about how the gut-shot reactions to this event reveal a lot of what’s right and wrong about our current cultural moment.

People’s initial response to this reveals a lot about the lens through which they read events. Here are three primary responses I’ve seen in both my friends and the media at large.

Being appalled, shocked, angry, disappointed, and concerned. The vast majority of people I know took to social media or communicated with friends and family to denounce what happened, ask for prayers for our country, called out the violence and wickedness, and generally grieved over what happened on Capitol Hill. In the end, I think this was the proper response to have and I wish more people would recognize that the overwhelming majority of Christians quickly condemned these actions and refused to defend them. Very few Christian leaders tried to defend this. In fact, I’ve seen very few Christian leaders supporting much of what Trump has said or done since the election. Instead, it seems that many anti-Trumpers preferred to let the crosses and Jesus Saves signs at the Capital Hill riot inform their opinion about what most Christians think about Trump and what happened. Something about wolves in sheep’s clothing and tares among wheat must have slipped by them. People prefer to see what they want to see, and even though the greater Christian response has been one of grief and faithfulness, a lot of people are using this as an excuse to talk about how “the church” failed again and how this is ruining the Christian witness, etc. etc.

This is another example of something I’ve been seeing so much of the last few years: confirmation bias. People–even a lot of sincere Christians–want to think that the vast majority of evangelical Christians are becoming Christian nationalists, racists, and Trump-loving MAGA Gospel apostles. That’s simply not true and it never has been. There is a powerful minority of vocal Christian leaders–some of whom are completely delusional, such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and Eric Metaxas, and many of whom are “leaders” but not pastors who have become far too caught up in politics rather than the work of the Gospel–who have gone full-board on Trumpism; but it’s not the majority. The majority of evangelical, Gospel-loving, conservative Christians and pastors, and writers have been deeply uncomfortable with Trump, denounced a lot of what he’s said and done, and have wrestled with their political affiliations, particularly after what’s happened this year. They might have voted for him; they might support some of his policies; they might be deeply concerned with what’s happening in Progressivism right now. But they are not Christian nationalists, racists, or Trumpers. And most Christians have quickly rejected wholesale what happened at Capitol Hill.

Another common response I’ve seen among conservatives is downplaying, blame-shifting, or silence. It’s amazing that I’ve seen some people take what happened as an opportunity to blame Antifa, BLM, and Progressives. Either they actually believe that the people who broke into the Capitol Building were Antifa dressed as MAGA Trumpers–which there is no evidence for–or they say that this kind of violence was normalized by the riots this summer and therefore the progressive Left is to blame. Even Doug Wilson said this: “All the conservatives who condemned this last year’s rioting in Minneapolis, and Portland, and Kenosha, and other places, have the right to condemn this as well—as many of them have, and as do I. John Knox once condemned a rioting crowd, rioters on his side, as that ‘rascal multitude.’ Genuine conservatives have the right and the responsibility to condemn this kind of thing, as we most certainly do. But if you are a supporter of BLM, or any other of those ‘mostly peaceful’ protests, you have a moral obligation to shut up, sit down, and contemplate the new order you have helped to usher in. You cannot normalize violence as a standard tool for politics, and then be shocked when others take you up on your standing invitation. Welcome to the world you have created for us all.”

While I’m sympathetic to some of what Wilson is saying–I’m glad he’s condemning what happened and he’s right that we have seen political violence by progressives, particularly this summer–this is just another form of blame-shifting. The Jericho Marching, Conspiracy-worshipping, Rightwing political extremists are dangerous and we’ve seen that they’re willing to cross too many lines for their own political agenda. Writing an article about BLM and saying they’re partially to blame deflects from some of the real problems going on right now on the political Right, and it robs us of the opportunity to fully absorb what’s going on in broader society. Time may come to trace out how progressive political tactics have fueled Rightwing anger or how people who didn’t condemn the summer violence are hypocrites for condemning the Capitol Hill violence. But now is not that time. All this blame-shifting does is make it more difficult for all of us to see what happened for what it was: a catastrophic moment in U.S. political history, a terrible end to the Trump presidency, a clarion call for people to rethink their approach to politics, and a signal to the world that the U.S. is falling apart. This was an example of how ideas and words and lies have consequences. It doesn’t mean there isn’t blame to go around, but it does mean that in order to fully come to terms with the significance of an action, we need to take a long and hard look at it before we start looking around for others to blame.

A third common response I’ve seen is similar to the second, but by those who are sympathetic to BLM and progressivism. It was amazing how quickly people used what happened to score political points against conservatives, Trumpers, and those who condemned the summer violence in Portland, Minnesota, and other cities. Here are some examples of what’s become a trend:

Jemar Tisby: “Don’t miss the religious elements of what’s happening at the Capitol. They said, ‘Critical Race Theory is the biggest threat.’ What they’re showing us is that Christian Nationalism is and has been the biggest threat not only to Christianity in the US but to democracy as well.”

Thabiti Anyabwile: “When people marched in the streets this summer, they marched to make laws more just and equitable. When folks stormed the Capitol in insurrection, they trampled over the very citadel of law in a ‘revolution’ that would destroy it. Do not equate these aims.” (Later, he clarified that he was only talking about the “aims” of the two groups, not the violence; but I’ll discuss why what he said is still misguided).

There are plenty of others who are saying similar things. This kind of political opportunism is quite problematic. For one, it’s a non sequitur. Both Christian Nationalism and CRT are dangerous and problematic ideologies; both MAGA Trumpers and BLM are dangerous political groups. And they both have been used to justify and promote violence. This kind of dichotomous thinking–that if one ideology or political group is wrong and dangerous then the opposite is in the right or is better–is logically flawed and morally dangerous.

Second, it’s moving the goal-posts. In the end, what made the condemnation of CRT and BLM so loud over the last few months was because of the violence in the name of these movements and ideologies. If there hadn’t been violence (this year and past years), then CRT could have been just one of many ideologies that are questioned and debated among scholars and students and Christians; and BLM would have been just one political group that some people supported and others didn’t. It’s the fruit of these ideas and groups that has caused such a loud outcry against the ideologies. This is also why many people weren’t as quick to denounce or as loud in their denunciation of the Jericho March-style Trumpism: while their ideas were bad and their rhetoric was foolish, they hadn’t incited the kinds of widespread violence that would motivate a loud and full-board denunciation. But now we have seen that violence, and, as you would expect, there has been a loud and proper denunciation. In the end, then, it’s never been as much about the aims and ideas as it has been about the actions and fruit of those aims and ideas. What the actions at the Capitol building showed us that we’ve got two huge threats and they both need to be dealt with.

So it doesn’t make any sense to relate what happened at Capitol Hill back to the criticisms of CRT, BLM, or the summer riots. They’re all wrong; they’re all bad; and no amount of focus on the “aims” should temper our denunciation of the actions.

* * *

But if we step back and look at the last two responses, we see that there’s a similar and destructive trend in both. I think Anyabwile’s tweet is a good example of what I’ve seen from both bad responses: the idea that beliefs and aims and words are more significant and have greater moral relevancy than actions. People are sympathetic to the cause and the beliefs of rioters and looters and insurrectionists, so they let them off the hook while fiercely condemning the other side. That’s dangerous.

It’s become commonplace that “ideas have consequences.” And that is certainly true. Those like Richard Weaver who sounded this alarm bell 60 years ago have shown us that the ideas that were once fringe ideologies in academia or in mountain hollers have captured the American imagination, been wielded by power-hungry pundits and politicians, and have led to disastrous consequences. But while ideas are important and do have consequences–actions are still paramount. Somehow along the way, we’ve been so focussed on the fact that dangerous ideas have dangerous consequences, we have forgotten to care about the consequences when our own ideas are shown to be disastrous.

So many people tried to justify what happened this summer because the stated “aims” and “reasons” and “ideas” were things they supported, such as justice and equity. And it didn’t appall them that the means many used to fight for justice was injustice, that the people they said they were fighting for were the very people who suffered the most because of the riots, that the means was the rotten fruit that came from bad roots. Many people tried to justify the violence in one of two ways: either saying the violence was actually caused by neo-Nazi agitators or the police–both of which claims are unsubstantiated by the evidence but that further the ideology; or by saying that sometimes justice and equity can only be achieved through looting and riots and violence. Clearly something is wrong when we care more about the morality of people’s aims and ideas and care less about the morality of people’s actions.

Similarly, many people are downplaying what happened at the Capitol Building because they’re angry about the election, they want Trump to stay in office, they feel like their political enemies are winning, or because they support Trump’s brand of Republicanism. But when Trump and Trumpism lead to an insurrection, there’s something clearly wrong with the ideology.

Some people reject the term insurrection, saying that what happened was wrong and unfortunate, but no one was intending to hurt anyone or overthrow the government so it shouldn’t be called an insurrection. But instead of looking at people’s intentions or words or ideas, let’s look at their actions. An insurrection is, by definition, “a violent uprising against an authority or government.” What happened the other day was a group of people violently breaking into our nation’s Capitol Building during Congressional session. Full Stop. That doesn’t happen in a civil society. That can’t happen in a civil society. To attempt that kind of thing or to justify or downplay that kind of thing is the very definition of moral, political, and social chaos. No amount of sympathy for a cause or an ideology or an idea can allow people to sugarcoat what someone has done, particularly when such an action is historically unprecedented and dangerous.

In the end, the responses by many people across the political spectrum is an example of what’s become a dangerous trend: people’s actions don’t matter to the public opinion; it’s only what they believe and what they say that has any moral relevancy. This is why people who have done so much social good for people of color can be cancelled and fired for a tweet that some people deemed racially insensitive. This is why the Governor of New York can send elderly people to their deaths by sending them back into Covid-infested nursing homes but rise in popularity because he says the right thing on television. This is why pastors who have done phenomenal Gospel work and planted hundreds of churches can be denounced and called dangerous to the church because they hold views on racism that seem a little too “liberal.”

Words are cheap. People’s ideas change. People’s aim and intentions are often inconsistent with their actions. If there is any hope for order and goodwill to be regained in our society, we need to start by measuring a man by his deeds, not his words or ideologies, aims or intentions. For by our deeds we will be judged. And woe to you hypocrites.

* * *

Addendum: Since initially posting, I’ve heard a few legitimate critiques that I’ll briefly respond to. The first is that intentions and ideas do matter when determining the morality of an action. This is why we have a distinction between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree murder for instance. Related to this, some argue that what the BLM movement stands for and the problems the summer riots were fighting against is far more legitimate and important than whatever the Trumpers were rioting about on Capitol Hill.

As to the first point, I agree. Intentions and ideas do matter, but they a secondary moral calculation–actions are primary. For example, the mass killing in the crusades weren’t more justified because the stated ideology was the expansion of Christ’s kingdom. It’s the actions that matter far more than the stated aims and intentions. This is particularly the case when evaluating a group action. While on an individual level, we can have greater sympathy and understanding with someone who gets caught up in an idea or a delusion or a just cause and goes too far. We still condemn his action but maybe are more understanding of the root reasons behind it. But when evaluating a group action, we must focus on the action first and foremost and refuse to let the idea or aim or intention infringe on our ability to evaluate the action. Stated reasons and aims are often a cover for bad actors, power struggles, and self-justified violence. And as a society, we must resist the temptation to let bad actors and evil actions off the hook because we are sympathetic to their cause.

This bleeds into the second critique. While it’s true that one group has more legitimate things it’s fighting for than the other group, that’s not really the point. Both actions are bad and spending time arguing about which was worse or who had better ideas behind those actions detracts from the fact that we cannot tolerate these actions and we must not turn them into political fights.

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