A recent poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution discovered that religious Americans are alarmingly supportive of the idea of using physical violence to settle the nation’s political disputes—most prominent among them being white evangelicals.
Support for political violence has risen among every religious group in the last two years. In 2021, 24% of white evangelicals agreed that because “things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” In 2023, that number is 33%.
Twenty-four percent of Black protestants support the idea of political violence, up from 12% in 2021. Roughly 20% of Catholics and 25% of mainline Protestants have also replied in the affirmative.
We have seen this impulse toward political violence among American Christians play out in real-time, perhaps most obviously through the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021.
As they laid siege to the U.S. Capitol Building, attacked law enforcement officials, and constructed a hangman’s gallows for then-vice president Mike Pence, many of the protesters were clad with Christian symbols on their clothing and flags. Some of them were even singing worship songs. Groups circled around to pray. In other words, the Christians at the Capitol saw what they were doing as the Christian thing to do. And if the data that has been gathered nearly three years later is to be trusted, more American Christians seem to agree with those protesters today than they did then.
This trend indicates a crisis of discipleship.
While Christians who attend a one-hour church service once or twice a month are considered by statisticians to be the most dedicated religious adherents, even the most casual social media user or cable news viewer intakes multiple hours of political content every week.
Because the creators of this content know that fear and outrage are what captivate the attention of audiences, keeping them tuned in, scrolling, commenting, and subscribing, political pundits must always find a new enemy to denounce—a new threat about which they can raise the alarm.
Usually, these enemies and threats are represented by someone who lives down the street from you but who holds slightly different policy stances than you. But rather than seeing these people as fellow Americans—or fellow humans, for that matter—our media convinces us that they are an existential threat to our country, they are “coming for our kids,” they hardly can be considered human.
The constant barrage of this type of content shapes our assumptions, provides scaffolding for our worldview, and forms us into a certain type of person. While hateful rhetoric is good for business, it’s bad for our souls. And when taken to its logical end, it is incredibly dangerous.
When cable news and social media doom scrolling become our liturgy, violence becomes our sacrament. This is not the way of Jesus.
I know this sounds like a radical idea to some, but the more closely we walk with Jesus, the more nonviolent we should become. Just think about what Jesus did when he came to the earth and walked among us.
During Jesus’ earthly lifetime, his nation was under the boot of an evil and godless empire. Any time the people of Israel sought to assert even a modicum of independence in the name of their religion, they were met with violence and oppression.
And while some groups among the Jews opted to become collaborators with Rome in order to eke out a secure place within the empire, one group was calling for the people to revolt. They were called the Zealots, and they thought that political violence would be their salvation.
As it turns out, insurrectionist political violence led not only to the death of many Jewish people, but also the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Jews from their native land—all within a century of the first coming of Christ.
Simon, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, was a former Zealot. It’s not for nothing that Jesus converted Simon and not the other way around.
In fact, Jesus did the most non-Zealot thing imaginable. Though he had the power to stop it, he allowed himself to be persecuted by the religious authorities, slandered and accused, and wrongfully condemned. He then willingly allowed agents of the Roman Empire to disfigure him, torture him, and kill him.
What’s more is that this was his greatest victory. This was his moment of glory. This was his triumph of obedience and the reason you, me, and every other Christian in the world has eternal hope.
And even after he was raised from the dead, the resurrected Jesus did not return to preach a message of revenge or conquest. Instead, he preached mission and compassion. And from that moment forward, his followers did essentially three things: They preached the message of the gospel, they willingly suffered violent persecution, and they cared for the poor.
Oh, and they did one more thing: They changed the world.
It was the nonviolence of the martyrs of the early church that led to the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the known world.
In our own nation, it was through the nonviolence of Christian civil rights leaders that Jim Crow eventually fell.
Throughout history, the impulse of Christians to sustain life rather than take it has led to the concepts of hospitals, orphanages, universities, public education, and charitable foundations. Conversely, whenever the church has focused on wielding power by way of physical force, what has resulted is crusades, inquisitions, and religious persecution—even of other Christians.
Whenever we have sought to establish the earthly reign of Jesus without submitting to the way of Jesus, the results have been disastrous. But whenever we have submitted first and foremost to the way of Jesus, though we have suffered, his power has been made as palpable as it has ever been.
The way of Jesus is the way of nonviolence.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for military intervention or for law enforcement to be armed and ready to neutralize threats to public safety. But when we become so obsessed with preserving our Second Amendment rights that we entertain the possibility of taking up arms against our own people on the grounds of political disagreements, something has gone horribly wrong.
In the words of Jesus himself,
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:38-41)
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:43-45a)
Jesus offered no caveats to these statements, no exceptions for those who stand on the opposite side of the political aisle. We are meant to take his words seriously.
Figuring out how to balance our personal commitment to the way of Jesus with stewarding the franchise afforded to us in a democratic republic can be complicated. Identifying and advocating for the public policies that will be most effective in advancing the common good can be complicated.
What is not complicated is that when we have been consumed by fear and hatred to the point that violence seems like our first and best option, we have lost the plot and need to repent.
Instead, may it be said of us that we laid down our swords to take up our crosses and that in so doing, we transformed the world around us.