On January 6, 2021, a mob of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. They had been assembled at a staging area some blocks from the Capitol, called the Ellipse, to hear Republican party leaders and President Trump rehearse their grievances over the November 3 election results (Trump lost). Trump had persuaded them to believe that, in fact, the election had been “stolen” from him, and further that they should “fight” for their country.
After he exhorted their march on the Capitol to interfere with the congressional certification of Electoral College results, the crowd-turned-mob invaded the building, vandalized its sacred interiors, hunted for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and called for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence. They also inflicted violence on Capitol police that left one officer and four civilians dead.
Inside the lower chamber of the House of Representatives, the charismatic “shaman” of the conspiracy movement QAnon removed his bison-horned hat and offered a prayer, in Jesus’ name, for the success of their effort and Trump’s legitimate reign.
Others with him in the chamber bowed their heads and uplifted their hands in the Pentecostal posture of worship.
This date happened to be the “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” also known as Epiphany, celebrated by many Christians as the day when Three Kings came to visit the Carpenters in Bethlehem and the baby Jesus was thereupon revealed (epiphany refers to an appearance or manifestation) to the Gentile world.
It’s not just curious but deeply concerning how often Jesus is invoked by some people to bless and grant victory to their campaigns of violence, and then to receive their worship and thanksgiving when the objective has been achieved.
After his retinue of police brutally pushed aside Black Lives Matter protestors in Lafayette Square with batons and flash-bang grenades on June 1, 2020, President Trump made his way past the steps of a Christian church, stood solemnly and held up a Bible – the same holy book upon which every congress person swears an oath of service to our Constitution.
Granted, the Bible and Jesus are not exactly equivalent – except in some popular forms of Christianity where the Bible is literally God-in-words and Jesus is the Word-in-flesh, and both are close enough to God to be essentially the same. Whereas the Bible is really a collection of writings produced over a period of nearly 1,200 years and reflecting very different (even contradictory) conceptions of God, there is deeper agreement among scholars about the historical figure of Jesus.
So, what do we know about him? And how does the profile of certain or near-certain facts about Jesus square with the beliefs held by many Americans, even Christians, and also by those QAnon seditionists who praised his name on the Day of Epiphany?
Well, we know that Jesus wasn’t white, obviously not Anglo-Saxon, and certainly not a Christian in the sense of belonging to a church and believing in himself as an article of orthodox doctrine. He wasn’t wealthy, not a capitalist, nor did he own a house or property. And although he appears to have started his ministry with a focus on restoring the spirit of his own Jewish people, Jesus wasn’t a bigot, a racist, a misogynist, or a xenophobe.
Also, contrary to some later christological definitions of Christian orthodoxy, Jesus wasn’t God in disguise, the endtime destroyer of sinners, the warrior-king of the Crusades, or the patron deity of our American prosperity gospel. These are later reconstructions that were used to ordain and justify actions, worldviews, and ways of life that take us in the exact opposite direction from where Jesus himself stood and intended to go.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the insurrectionists on Epiphany 2021 were devoted to such an amalgamated makeover of Jesus in their own image.
We can do more than separate Jesus from qualities, associations, and beliefs that he certainly didn’t hold, however. What then do we know?
We know that Jesus was a Jew of the peasant class, from a small city in Lower Galilee called Nazareth, born and raised in a household of seven siblings, the son of an artisan named Joseph and his wife, Mary. In early adulthood, he became an erstwhile disciple of a prophet named John, whose Riverside Baptist community attracted many who were seeking a fresh start and a new direction in life. John’s message was a threat of punishment against sinners, along with the promise of forgiveness for any who would repent (“turn back” to God) and clean up their act.
Jesus soon departed for his own ministry and began proclaiming an almost unbelievable message, one that turned John’s inside-out.
At his first synagogue sermon and in subsequent teachings, Jesus declared that God’s forgiveness was already a done deal – given preemptively and universally, to everyone. John’s turn-around of repentance was now reconceived as a turn of astonished joy and gratitude for this truly unconditional (and undeserved because no “confession of sin” was required beforehand) act of forgiveness.
This resolution of love for one’s enemy, releasing vengeance – to forgive means “to let go” – and returning the transforming power of kindness to another’s hurtful intention, is the center of Jesus’ gospel and what he was all about. He expected that anyone who really accepts God’s unconditional forgiveness will become in turn a liberative force in their personal relationships and in society as a whole. He saw the human future through a completely new lens.
Other people through the centuries since – not murderous mobs, white supremacists, or dogmatic bigots – have gotten the message and committed themselves to living in the “way of Jesus.”
They aren’t perfect, and never have been or claimed to be. And if Jesus expected perfection from his disciples and friends, it was to be perfect (i.e., absolute and uncompromising) in their love for each other and for their enemies – “as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48; but also see the parallel passage of Luke 6:36 where the word is “merciful”).
With that historically grounded and revolutionary picture of Jesus before us, we can now take up the question of whether Jesus was behind and on the side of those who spun false narratives leading up to January 6 and used deadly violence against their enemies. Of course, our answer will apply also to those who even today continue with the same campaign, in Jesus’ name.
Whomever may have received the worship of those with bowed heads and raised hands in the House chamber that day, we can be sure it wasn’t Jesus.