Julia Robinson Moore is an ordained Presbyterian minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte. She teaches courses in African American religion, religions of the African Diaspora, and racial violence in America. She is the author of Race, Religion, and the Pulpit: Reverend Robert L. Bradby and the Making of Urban Detroit (Wayne State University Press, 2015). Her present research investigates the complexities of black and white race relations in the New South through the sacred context of the Presbyterian Church.

Christianity’s language and symbols have always been appropriated by those seeking power and legitimacy. January 6, 2021 was no different. White supremacists intermingled with Trump supporters and militant groups like the Proud Boys and QAnon, carrying the cross and signs that bore some of America’s most prominent Christian symbols. Banners waved in the wind with the words, “Jesus is my savior and Trump is my president.” [1] These expressions of Christianity were visible amidst a violent uprising that overran the United States Capitol and threatened members of the United States Congress, including then Vice-President Mike Pence. With nooses and make-shift gallows held high in the hands of what can only be classified as an angry mob, epitaphs of “Hang Mike Pence” and “kill Nancy Pelosi” rose from the crowd. [2]

What are we to make of this kind of Christianity? And what are we to make of self-identified Christians who invoked the name of Jesus in prayer, just seconds after we saw them brandishing long spears and guns? Further, how are people of color who watched the riotous scene on January 6 able to understand how those carrying “Jesus Saves” banners were also toting the Confederate flags—a symbol that has long reflected the painful history of subjugation, oppression, and slavery? Was this—is this—Christianity?

Unfortunately, these forms of violent Christianity have always been with us—from slaveholding Christians in the antebellum era, to the rise of the KKK in Reconstruction and up through the emergence of church-going groups like the White Citizens Councils established in almost every city in America during the Cold War. Unprecedented numbers of lynchings of black and brown bodies occurred in the twentieth century, within a culture that has historically claimed itself as a Nation of God. Yet when we look at Jesus—the heart of Christianity—we see a nonviolent God. When Jesus stands confronted by those who would oppose Him, we never see him take up arms, physically brutalize his enemies, or call for their deaths. On the contrary, we see Jesus pray for his enemies, bless those that persecute Him, and pray for those who seek to despitefully use Him (Matthew 5).

The Christians carrying “Jesus” banners alongside the “Confederate flags while meting out violent rhetoric” speak to theologian Willie James Jennings’ insights about how Christianity can act as a “breathtakingly powerful way to imagine and enact the social, to imagine and enact connection and belonging.” [3] In America, ideas of connection and belonging have historically centered on race. What this means for Christianity, as Jennings points out, is that Christianity has often been “enclosed in racial and cultural difference[s] [that] emerged from historic relations that have exposed a distorted relational imagination.” [4] We can certainly see this in the type of Christianity displayed on January 6th where nooses, gallows, and swastikas flanked Christian crosses along with “Jesus Saves”’ signs. In this respect, we see that the very language and symbols of Christianity cloaked the racial and political sentiments of White supremacists. Here, political imperatives and social fears merged with theological worldviews and justified violent protests. Theologian and pastor Jason Meyer warns us that it is very dangerous “to mix the symbols of Christianity…together with the symbols of political identity.” He cautions us as followers of Jesus Christ “to pull them apart and commit to the difficult work of warning against a kind of Christian nationalism.” [5]

Jesus is non-violent Christianity. He is, in the words of René Girard, “the nonviolent God of Christianity who willingly becomes a victim in order to free us from our violence.” [6] This point is salient for Christians who have unwittingly succumbed to the partisanship and political rhetoric that has created more disunity than unity in our country. Scholar Rebecca Adams, in her interview with René Girard, reminds us that, for Christians, it is Jesus who transforms the world, who demythologizes the myth, who obviates narratives and ideologies that conceal their “own violent origins and the violence in the culture they as narratives undergird.” [7] Girard’s statement about Jesus is especially crucial given that he recognizes the non-violent Christianity that Jesus represents has often readdressed a Christianity infused with Enlightenment philosophy or what he terms “contemporary theism, which is above all a protestation against the sacrificial elements of religion.” [8] For Girard, Jesus, is the ultimate model who calls Christians to imitate His subjectivity in order to combat false displays of Christianity and evil in the forces that threaten their world. In this respect, Jesus comes to save us through Himself and His unequaled power in the world—not through a president nor through violent displays of protests, agitation, and violence. He calls us to retrain our focus and our energies on Christ’s nonviolent model of protest, and not on the rioters.

For when we focus on the rioters, we see the contagiousness of the violence that ran rampant among demonstrators on January 6th. We also see how rituals of peace have the potential to morph into violent actions when the focus is not on Christ’s non-violent model of confrontation and agitation. Instead of Christ’s model, we saw an escalating rivalry unfold as the world watched Americans literally fight other Americans over the power to control the results of the nation’s presidential election. We also saw this rivalry escalate into demands for the violent sacrifice of scapegoats, or in this case, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice-President Michael Pence. And then, there was the actual and unfortunate sacrifice of Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick. His death took place amid prayers and chants in the “name of Jesus”.

I would submit that such actions are not true reflections of the non-violent love of Jesus and His model for the American Church. However, what we saw on January 6th and what our country may still see in the coming year may be self-proclaimed Christians ignoring this biblical truth of Jesus Christ. According to recent FBI investigations, there is a likelihood of more and more groups reading the ideologies and terminologies of White Supremacy and a secular nationalism void of Christian moral imperatives, all of which can unfortunately serve as justifications of violence against human beings. We’ve certainly seen what I term as the misappropriation of Christianity in the past regarding the Nazis in Germany and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan here in America. So what can we, who cling to a non-violent Christianity that centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ and His loving-kindness to all—even our enemies—do in this day and in this hour?

The first step is forgiveness. As Christians committed to the non-violence model and person of Jesus Christ, we are empowered to free ourselves from the chains of hatred, resentment, and violence, and free those that have perpetrated these acts against ourselves, our friends, our families, our communities, and yes, even our government. No matter which side you may fall on politically, as Christians, our first allegiance is to Jesus Christ and His model of living in the world. As Rebecca Adams aptly puts in from Girard’s perspective: “Following Christ means giving up scapegoating, or violence, or participating in the victimage mechanism.” [9] In the words of Christ, “I say to you, love your enemy, bless the one who curses you, do something wonderful for the one who hates you, and respond to the very ones who persecute you by praying for them. For that will reveal your identity as children of your heavenly Father.” [10]

This kind of forgiveness is not easy, but it is part of our calling as Christians committed to loving Christ and building a more unified body of believers. Forgiveness takes time, does not happen overnight, and can never come from our own strength. Forgiveness and the capacity to forgive comes from God when we bring our frustrations, hurt, and anger to Him in times of trouble. Forgiveness comes when we ask Him to heal our hearts and transcend our fears. Forgiveness happens when we redirect our focus on His ability and capacity to correct all that we see wrong or hurtful in the world. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did, as well as many others who followed him. When King confronted violence against himself, his family, and his people, he did not take up arms or storm state buildings in a fit of rage. No: King, and those who marched with him, conducted sit-ins in prayer to God, and even prayed to God in front of White supremacist who claimed the same Christian allegiance he did. King had opportunity after opportunity to walk the road of violence but he chose non-violence, he chose peace, and he chose love as reflected in the person of Jesus. 

We are called to walk in the same footprints. Yet, like King and Jesus, we will never walk alone in these pathways. As Christians, we live our lives surrounded by the grace-filled presence of God. We never walk alone, especially when the pathways of peace entail levels of suffering. It is hard to love our enemies. Yet, God stands with us. Jesus is Emmanuel who gives us his capacity to walk with Him in these difficult moments of forgiveness and suffering. This is the consciousness of faith that God calls us to walk in when we stand in front of the spectacles of chaos and fear. Jesus is ever present with us and He shows us the way through expressions of love, peace, and yes, the graceful forms of non-violent Christianity. 

  1. Win McNamee, “How self proclaimed ‘prophets’ from a growing Christian movement provided religious motivation for the Jan. 6 events at the Capitol” (January 12, 2021) in The Conversation
  2. Ashley Parker, Carol D. Leonnig, Paul Kane, and Emma Brown, “How the Rioters Who Stormed the Capitol Building Came Dangerously Close to Mike Pence” (January 15, 2021) in the Washington Post
  3. Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, (London: Yale University Press, 2010), 6.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Jason Meyer, “How Citizens of Heaven Think Through the Chaos at the Capitol”, (January 9, 2021) in Center for Pastor Theologians.
  6. René Girard with Pierpaolo Antonello and Joao Cezar de Castro Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (Chicago: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008), 152.
  7. Rebecca Adams, “Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: Conversations on Myth and Culture in Theology and Literature” in Religion & Literature, Vol. 25. No 2, (Summer, 1993), 3.
  8. René Girard with Pierpaolo Antonello and Joao Cezar de Castro Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (Chicago: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008), 152.
  9. Rebecca Adams, “Loving Mimesis and Girard’s “Scapegoat of the Text”: A Creative Reassessment of Mimetic Desire” in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, (Pennsylvania: Pandora Press, 2000), 281.
  10. Matthew 5:44, The Passion Translation