Watching the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, was surreal. Like many Americans, I was hooked to the news coverage in a way I hadn’t been since the 9/11 attacks twenty years ago. What made the scenes of rioters invading the Capitol especially disturbing was the Christian symbols they carried—crosses, flags, Bibles, and banners. Popular worship songs even blasted over speakers during the attack. This led conservative writer, and evangelical Christian, David French to label it a Christian insurrection. “Are you still not convinced that it’s fair to call this a Christian insurrection?” French wrote. “I would bet that most of my readers would instantly label the exact same event Islamic terrorism if Islamic symbols filled the crowd, if Islamic music played in the loudspeakers, and if members of the crowd shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they charged the Capitol.”
The problem wasn’t simply that the mob displayed Christian symbols, but that they saw no contradiction between those symbols and their actions. The cross, for example, is a symbol of surrender and self-sacrifice; it represents Jesus’ relinquishing power and his refusal to retaliate against his enemies. At the Capitol, however, the cross was erected next to a gallows and carried by those calling for their political enemies to be hanged. In the gospels, Jesus touched and healed a guard who came to arrest him. On January 6, in the name of Jesus, people attacked and killed men guarding the Capitol. Through his cross, Jesus peacefully surrendered his power. On January 6, people used the cross to violently seize power.
How did this happen? How can self-identified Christians employ the name of Jesus and his cross to justify the very things he condemned? Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. Even the disciples had difficulty accepting Jesus’ call to self-sacrifice and the surrender of power. For example, when Jesus told them he would go to Jerusalem and be killed, they refused to believe him. “This shall never happen to you, Lord!” Peter said. The disciples had their minds set on power, and they believed Jesus would enter Jerusalem, overthrow the Romans, and seize the throne for himself and them. In response, Jesus unleashed his most stinging rebuke upon Peter, his closest friend. “Get behind me, Satan!…For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:22-23).
The sin of Peter still ensnares Jesus’ followers today, although it takes new shapes and hides in theological disguises. Dominionism is one example. It’s a doctrine held by many Christian nationalists and conspiracy theorists like those who attacked the Capitol. Dominionism teaches that God intends for Christians to rule over every sector of society including the government, and once Christians seize complete control Jesus will return. Dominionism, and the Christian nationalism it has spawned, are antithetical to the cross. It is a false gospel and those who preach it have their minds set on the things of man (fear, power, and control) and not the things of God (faith, hope, and love).
On the night of his arrest, in his final discourse with his disciples, Jesus spoke to them about returning to his Father, preparing a place for them, and returning to take them to be with him. He was speaking of his death, resurrection, and his second coming. Then Jesus added, “You know the way to where I am going” (John 14:4). This verse confuses many readers, just as it confused his disciples at the time. Jesus had spoken to them frequently about the cross, with some scholars seeing a direct or indirect allusion to the cross in every chapter of John’s gospel. So, when Jesus said “you know the way” he was saying—I’ve already told you how I will return to the Father. Through humiliation, shame, and death. But by surrendering everything I will also be glorified. This is the way.
Like Jesus’ first disciples, many Christians today are reluctant to accept this path. The worldly temptation for power is so strong that we are drawn to Christian leaders and messages which say God wants us to have power and never surrender it. In addition, the presence of evil and injustice in the world leads us to believe the only way to defeat them is through overwhelming force. But, as Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel write in their book, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, “We are called as his people to participate in Christ’s triumph over these powers by submitting to the way of the cross. We are called to be a cruciform people—to live according to the cross-shaped way of Jesus. We are called to receive power in weakness, not power in our strength or in ourselves.”