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This Lent, give up mixing faith with political terrorism

We must be exceptionally clear that terrorism is an affront to Christian faith. That will be my Lenten practice.

Supporters of President Donald Trump gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

(RNS) — The Lenten season that begins on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 17) may be one of the most important in the lives of American Christians. In the past weeks and months, Christianity itself has been tempted, like Jesus in the wilderness, by an invitation to claim power. Unlike Jesus, some Christians have given in to temptation, given up on the worship of God and adopted the worship of tyrannical power exercised through terrorist attacks.

The Christian imagery was everywhere in the crowd of domestic terrorists who seized the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 — “Jesus Saves” signs, “Jesus 2020” banners and the “Christian flag” — while on the National Mall people chanted, “Christ is king.” Some of those gathered referred to the neo-fascist Proud Boys as “God’s warriors.”

The Gospel versions of Matthew and Luke say that Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to fast and pray. Many of the traditions of Lent such as fasting and rejection of sinful practices are based on these texts.

While he is in the desert, “the devil” comes to Jesus, tempting him. He is starving. The devil offers bread. Jesus refuses. What about religious rule? No, Jesus counters.

So the devil ups the ante. What about absolute political power?

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I will give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 

The model for political power in Jesus’ time was Roman imperial power. This was what the biblical authors considered satanic: Tyrannical political power that enslaves and rules by force and the threat of force is what the biblical authors considered satanic. This is the kind of power with which the devil tempts Jesus, the power of tyranny.           

Jesus refuses.

We need to expand our Lenten practice this year to include refusing any merging of Christian faith and advocacy of terrorism. This Lent we need to hear again Jesus’ message about the corruptions of Roman imperial power and wealth. Right now, that message needs to be applied to the types of Christians who have been seduced into using Christian faith as a justification for violence.  

This is not to give up the power Jesus did wield. My book “Occupy the Bible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power,” a Lenten study guide, follows Jesus through biblical texts to Jerusalem, his actions there and his death and resurrection. The power of Rome crushed Jesus of Nazareth for his teaching and his actions on power and on wealth. But it did not stop him.

Lenten practices in denominations such as my own United Church of Christ are already changing, moving on from traditional ideas about fasting as mortification of the flesh to rejecting behavior that harms our communities, such as the use of fossil fuels.  

I plan to devote my Lenten practices to advocating for policies and practices that reduce the infiltration of domestic terrorism into the Christian faith and into our society.

The United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism has some very practical behavioral strategies that have been developed over a decade. Some are very useful in addressing how to disrupt and change this dangerous subversion in our society, which has tempted some Christians into supporting terrorist acts against the United States.

White supremacy and heteropatriarchy are spread online through social media, and the terrorist acts are coordinated there. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Lecia Brooks testified last year before the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Security, International Development and Monetary Policy about how technology companies can disrupt the funding, organizing and recruiting efforts of hate groups on their platforms. 

As people of faith we must push harder for gender equality and for equality of sexual preference. The United Nations notes how gender equity is a counterstrategy to extremism. The “Proud Boys,” for example, do not allow women members. 

Christians who oppose the terrorist infiltration of their faith must do far more to reach out to young people and offer exciting and engaging ways for them to connect with others. The recruitment efforts of the domestic terrorists of young white men in particular are legion. Can we make this a Lenten priority?

We must be exceptionally clear that terrorism is an affront to Christian faith. That will be my Lenten practice.

After all this time, we must not let the devil win.

(The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is president emerita and professor emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is a theologian and a fiction writer. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)