In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt traces the history of European anti-Semitism through its many decades stewing as an ideology that became normative. It was like a dormant ideological virus until the right social catalyst transformed it into genocide: the economic devastation and social upheaval of Eastern Europe after the first World War and then the Great Depression. I’m genuinely concerned that the escalating anti-government rhetoric within the US is functioning similarly as a viral ideology that will turn bloody given the right social catalyst. This question will offend some people, but I think it’s my duty to ask it. If you say you’re collecting guns to protect yourself from government tyranny and you call the current president a tyrant, at what point are you going to start shooting?
Most countries in the world have experienced some kind of full-out war on their soil in the last hundred or even fifty years. In America, we have not since 1865. I worry that this has given us a false sense of security, believing that we can talk as irresponsibly and hysterically as we want to, because we won’t ever cross the line into physical violence. We believe in the total depravity of everyone else. How dare anyone suggest that we could be capable of things that only gangsters and terrorists do?
9/11 and the Boston massacre were done by foreigners. They were not only tragic, but egregiously offensive to our sense of world order because things like that don’t happen in America. We’re able to bracket the mass shootings (that aren’t “terrorism” because they’re done by white guys) as “mental health” problems that have nothing to do with our culture’s idolatry of violent weapons.
I recently had a conversation with someone who said that it was his civic duty to be armed in order to protect our democracy from tyranny. So who gets to make the call on what counts as tyranny? It’s one thing for a group of colonies to revolt for being taxed without representation. What if slightly more than half the country supports a vision for our society in which nobody lacks healthcare? Should the guns of those who consider that social vision to be tyrannical trump the votes of the slightly more than half who support it? Is that democracy?
As Christians, we are specifically called not to be the people who are fomenting violent rhetoric and dehumanizing political opponents. 1 Peter 2:13-17 is a good encapsulation of the witness we are expected to bear in our society:
Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God on the day of His visitation. For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Peter doesn’t allow Christians to play the “two kingdom” game and try to cite one set of rules (like the Bible) for how we behave among Christians and another set of rules (like the Constitution) for how we’re supposed to behave in the secular world. He makes us responsible for whether or not non-Christians glorify God. Peter doesn’t allow Christians to let ourselves off the hook by blaming the “liberal media” for how we look to the world. He puts the responsibility for “the ignorance of the foolish” on our shoulders. We are not supposed to silence the foolish with our arguments, but by doing right. It’s amazing how dismissive and contemptuous “Biblical” Christians are towards the Bible when it actually contradicts how they want to behave.
The most dishonorable thing that many American Christians are doing right now is their participation in the outrage industrial complex. They simply don’t see it as a sin to circulate exaggerations and outright lies about political opponents. When they get called out for bearing false witness, instead of responding with contrition and repentance, they just pluck out another supporting argument to see if it will stick better than the first one.
If you’re stocking up arms to defend your country against tyranny, it’s a fair question to ask when you’re going to use them. What if a talk radio host announces a campaign to stop paying taxes since the government has gone too far? Let’s say the FBI is moving in to arrest the radio host for conspiring to break federal law and he says come over to my headquarters with your guns to defend me against tyranny? Would you go?
Oh that would never happen. This is America. Hmm… Yes, this is America, and you and I are creating an America whose future is uncertain. If you do violence to the truth by spreading irresponsible exaggerations and rumors, then you will be held accountable by God if and when the seeds of violent insurrection bear fruit given a potent enough social catalyst. If we ever reach the 30+% unemployment levels of the Great Depression and enough anti-government militants are desperate because their homes are under foreclosure and no jobs are in sight, that could be a catalyst for widespread domestic terrorism.
As Christians, we are supposed to have a very sober perspective about the evil that we ourselves are capable of. Instead, we consider it pious to preach about the evils of other people, which is actually a strategy for concealing our own capacity for sin. When Jesus says that whoever hates another person is guilty of murder (Matthew 5:22), it’s because a murderer is someone whose hate is combined with the right social catalyst just like an adulterer is someone whose lust is combined with the right set of circumstances.
Fascists and terrorists are not a different species of human; they are people who have been brainwashed to believe that the victims they target are fascists and terrorists who threaten their own existence. The Jews weren’t hated for race or religion, but because of decades of unchallenged lies being told about them: that they were the “bankers” who caused World War I, the Great Depression, etc.
Then when Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, assassinated the German diplomat Ernst von Rath on November 7, 1938, the German outrage industrial complex exploded into Kristallnacht, an orgy of violence that left 91 Jews dead and 30,000 thrown into prison. Kristallnacht showed the Germans that open violence against the Jews had become socially acceptable; it completed the groundwork for the Holocaust to begin.
At what point will the widespread ideological violence of our virtual reality explode into a Kristallnacht of physical reality? Will the Muslims or the homosexuals or the “illegal aliens” be the scapegoats that Satan uses to accomplish his plan? How many Boston marathon bombings and IRS scandals will it take for a critical mass of people to decide it’s socially acceptable to start shooting? Don’t say it can’t happen in America. The best that we can do as Christians to prevent violence is to be the witnesses of peace and good will that Peter tells us to be. If you argue with that, you’re arguing with the Bible, not me.