Fruitless trees and golden calves
Like many Americans, when I saw the images of rioters storming the Capitol, a confederate flag paraded through the halls of Congress, and guns drawn in the House a few months ago, I felt a sense of shame and groaning at where we are as a nation. The images were not from an outlandish Nicolas Cage movie; they were all-too-real... as the families of the five fatalities stemming from the riot know so painfully.
As the media dissected the chaos, my dismay only increased upon realizing that many in the riotous mob used Christian symbols: crosses, Christian verbiage, and the name of Jesus scrawled on placards ascending the Capitol steps. Numerous Christians have denounced and distanced themselves from ‘rioting in the name of Jesus’, and rightly so (count me among those who believe the spirit of Christ was decidedly absent from the riotous mob). But there’s more that can be said than mere denunciation of the act. Scripture gives us insight as to how to interpret such events.
First, there are a multitude of Scriptures indicating that there are always people in and among the church who are not true followers of Jesus. We cannot know the heart of an individual, but we can know that many who take the name of Christ are not truly his followers. Jesus taught his disciples that some who claim to do mighty works in his name are actually workers of lawlessness (Matt 7:23). Additionally, the New Testament church gatherings included those who were not true followers of Christ (1 John 2:19, Jude 11-13). Donning the name of Jesus, his cross, or any other religious slogan does not make one a bona fide follower of Jesus any more than wearing a red number 15 football jersey makes me Patrick Mahomes. Jesus taught his disciples to discern a tree (person) by his or her fruit (actions) in the expectation that there would be those who bore his name but not his spirit.
There’s a second biblical reality that is equally instructive as we digest the ‘Christian’ mob. Namely, that we all have a perverse tendency to baptize our personal idols and ambitions. In Exodus 32, a raucous mob is gathered at the foot of Mt Sinai worshipping a golden calf. Such paganism had previously been condemned in the Ten Commandments, but the Israelites quickly reverted to the idolatry they had soaked up from Egyptian culture. What is astonishing about the scene in Exodus 32 is not that the Israelites worshipped an idol, but that as they worshipped the idol they did so in God’s name. In the middle of an idolatrous mob, Aaron proclaimed a “feast to the Lᴏʀᴅ” (v. 5). We don’t know if Aaron was so indoctrinated by the spirit of Egypt that he was blind to his idolatry or if, knowing his guilt, he tried to atone for the rebellion with a little God-speak. In any case, the idol worshipping mob did so in the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ. Baptizing our idols in religious talk is nothing new.
The polarizing news events of the past year have made it difficult to know how to speak (or not speak) wisely into current events. One temptation is to remain silent in cowardice and another is to lash out in anger and ignorance. Thankfully, the timeless truth of the Bible gives us a lens through which to view the chaotic world around us. The Scriptures help us to condemn that which ought to be condemned, but also to dig the log of idolatry out of our own eyes. When it comes to events like the Capitol riots, we can know that Jesus foretold of people who would claim his name but not walk in his ways. But in condemning the rioters, we do well to also examine the fruit of our own ways. I encourage you to pause and consider:
- If someone skimmed the past year of your online presence, would it seem like your hope is in a political cause or in Christ?
- Does the tone of your speech—whether verbal or digital—exude the gentleness of Jesus?
- Are there any righteous causes that you’re defending in an unrighteous manner?
- Are you more passionate about sharing your political stance than your faith?
- Are you making disciples of a political ideology or the one whose kingdom is not of this world?
Though the name of Christ was defamed in the Capitol riots, we his true bride can still show his beauty—not with placards and chants but with the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.