by Tim Nafziger and Ched Myers
“Have you ever sung Christmas carols by candlelight in a time when your state governor has prohibited you from doing that? In America?!”
These are the opening lines of a video by actor Kirk Cameron on Instagram (viewed 80,000+ times) inviting Ventura County residents to join his second “Christmas caroling peaceful protest” at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks. Hundreds of people responded to Cameron’s call and gathered without masks to sing at the mall on the evening of Sunday, Dec. 13 and again on Tuesday, Dec. 22. A similar “worship protest” is slated to take place in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve led by self-described “missionary, artist, speaker, author and activist” Sean Feucht. The California Poor People’s Campaign, along with many faith leaders, are calling on Los Angeles elected officials to halt Feucht’s events.
Why are so many U.S. Christians inspired by Cameron’s and Feucht’s public calls to challenge California’s stay-at-home order in a moment of unprecedented COVID-19 surge? It has to do with a powerful story curated among white, politically conservative evangelicals claiming that “atheists, liberals and big government are trying to oppress Christians.”
A century ago such paranoia characterized only insular fundamentalists, but it has become a central talking point for the new religious right. From the rise of the “Moral Majority” in the 1970s to resurgent Christian Nationalism today (now supercharged by Trumpism), this narrative has been fueled by decades of Fox News, conservative talk radio, and now social media, and subsidized by billions of dollars from opportunistic, ultra-wealthy business interests. Disingenuously — given that this demographic continues to enjoy historic social privilege — these forces have spun a tale of victimization, from a putative “Culture War on Christmas” to public health officialdom’s alleged persecution of “free and open worship.”
But beware: Cameron, Feucht and co. are tapping into a dangerous, historic toxic stream of “kulturkampf” with roots in the Third Reich’s efforts to domesticate churches. Similarly, contemporary assertions of American Christian victimhood prey on churches already polarized, while increasing biblical illiteracy leaves believers vulnerable (as they were in Germany) to this movement’s veneer of piety.
The beginning of the 20th century was a similarly fraught moment in our country’s history, riven by the social and racial disparities of the Guilded Age and Jim Crow. Preachers of the Social Gospel (both mainstream and evangelical) countered Christian ambivalence toward poverty and racism with a sharply re-focusing query: “What would Jesus do?” It was, and remains today, a straightforward challenge to recenter the church ’s moral and political discernment around the actual life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
Christendom has a long and lamentable history of portraying a dominating, triumphant and white supremacist Christ who authorized violence, conquest and slavery. This Christ looks nothing like the Nazarene of the gospels who walked and worked with the marginalized, healed the infected, radically welcomed social outsiders and called for love of enemies.
Moreover, Jesus’ earliest followers:
- rejected the idolatry of ethnocentric nationalism, exhorting each other to resist its culture of lies (Colossians 3:5-11);
- insisted that their freedom in Christ was <em>not</em> a license for libertarianism, but rather a call to servanthood (I Corinthian 9:19);
- and specifically counseled the socially “strong” to give up their entitlements so that the “weak” could be included (Romans 15:1-2).
This ethic of solidarity with the “least,” rooted in the example of Jesus, is wholly ignored by today’s Christian nationalists who assert their “right” to gather and do as they please — even if it puts the vulnerable at risk.
In Ventura County we’ve already seen major COVID-19 outbreaks among farmworkers, in packing facilities and nursing homes, where the at-risk are suffering and dying disproportionately. And with this new surge, the pandemic is filling up our hospitals’ ICUs, while those caring for the sick face exhaustion and burnout. Shouldn’t followers of Jesus be accompanying those most impacted by this pandemic, rather than those seeking to bolster their privilege?
The pandemic has exposed many fissures in American society — especially those of racial and economic inequality — including contradictions among those who profess Christian faith. Those marching for “religious liberty” during this sacred season are yet again invoking a Christ of entitlement, while disappearing the Jesus of compassion and justice for the least. Somehow they believe the cross authorizes our right to infect others in a global pandemic. But that is not the “good news” to which Christians are called to bear witness.
We as white Christian men feel a particular responsibility to push back against this toxic trend for the sake of the gospel AND the common civic good. This Christmastide, we urge our fellow believers to instead re-root ourselves in the life and witness of the One who was born in a feed trough, who lived homeless in Galilee, who fed and healed the marginalized, and who was executed on a Roman stake because his love knew no boundaries. Let’s get real about what that Jesus would do in our historical moment of a socially unequal pandemic.
Tim Nafziger is a writer and member of Showing up for Racial Justice Ventura County. Ched Myers is an author and social justice theologian living in the Ventura River Watershed and working with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (www.bcm-net.org).