Convert or Perish: Is The Evangelical Church Inherently Violent?

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest /To children ardent for some desperate glory, /The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori.
-Wilfred Owen.

When I was in college, my theology degree required that I take one semester on “World Religions.” We studied, from a Christian perspective, the intellectual and religious traditions of other religions in the world, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism.

For our final paper, we were given a list of 10 questions, one of which we had to choose to write a 10 page paper on. I wrote about Confucius and Chinese philosophy. Several of my classmates chose to write on a question about violence in Islam, which was roughly phrased: “Is Islam an inherently violent religion? Discuss.”

Thinking back on it now, I can’t help but see how deeply unfair that question is. White, Western evangelicals do not ask if Christianity is “inherently” violent. It is only because of the recent cultural clashes between Islamic extremists and the American military that such questions are even considered legitimate. 

But American Christianity is just as violent and imperialistic as it ever was. We no longer take conversion by the tip of a sword, but we use language, ideology, and, yes, force in ways that cause deep, lasting violence and brutality amongst “the least of these.” We simply don’t notice this violent Empire because it is such a part of the background radiation of our white, Westernized Christian theology that it is impossible to see the “truth” without it.

But if you look for it, it’s fairly easy to find Empire rearing its ugly head behind and beneath the supposed truth-telling and evangelism of American Christians. Owen Strachan recently offered up a textbook example in an article he wrote for the “Biblical Truth” organization, Answers in Genesis.

In discussing the increased visibility of transgender people in our culture, Strachan laments that “Western culture” is falling into “moral anarchy,” sliding away from the “biblical principles of gender” our society was supposedly built upon. He gives a brief summary of the transgender movement, connecting it back to the feminist sexual revolution (which he seems to think was in the 1960s instead of the 1920s), and an increase in “the homosexual movement.” For him, the slippery slope into anarchy is obvious: the feminists started challenging gender roles, allowing the gays to fight for their supposed rights, leading to a total collapse of the gender binary altogether.

Empire exists to feed off of power and to bring more power into itself. A Christian Empire, represented by conservative Christians who believe their interpretations of biblical text are The Truth, seeks power through the image of being under siege, under threat from a culture that is wholly against them. Fear, after all, is a great motivator to force people into making a decision about their faith.

Strachan employs this fear to his benefit, saying that Western (read: white) society and the Body of Christ itself – one and the same, in his world – are under threat from transgender people. Their very existence is a threat to the power and glory of God, a giant middle finger to the created identities God saw fit to bestow on us in Genesis. Strachan’s commitment to Empire is such that he even turns the rate of suicide amongst transgender individuals against them, saying:

The rates of suicide among transgender people show the brokenness this choice causes. Paul McHugh, former Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist in chief, has noted in the Wall Street Journal that the suicide rate among transgender individuals is 20 times higher than in the normal population. Embracing transgender identity at the cultural level does not produce happiness and wholeness. It goes hand in hand with personal confusion and disorder.

Empire and the colonizer’s gaze find their home in victim blaming, erasing their own role in the devastation of the colonized populace. Christian Empire views those it colonizes – likely to be people of color, likely to be queer, likely to be of low socioeconomic status – as to blame for their own problems. Christian Empire “loves” the colonized populace by “correcting” their ways.

In traditional colonization, assimilation to the Empire took the form of linguistic and religious correction. People were (and are) violently stolen from the their homes, forced to learn a new language and to forget their mother tongue and their native religions. 

This colonization process is still at work within American, white Christianity. People of color are forced to assimilate into whiteness, queer people of color forced to assimilate into the white, Western ideals of gender. These are the intersection White Christian Empire cannot abide – everyone is one and the same, raceless, gendered only by a doctor’s word at birth, sexually attracted only to people of an assigned sex different from our own.

In the world of Empire, we are all the same at the foot of the Cross. We are all white. We are all cisgender. We are all straight. We are all American. We are all middle class. We are all able-bodied. We are all physically fit. If we do not fit any of these molds, we will be made to fit this mold by the Empire – or suffer the consequences.

Conversion for transgender individuals will not be neat and clean. It will be messy. It will involve the recognition that sin has corrupted us in every fiber of our being (Isaiah 64:6). But the gospel is stronger than sin. Christ’s death washes us clean, and Christ’s Resurrection gives us life. The Resurrection raised Christ’s spirit even as it renewed His body. (Strachan)

When Strachan laments the existential threat that transgender people pose to his “Western society,” he is lamenting the fall of Empire and the loss of his own power and privilege. His ahistorical imperialism can never last for long, as the decline of empires throughout history has demonstrated. Empire built on fear and assimilation cannot sustain itself, as it must always find a new fear, a new target. If an Empire is not growing, it must be shrinking and failing. Such is the nature of power.

And this power is, in itself, brutality. There is no loving form of Empire. There is no kindness in that which calls upon us to convert to its political reality or perish. This loving hate, this feather of lead, is a paradox in itself. Empire casts this paradox as a necessary reality for its conversion, taking strength from the vision of itself as a persecuted minority, a constantly threatened protagonist in the story. Empire casts itself as the underdog.

Any connection between the Empire’s power and the scandal of death is hand-waved away, re-explained and re-interpreted so the foot soldiers can keep going without ever looking at the blood on their own hands. Death and violence are a natural part of the colonizing process, a calculated cost for the spread of The Truth. The colonized are always at fault for their own losses, reframed as insurgents, as confused, as people without identity except as they resist the inevitable.

American evangelicalism is continuing the same work started with swords and blood in the fields of Gaul in the 11th century. We are the Romans, killing Jesus over and over with each new missive about Biblical Truth. And we are, rightfully, collapsing. New love, new truth, new religion will build itself out of the resistance, will liberate the captives and make the enslaved free again. We will own our incarnations and we will love, without qualification, without hesitance, without violence.