By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
As we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace we are approaching the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection. America is awash with guns, and there has been an increasing trend for bullets not ballots in politics. The signs are widespread and worrisome. We need to consider why so many Americans favor violence over peace in our libertarian democracy.
Ballots not bullets has long been an axiom to promote democracy in America’s foreign policy; but it took bullets not ballots for America to gain its independence, and later to maintain the Union in a terrible Civil War. Today popular forms of Christianity support the morality of gun violence, and it has become embedded in America’s political culture.
A declining church remains the primary source of the moral standards of political legitimacy in America, and there is a conflict within Christianity on the use of lethal force. The moral imperative to love others as we love ourselves in the greatest commandment requires the use of lethal force to protect others from harm and to provide for the national defense.
While Christmas is a time to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace, we need to remember that Jesus was opposed by his own religious leaders who collaborated with Roman authorities to have him crucified--and crowds cheered their decision. Today the church is indifferent to Christian militants who threaten democracy, and guns decorate Christmas cards.
The corruption of Christian morality became obvious in 2016 when the vast majority of white Christians elected Donald Trump as President. Trump’s self-centered narcissism is the antithesis of the altruistic morality taught by Jesus; and today his militant white supporters are determined to make him President again, and they are willing to use bullets not ballots to do so.
The militants who have threatened civil war since Trump’s loss in 2020 cannot claim to be followers of Jesus or supporters of democracy. Not only do the teachings of Jesus promote peaceful politics, but our Constitution and laws provide for free and fair elections, and accepting their results is essential to the political legitimacy of our democracy.
Kyle Rittenhouse is a vigilante who exemplifies bullets not ballots in politics. He left his home state and took an automatic weapon to a demonstration that became violent. He killed two people, claiming self-defense, and was acquitted and hailed as a patriot by the radical right. Such vigilantism cannot be tolerated under the rule of law in a libertarian democracy.
Gun violence has become an accepted norm of political legitimacy in America. Even if America avoids another civil war, escalating civil strife with bullets not ballots will poison our democracy. My Christmas wish is that those who claim to be Christians will rediscover the altruistic teachings of Jesus and apply them to their politics. If they do, they can help the light of God’s love dispel the darkness that threatens to overwhelm us.
Dana Milbank has cited Barbara F. Walter’s book, How Civil Wars Start, as evidence that “We are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe. If you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”
Indeed, the United States has already gone through what the CIA identifies as the first two phases of insurgency — the “pre-insurgency” and “incipient conflict” phases — and only time will tell whether the final phase, “open insurgency,” began with the sacking of the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters on Jan. 6. Things deteriorated so dramatically under Trump, in fact, that the United States no longer technically qualifies as a democracy. Citing the Center for Systemic Peace’s “Polity” data set — the one the CIA task force has found to be most helpful in predicting instability and violence — Walter writes that the United States is now an “anocracy,” somewhere between a democracy and an autocratic state. U.S. democracy had received the Polity index’s top score of 10, or close to it, for much of its history. But in the five years of the Trump era, it tumbled precipitously into the anocracy zone; by the end of his presidency, the U.S. score had fallen to a 5, making the U.S. a partial democracy for the first time since 1800. We are no longer a peer to nations like Canada, Costa Rica, and Japan, which are all rated a +10 on the Polity index.” Dropping five points in five years greatly increases the risk of civil war (six points in three years would qualify as “high risk” of civil war).
Milbank concludes: ”The enemies of democracy must not be allowed to prevail. We are on the doorstep of the “open insurgency” stage of civil conflict, and Walter writes that once countries cross that threshold, the CIA predicts, “sustained violence as increasingly active extremists launch attacks that involve terrorism and guerrilla warfare, including assassinations and ambushes. It is no exaggeration to say the survival of our country is at stake.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/12/17/how-civil-wars-start-barbara-walter-research/?utm_campaign=wp_todays_headlines&utm_medium=email&utm_.
Three retired generals have opined that “The military must prepare now for a 2024 insurrection.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/12/17/eaton-taguba-anderson-generals-military/?utm_campaign=wp_todays_headlines&utm_.
Fintan O’Toole has cautioned Americans, “Beware Prophecies of Civil War. The idea that such a catastrophe is unavoidable in America is inflammatory and corrosive. Much of American culture is already primed for the final battle. There is a very deep strain of apocalyptic fantasy in fundamentalist Christianity. Armageddon may be horrible, but it is not to be feared, because it will be the harbinger of eternal bliss for the elect and eternal damnation for their foes. …On what used to be referred to as the far right, but perhaps should now simply be called the armed wing of the Republican Party, the imminence of civil war is a given. Indeed, the conflict can be imagined not as America’s future, but as its present. Much of the American right is spoiling for a fight, in the most literal sense. Which is one good reason to be very cautious about echoing, as the Canadian journalist and novelist Stephen Marche does in The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future, the claim that America “is already in a state of civil strife, on the threshold of civil war. These prophecies have a way of being self-fulfilling.” See https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/01/america-civil-war-prophecies/620850/.
Peter Manseau has asked, “Why so many guns on Christmas cards? Because Jesus was ‘manly and virile.’” The spate of Christmas cards with photos of families (often of elected officials) and guns represents a caustic wedding of Jesus with right-wing politics. It’s an example of Muscular Christianity that depicts an image of Jesus that reflects believers’ distorted views of Jesus and God’s will. It was a concept popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1903 said, “I do not want to see Christianity professed by only weaklings. I want to see it a moving spirit among men of strength.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/12/14/guns-christmas-thomas-massie-lauren-boebert/?utm_campaign=wp_todays_headlines&utm.
The Kyle Rittnhouse acquittal “magnified divisions in a polarized America. To many on the right — including gun-rights groups, Trump loyalists and white supremacists — he was a folk hero, a vigilante for justice who had stood up to a rampaging mob. Americans on the left, including racial-justice activists, gun-control advocates and police reformers, saw something quite different: a trigger-happy youth who had recklessly used his AR-15 to escalate an already-chaotic situation into the realm of deadly violence.” For Americans in the middle, the Rittenhouse acquittal affirmed vigilantism that threatens the ability of law enforcement to maintain law and order in volatile situations. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/reaction-rittenhouse-verdict/2021/11/19/bd9c9ede-47d4-11ec-973c-be864f938c72_story.html?utm_.
The Washington Post editorial board has opined that Kyle Rittenhouse is acquitted, but his actions should not be excused or celebrated. See