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Iowa, Ted Cruz, and the Evangelical Identity Crisis

Ted Cruz ended last night with a yuuuuge victory over Donald Trump in Iowa. (Sorry, had to do it!) Religion played a big role in Cruz’s victory. The New York Times reports that Cruz’s victory was “powered by a surge of support from evangelical Christians.”

For his part, Cruz reaffirmed his connection with his evangelical supporters by invoking divine favor upon his victory. “God bless the great state of Iowa! Let me first say, to God be the glory.”

But I can’t help but feel uneasy about the God proclaimed by Cruz and his evangelical supporters. That’s because, when it comes to their evangelical faith, they have an identity crisis.

The word “evangelical” has a specific meaning and history. It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means “good news.”

Evangelical has become a distinctively Christian term, but during the first century it was used predominantly by the Roman Empire. In fact, when Caesar sent his armies off to conquer new land in the name of Roman peace, Roman soldiers would announce military strength as the “Gospel according to Caesar.” Rome waged peace through violence. In his book Jesus and Empire, Richard Horsley states that,

In the Roman world, the “gospel” was the good news of Caesar’s having established peace and security for the world. Caesar was the “savior” who had brought “salvation” to the whole world. The peoples of the empire were therefore to have “faith” (pistis/fides) in their “lord” the emperor. Moreover, Caesar the lord and savior was to be honored and celebrate by the “assemblies” (ekklesiai) of cities such as Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus.

Now, a good Bible believing evangelical will instantly recognize the politically subversive language of the New Testament. In the face of Roman military that brought the good news of “peace” by the sword, the early Christians delivered an alternative message of good news that claimed “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Make no mistake, their evangelical message was political. They sought to reorder the world, not through Caesar’s military strength, but through Christ’s nonviolent love.

The early Christians subverted Roman violence through their use of language and their actions. They claimed that the good news was found not in Caesar, but in Christ. Christ, not Caesar, was the “savior” who brought “salvation” to the world. People were to have “faith” in him as their “lord.” Jesus was to be honored and celebrates at assemblies, which would become known as churches.

But for the early Christians, words weren’t enough. They took Jesus’ command to follow him seriously. Jesus didn’t lift the sword to defend himself against the violence that killed him, and neither did his disciples lift their swords. Rather, they continued to challenge the Roman Empire’s “good news” of achieving peace through violence. The disciples claimed that true peace could only be achieved by following the nonviolent way of Jesus, whose evangelical message commanded that his follower love everyone, included their enemies, including those who sought to persecute them. In following Jesus their Lord, the disciples were murdered, just like their Lord and Savior.

Jump ahead about 2,000 years to last night in Iowa and we discover that Ted Cruz and his evangelical supporters have an identity crisis. They claim that Jesus is their Lord with words, but not in action. Cruz promises to “carpet bomb” America’s enemies. He promises to beef up the American military, a military that spends roughly the same amount as “the next nine largest military budgets around the world, combined.” The U.S. military is already the strongest military that the world has ever seen.

René Girard wrote in his apocalyptic book Battling to the End that Christians must make a decision about violence because Christ has left us with a choice, “either believe in violence, or not; Christianity is non-belief.”

Christianity is non-belief in violence because it believes in the one true God who on the cross responded to violence not with more violence, but with nonviolent love and forgiveness.

“To God be the glory,” a victorious Cruz proclaimed to a cheering crowd in Iowa. But I can’t help but wonder – what God is Ted Cruz and his evangelical supporters talking about? Because “Hey! Good News! We just carpet bombed the hell out of you,” sounds a lot more like the gods of ancient Rome than the God of Jesus Christ.

As long as evangelicals proclaim faith in Jesus as their Lord, but continue to believe in violence as the way to peace and security for the United States, they will suffer from an identity crisis. And rightfully so, because that combination is not the Good News.
Photo: Ted Cruz delivering his victory speech after the Iowa caucus. (Screenshot from YouTube, ABC News)

A Unique New Year’s Resolution and the Iowa Caucus

If you are like me, you believe New Year’s Resolutions are made to be broken. I struggle with resolutions. I’ve already failed three of the top twelve resolutions Americans make.  Lose weight? I always break that during football games on January 1st. Stop drinking? Again, January 1st football games. Eat healthy foods? Nachos, pizza, and burgers, all on January 1st.

January 1st is the day I resolve to make the hardest resolution I’ve ever had to make (and I make throughout the year) – to forgive myself.

To be more forgiving of one’s self and of others is certainly a resolution worth making, but the Iowa Caucus tonight reminds me of another resolution worthy of discussion. It’s a resolution few people will make this year. And it’s a resolution you are bound to break. Sometime during this first week of 2012, you are likely to be asked, “What’s your New Year’s Resolution?” Imagine their response when you reply, “I’m going to end scapegoating.”

It’s a big task. Scapegoating infects our culture, our lives, and our politics. For example, the Iowa Caucus is tonight and we find candidates scrambling to define themselves over and against their opponents. Mitt Romney, who seems to be the front-runner in Iowa, has attacked President Obama, accusing him of creating an entitlement society in the U.S. Romney said that Obama’s continued policies would “poison the American spirit by pitting one American against another and engaging in class warfare.” He went on to say, “I prefer an America that is one nation under God and I will keep it that way.” While Romney attacks Obama, a Super PAC backing him has spent $3 million on ads slamming Romney’s Republican opponents. And Romney’s opponents have responded with similar attack ads. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post warns that this is just the beginning of negative ads run by Super PACs:

We are going to see hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ads bombarding millions of voters for months on end, with no knowledge of who is paying for them, no accountability at all for the candidates who are directly benefiting from them, and no meaningful effort to rebut the countless lies, distortions and sleazy attacks they’ll be leveling on a daily basis — ones that will directly impact who controls Congress and the White House next year.”

That disturbs me, but it doesn’t surprise me.  After Christmas and New Year’s Day, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that average folk like you and I spend much of our time in rivalry with others. You can always tell when you are in a rivalry with another person or group. You know that feeling you get when your uncle starts making political comments during Christmas dinner? Or the feeling you get when you arrive at your office and your supervisor won’t stop talking about her New Year’s weekend, and you know that in two hours she’ll come back and ask why you haven’t been productive? Your blood starts to boil. You need an outlet so you gossip to your cousins or your coworkers.

(Not that I know from experience.)

It’s true. Politicians are corrupted by rivalry and scapegoating. But so are we. We are, as James Alison says, formed in rivalry and scapegoating.  “Our programming,” as Alison states in his book, Knowing Jesus, “forms us in rivalry, and the techniques of survival by exclusion.”

I can guarantee you one thing during this election year: The rivalry and scapegoating will heat up. Republican candidates and President Obama will continue to define themselves over and against one another in hopes of gaining a sense of superiority.

How do we end scapegoating? There are four key steps. First, I think it’s important to admit that we scapegoat others. Yes. You and I scapegoat. We scapegoat whenever we feel a sense of superiority by hating another person or group. Second, we can stop scapegoating when, instead of feeling superior through scapegoating others, we begin to mourn our scapegoating tendencies. Third, we know we are on our way to end scapegoating when we begin to honestly listen to our rival’s story. And fourth, to truly end scapegoating, we need to develop the courage to admit that maybe, just maybe, we don’t hold the truth, we were wrong about the truth of our rival’s story, and we were wrong about our feelings of superiority over and against our rival.

It’s 2012. And it’s time to end scapegoating.

(For an example of how to end scapegoating, see “Rick Perry and Jesus: Strength and Weakness.”)