Is America headed for Civil War?

This question is cropping up in casual conversation more and all the time. Of course, once the question is asked, the conversation is no longer casual.  It’s deadly serious.

Nobody is expecting a shooting war, with red and blue states lined up for battle like their nineteenth century predecessors. 

Then, the issue was slavery.  There were slave states and there were free states.  You lived in one of the other. There was nothing like complete unanimity on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.  But there were few outspoken slavery-promoters in the North; and, in the South, opponents of slavery learned to keep their opinions to themselves.

Our situation is different.  Even in deep red states like Texas, most of the cities have gone blue.  The urban-rural divide is stark and undeniable.  Just peruse one of those county-by-county maps published in the New York Times.  The gulf separating rural counties from their urban neighbors is unsettling.

Rural voters in California, therefore, have more in common with rural voters in Texas than they have with the denizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

And, even though urban centers have almost all shifted into the blue column, the tension between the urban and suburban electorate is considerable. 

This is primarily because the population of the urban core of most cities is predominantly minority, while the suburbs generally skew white. 

Sure, neither white or non-white America are monoliths.  Liberal white voters have little in common with conservative Black and Latino voters.  Still, most whites supported Donald Trump while most minority voters did not. 

Nothing I have said to this point is particularly original, or controversial.  But, as we weigh the likelihood of a second American civil war, our social reality must be held firmly in mind.

The possibility of civil war arises because a growing portion of white conservative America sees violence as the only way out.  The guy who asked Charlie Kirk “when do we get to use our guns,” reflects this tendency. 

The folks who stormed the capitol in January were heavily armed, but hardly anyone fired a shot.  That could change.  The elevation of poor Rittenhouse to hero status suggests that something has changed.

The Rittenhouse episode is revealing.  Why did this confused young man show up at an angry protest with an AR-15 slung over his shoulder?  He thought he was there to protect vulnerable businesses.  He believed he might be of assistance because the folks on social media, talk radio (and Fox News) were cheering on the armed bands of vigilantes popping up at Black Lives Matter protests across the nation.

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville wasn’t about protecting a statue of Robert E. Lee; it was about coaxing counter-protestors, or police officers, to react with violence.  The resulting melee, it was hoped, would provide footage for promotional materials.

And this is the way Civil War 2.0 could begin.  By parading in public, decked out in military garb and toting automatic weapons, racist militias hope to spark the kind of backlash they can work to their own twisted purposes. 

To date, macho gun displays have largely a matter of posturing.  The Rittenhouse massacre indicates this could change.  It isn’t just that a kid pulled the trigger.  Repeatedly.  It’s the way red America responded to this deadly display of gross irresponsibility.   

The parallel here is the early days of National Socialism in Germany.  Brown shirt mobs were organized to provoke attacks on suspected communists.  The fact that, according to Nazi propaganda, most communists were Jewish, was integral to the strategy.  Every time a brown shirt mob sparked a violent altercation with the perceived enemy, the more the general public was inclined to believe false predictions of an armed communist takeover. 

The violence we should fear is of this type.  If armed militias start firing the weapons they are currently brandishing, how will red America respond?  The willingness of Republican stalwarts to celebrate the violence of Kyle Rittenhouse while minimizing the danger of January 6th provides fodder for worry.

The combination of militia-inspired violence and the species of bullying and election-meddling Trump attempted in 2020 could be deadly.  If enough Americans lose faith in our democratic institutions, the national fabric could begin to unravel.  What comes next is impossible to anticipate.

There is a theological aspect to our ideological divide.  American white evangelicals have been worshipping a warrior Christ for generations.  The Jesus who calls us to eschew violence, turn the other cheek, and forgive our ideological opposites, is either ignored or flagrantly opposed.  Nice-Jesus might be okay for little girls, the argument goes, but the “real” America needs battle-ready patriot-warriors.

Unfortunately, progressive Christians often go out of our way to portray Jesus as spiritually gifted Palestinian peasant with no necessary connection to the Almighty.  The forgiving Jesus, in this reading, was just a religious teacher who, for reasons rarely explained, spoke of a loving God.  “Christians”, we are told, are simply people who agree with this first-century sage. 

I am not quarreling with this common progressive conception of Jesus; I’m just saying he’s no match for Rambo-Jesus.  Does this progressive Jesus have the ontological chops to redefine God?  Can we point to the Palestinian peasant and say, “there, that’s what God is like?”  Sure, we like his message, but does that have any obvious relevance to the heart of God? 

This is one of the reasons why I am so hopeful about the 19% of white evangelicals who refused to bend the knew to Trumpian Republicanism.  These folks are very clear about Jesus.  They don’t like Rambo-Jesus.  And they aren’t satisfied with Palestinian-peasant-Jesus either.  Historically speaking, Jesus was a peasant who lived in Palestine.  But is that description sufficient?  The historical Jesus spoke with divine authority (whether you like his message or not).  Jesus didn’t utter opinions, or give us his hot take; he spoke with the authority of Almighty God.

I don’t want to open a Christological can of worms here.  I have no idea how Jesus could be both a carpenter-preacher and the human face of God.  I just believe it’s so.

I believe it enough, in fact, that when Jesus tells me to love my enemy, I am prepared to do it.  And when I fail, I repent, and give it another go. 

And when Jesus tells me to turn the other cheek, I try my best to obey this command.  Why?  Because I believe Jesus speaks from the heart of God.

My concern, in other words, is practical.  Those of us who take our understanding of Jesus from the Gospel text must speak up.  There is no secular counter to Rambo-Jesus.  This is a theological fight and it must be waged in spiritual terms.


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5 thoughts on “Is America headed for Civil War?

  1. Excellent post, Alan. Like you, I’m a progressive with a high Christology who occupies a rather narrow space in our faith communities. I see no appetite for war except among the extreme right. The only scenario I can see with any mass violence is if the left loses ballots over time and decides bullets are the lone alternative.

  2. Agree with Dan about the excellence of this post. One quibble is with the map [not sure where it comes from], but having once lived in New Mexico and knowing quite a few people who still do, being a part of the Republica de Texas would not be acceptable! 😃

  3. Yeah, the map was a mistake. I thought of it as a symbol of a divided America, but everyone concentrates on the details.

  4. Agreed Alan – there are numerous maps about how the US should be divided into new countries, some of which actually make sense. A google search of how to divide up the USA give some good suggestions as well as some hilarious ones. There is one that fits the rural/urban divide.

  5. This reminds me of the parts about “turning the other cheek” and “going the extra mile” in Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower : Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe by Tom Krattenmaker,

    “…In Jesus’s time and place, the backhand blow was how superiors put inferiors in their place. When the Romans wanted to show their Jewish subjects who was boss, when masters wanted to remind slaves of who was in charge, when husbands wanted to subjugate their wives, it was often done by means of a backhand slap to the face. You will note that in his teaching Jesus gets specific about which cheek is slapped, and which we are to offer for the second blow. ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek.’

    “Let’s break this down. Given that most people are right-handed, when they administer this backhand blow it’s going to land on the recipient’s right cheek. Business as usual. Here’s where it gets interesting, and daring. By responding with the offer of his or her left cheek, the inferior-status person has put the superior in an awkward position. A dismissive backhand is no longer possible. The oppressor is presented with a prospect that comes in the guise of submissiveness but is actually quite assertive.

    “As the late theologian Walter Wink put it: ‘The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.’

    “Jesus, Wink goes on to say, is encouraging victims to ‘stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don’t answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.’…”

    and also

    “…The ‘second mile’ teaching is from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, ‘And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.’ While we often think of the ‘second mile’ teaching as encouragement to be more generous—and, indeed, the teaching works at this level—it’s fair to say that Jesus is also at his subversive best here. The key word is *compel*. In Jesus’s time and place, Roman soldiers could compel the conquered civilians to drop whatever they were doing and go to work for them. This often took the form of carrying soldiers’ heavy loads as they marched through your village. By custom, this form of temporary conscription had a limit. It was understood that you, the humble Jewish villager, would have to carry the soldier’s pack no more than one mile.

    “With Wink’s help once again, let’s look closely at what is happening: You and the soldier who appropriated you have reached the one-mile mark. He fully expects you to stop now, unburden yourself of his heavy pack, and go back to what you were doing. He probably expects you to be grumpy about it, passive-aggressive, keen on demonstrating your displeasure without being so confrontational as to tempt him to punish you. But you defy his expectation and mess with his mind. Cheerily, you say, ‘I’ll keep going.’ The soldier is surprised. He is thrown off, worried. Are you trying to trap him in an infraction? Will he get in trouble with his superiors if he lets you break the one-mile rule? Are you mocking his strength? Are you actually enjoying the experience of carrying his stuff and, thus, depriving him of the gratification of forcing you to do something you do not want to do? Wink writes:

    “‘From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They have taken back the power of choice. They have thrown the soldier off balance by depriving him of the predictability of his victim’s response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he must make a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him.

    “‘If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today. Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’s hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.’…”

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