Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain
by Lindsey Abston Painter | 20 January 2021 |
Growing up Adventist, I learned that I should never swear—especially I must never use words that take the Lord’s name in vain. Even saying “Oh my gosh” was not acceptable because it was just a slightly sanitized version of “Oh my god”—and this last was simply out of the question. I even refrained from using the internet favorite abbreviation OMG, since I knew what those letters stood for.
God’s name is important. It has power. It has meaning. That is why we are careful when we use it. God’s name should not be casually thrown around. It should not be used as a throwaway exclamation, or to emphasize our surprise.
At least, that’s what I was taught.
A Christian movement?
But a couple of weeks ago angry, armed people carrying Trump flags, Confederate flags, and Jesus flags forcefully overpowered capitol police, forcing Congress to flee for their lives. These people beat police officers. They peed and pooped in the sacred halls and offices of government. They broke windows, stole paintings off the wall, stole the podium of the Speaker of the House. There are photographs of a man with his booted feet up on the desk of the speaker of the house, holding her mail in his hands.
They said they were there because they wanted to stop Congress from certifying the results of a fair and legal democratic election.
You saw it. I don’t need to retell the story.
Except for this part: what many may have missed is the number of Bibles and crosses carried in the crowd. Much of this was being done in God’s name.
There is a lot to be disturbed about here from a political point of view. But from a Christian point of view I found it incredibly dismaying. It wasn’t just “How can these people do these things?” It was “How can these people do these things in the name of God.”
“Oh my gosh”
Perhaps those times in my childhood when I slipped up and said “Oh my gosh” instead of “oh my word” were of less import than I first thought? Perhaps the commandment that tells me not to take the Lord’s name in vain is less about saying “Oh my god” and more about using God’s name to justify terrible things?
What happened at the capitol is something that will go down in history as the culmination of years of misinformation, lies, attacks on the media, attacks on truth, and calls to violence. Dr. Seth Pierce, pastor and professor of religion and communication tweeted, “American Evangelical Christianity has a pre-existing condition of violence, and the pandemic has aggravated it.”
I agree, except it seems obvious to me that it isn’t just the pandemic that has encouraged and incited violence. Christianity itself had a hand in it.
Christianity and violent nationalism
The wedding of American evangelical Christianity with nationalism has always been a problem here. For a lot of people, the Christian faith is American (which of course it isn’t), and America is a Christian nation. This goes back to our beginning, to the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Roger Williams setting up Baptist Rhode Island, and William Penn’s Quaker Pennsylvania.
Even the Civil War was buttressed by Christian arguments from both sides. And it continues today in the way evangelicalism has exalted a carefully selected set of Christian teachings, which some would like to force into law. The capitol assault took it to a level we’d not seen before in recent times.
But it was hardly new: violence against the “other,” particularly against people of color, was long a religious tradition in America. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was a religious organization, not a political one. In many cities, all the local pastors would be members of it. A pastor would offer a prayer at a lynching, and remind the people he saw at the event not to skip Sunday School!
It is to Seventh-day Adventists’ credit that our pioneers were wary of the blending of church and state, of faith and patriotism. But that didn’t stop us from being racists ourselves. More than one congregation denied black people entrance on Sabbath morning, and black leaders couldn’t eat in the Review & Herald dining room for decades. Historians admit that a few of our white pastors, too, were friends of the local KKK.
I believe politically right-wing Christianity is at the root of the mass exodus we are seeing from churches in America. Millions of Americans call themselves evangelicals. These are people who spent a lifetime, from birth, dedicated to their church.
And now many, with a breaking heart, have decided they have no choice but to walk away. While these evangelicals will give many different reasons for leaving the only life they have ever known, nearly all boil down to the unholy connection between American evangelical Christianity and Christian nationalism.
Don’t be fooled. Though Seventh-day Adventists sometimes reject the “evangelical” label, our church is not immune to this problem. Just read some of the comments on politically sensitive topics in Adventist Today, and tell me that our people aren’t affected by Christian nationalism.
And we’re suffering the same decline. I always laugh when some church organization, such as the General Conference, has a meeting to wring their hands about the loss of young people from the church. “Why are they leaving?” they always cry! And all the young people who have left are saying, “We are telling you why we left. We are shouting it! You just aren’t listening!”
Their ineffective ideas for keeping young people (a flashier service? A cooler youth pastor? More overnight ski trips?) have missed the point so profoundly it feels like we’re screaming into the void.
The truth is that those things are like putting a band-aid on a festering wound. The call is coming from inside the house. Young people, and people who are less young, are leaving because while we love Jesus, and we love our church, there is something rotten at the core of American Christianity, a disease which we Adventists have contracted too. Something that needs to be surgically removed.
Jesus came for all nations, all people. Jesus never once set foot on American soil—it wasn’t even established yet. Jesus is not American. American nationalism goes against everything Jesus was. The beating heart of Jesus would have nothing to do with hateful and violent deeds. And nothing to do with disenfranchisement of millions of people—gay, lesbian, black, immigrant, those who need abortions.
Right now, it is looking more and more as if it is Christianity that is dividing America.
So I ask again: which is taking the Lord’s name in vain? If I say “oh my god”? Or if I use the holy, sacred, and precious name of God to further my agenda of violence and hate?
I have no doubt it is the latter.
Lindsey Abston Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie.