Shouting “Fire!” in a Burning Theatre

I’m struggling with an emotion that has been hard to name.  This morning it came—not a label for the feeling but a metaphor. I feel like I’ve been shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

In some ways, the metaphor is all wrong. The phrase, borrowed from a 1919 opinion by US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, implies a falsehood; “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic” was Holmes’s actual phrase. But in my case, the cry is not false—the building is actually burning. And I’m not nearly as sure we will persevere as my optimistic colleague Angie Simms portrayed in her recent post.

As Holmes notes, shouting “Fire!” is incendiary in and of itself. It causes a panic and people get tramped in its wake. Here is a second way the metaphor is all wrong: I’m shouting “Fire!” but no one seems to be moving. The audience remains seated, fingers steeped in popcorn, eyes glued to the screen. “The theatre is on fire!” I shout. My words are ignored.

What is on fire? The Evangelical movement has been set ablaze and even threatens to take democracy down with it.

Christian’s deeds matter – the world watches.

I see one accelerant nearly every time I log into Facebook, as some of my Christian friends continually forward memes that ignite a sort of casual racism. Racism has long been a rot at the root of the White Christianity practiced on America’s soil. Recently, several authors have warned of the evils of “Slaveholder Religion,” as one called it. The authors, Evangelicals themselves, are shouting “Fire!” but the target audience—their fellow believers—remain unmoved. 

Another is the ongoing disdain of science. For so many Christians these days, the draw of political partisanship and its badges—staunch opposition to masks and/or the coronavirus vaccines—has overtaken the call of scripture, captured in the Sunday School song and Civil Rights anthem “This Little Light of Mine.” “let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matt. 5:16, NLV). As top infectious disease experts warn that masks, social distancing, and vaccines are all vital in the fight put an end to the deadly pandemic, too many remain unmoved and unmasked. Christian’s deeds matter – the world watches.

A third accelerant persists in the strong endorsement among Evangelicals of the Big Lie. Evangelical leaders, including several I know well, continue to embrace the Big Lie. As I noted in an earlier post, Jesus reserved his harshest condemnation not for sinners but religious leaders who fed falsehoods to followers. The Apostle James makes note of this as well. As congregations across America burn with these lies, even those leaders who do not endorse the Lie are often complicit in their silence. True, some among the movement’s luminaries have issued petitions condemning Christian Nationalism, a false gospel closely associated with these claims*. Yet the eyes of most in their audience remain glued to the screen of Fox News.

Perhaps my experience is similar to Abraham’s, captured in the book of Genesis. Catching wind of God’s plan to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (a difficult passage for modern ears), he begged God to spare them to protect the righteous people living there such as Lot, his nephew. God made a deal: if even ten righteous people could be found, he would spare the cities. Yet only two—Lot and his wife—were deemed righteous. Only two.

The theatre is ablaze. Are there enough righteous people in the pews of our churches who will heed the call, rescue the faith, and help save the nation?


*You may want to add your signature to these…

Christians Against Christian Nationalism

A Statement from Christian Ethicists Without Borders
on White Supremacy and Racism