Why we cannot look away from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol

Learning from an atrocity and finding a better way forward

January 6, 2022

One of my favorite spots in the entire world is in Washington, D.C. Specifically, it is inside the Capitol rotunda around sunset. It’s not uncommon for a series of votes to occur in either the U.S. House or Senate at that time of the day. When I worked there, I would often accompany my boss over to the chamber and discuss the legislative business of the day. Once he arrived at the area known as the speaker’s lounge, I would occasionally peel off and stroll through the rest of the historic building for some down time after a hectic day. 

With the building closed to tourists and guests in the evening, it was usually just me and a few members of the U.S. Capitol Police who were present amidst the iconic paintings and statues. I was thankful I could enjoy these brief moments of tranquility in safety because of those officers –– which was no small blessing in the midst of the post-9/11 tension in which I worked. I could not help but truly appreciate the brave individuals who were assigned to protect us from various terror threats day in and day out.

Reflecting on that time nearly 20 years ago in the Capitol, it feels ages removed from our current context. Pandemic restrictions are largely still in effect, and, based on conversations I’ve had with current legislative staff, the culture on the Hill has dramatically changed. And most of us recall the tragedy of last year, when the Capitol itself was subjected to a violent, insurrectionist attack because a mob –– stirred up by dangerous rhetoric that had no basis in reality –– stormed the building. Lives were lost, people were injured, others were traumatized, and the seat of our national government was left in tatters. The same police force that offered me protection has now suffered significant losses over the last 12 months.

Ordinarily, the one-year mark of such a grievous event would be an occasion for bells to toll or a national moment of silence. But, sadly, that won’t happen in any meaningful way across the country because, like everything else in our society, Jan. 6 has become politically polarizing. And the reality is that we are all exhausted by the outsized role American political discourse occupies in our lives. Still, that’s no excuse to turn away or minimize this moment.

Engaging Jan. 6 as a Christian

Unlike so much else in our current political environment that is fabricated, the attack of Jan. 6, 2021, was real. In the rush to define that riotous afternoon in political terms, which makes it easier to push away, we often miss the real agony of it all. There was an actual human toll from the events of that day — multiple lives lost and a heavy trauma inflicted upon those in the building — that cannot be waived away or dismissed. Instead, Christians should engage this moment for several reasons. 

We ought to begin with thinking about the implications of the imago Dei. We should help those who are somehow sympathetic to the Capitol riot see the officials, staffers, and officers as fellow image-bearers who shouldn’t have been subjected to the terrorism of that moment –– regardless of how much anyone may disagree with them. Christians are unequivocally called to “abhor what is evil” (Rom. 12:9).

Secondly, we should think about honor. A plain reading of all that took place should lead any observer to the conclusion that Jan. 6 was dishonorable to our leaders, our government, and our nation. Christians, specifically, should look to what the Bible has to say about honor. In 1 Peter, we are told to “honor everyone” (2:17). There’s no qualification on that command. Couple that with the guidance Paul gives in Romans to give honor to those who serve as “governing authorities” (13:1-7), and it should begin to be clear that what occurred one year ago was anything but biblical. We should be unambiguous in saying so.

And a final reason we should engage this moment is because, as Christians, we uniquely understand fallen human nature. All of us are children of wrath (Eph. 2) apart from Christ, and we know that structure is needed to constrain the reality of indwelling sin. As Americans, we are privileged to live in a constitutional order, and Christians, especially, need to be the ones articulating why that is a good and necessary thing that should be protected from mob violence. In his recent book We the Fallen People, Robert Tracy McKenzie writes about this truth underlying James Madison’s vision for our republican government. 

The key, he concluded after much study, would be to devise a governmental framework that could compensate for the shortage of virtue among both people and their leaders. ‘It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary,’ Madison later conceded during the debate over the proposed Constitution. “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government should be necessary.” 

Madison understood that in order for this fledgling nation to have a chance at flourishing, we needed a system that accounted for our sinful hearts. While the design he and our Founding Fathers fashioned is far from perfect, it has withstood a number of challenges since its creation.

So our engagement on these grounds should help illuminate a healthier way to not only think about this moment but also, more broadly, how to properly engage the political space for our fellow citizens. Our culture desperately needs to see examples of people who participate in political activity without finding their ultimate identity in it and who treat their “opponents” with the utmost dignity.

Learning from history

While we conduct ourselves as people steeped in the Word, we should also cultivate an appreciation for being students of history. I’ve found reading history has helped keep me grounded even as our culture has seemingly grown more chaotic (though, of course, that has been the trend since Genesis 3). The former prime minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, was fond of saying, “The future is unknowable but the past should give us hope.” I find that is often the case. Reviewing how the generations that have gone before us have defined and handled treacherous moments provides me confidence that we may even gain valuable lessons from our own dark chapters like Jan. 6.

As an example, at just 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln gave a public address centered on the long-term viability of America’s political institutions. He believed that if our nation faced any “danger,” it would not come from some “transatlantic military giant” or from all the “armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined.” Instead, he stated, it would “spring up amongst us.” He would go on to condemn the violence of mobs. He warned that “this government cannot stand” if we become a society known for this type of recklessness and lawlessness. Later in life, as we all well know, he would go on to overcome the greatest challenge in American history.

Lincoln’s words, based on observations from his lifetime, seem fitted for our own. While we certainly have adversaries around the world, we aren’t likely to face a real threat from them anytime soon. Instead, we live in a hyper-partisan age, where overheated political rhetoric and outright misinformation is weaponized by political actors consumed with attaining power at any cost and amplified by the most irresponsible online voices. 

Just as in Lincoln’s day, these trials are of our own making. Because of that, it will require all Americans to overcome them. We won’t do so by ignoring our darkest moments or demonizing those who disagree with us. Instead, Christians should be the ones leading in a constructive way. Our charge is to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). If we do that, perhaps we can calm the storms of the moment, disperse mobs intent on destruction, and prevent the horrors of Jan. 6 from ever occurring again.

Photo Attribution:

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F. Brent Leatherwood

Brent Leatherwood was elected as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2022, after a year of leading the organization as acting president. Previously, he served as chief of staff at the ERLC, as well as the entity’s director of strategic partnerships. He brings an expertise in public … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24