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

Learning from an atrocity and finding a better way forward

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.

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