How not to talk about what happened

Much has already been written or said about yesterday’s violent assault on the US Capitol building. Some have noted the date, January 6, celebrated by Catholics, Orthodox, and several Protestant traditions as the Feast of the Epiphany. The word, “epiphany,” comes from the Greek meaning “to make manifest or reveal.” The feast is meant to commemorate the revelation of Christ to all nations, the latter embodied symbolically in the magi as recounted in Matthew 2:1-12. Yesterday’s attack did nothing to change that, though it served as a secondary, perhaps unintentional revelation – namely, the sickness at the heart of a politics of fear and resentment.

Much more will be said and written about the causes and consequences of yesterday’s deadly and destructive events. Some of it will be true. For those who care about words, however, especially people of faith, careful thought must precede utterance. Certain words and phrases should be used, if at all, with a measure of suspicion.

Careful stewards of words will recognize that the Capitol building isn’t “sacred,” nor is it “a temple,” and thus cannot be “desecrated.” It’s true that of all the buildings facing First Street (running between the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress), the only one not constructed to look like a house of worship is owned by the United Methodist Church. It’s also true that the fresco painted on the dome above the Capitol rotunda is named “The Apotheosis of Washington,” literally depicting the first US President in the process of becoming a god. This is all in keeping with what John Bossy called the “Migrations of the Holy,” in which the rising nation state assumed aspects of religious practice to ensure sufficient allegiance from the people that they would be willing to kill or die for its symbols.

But those for who take Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – what Jesus called “the first and greatest commandment” – seriously, this is not merely nonsense, but blasphemy. No Jew, Christian, or Muslim worships Congress, the Constitution, or the flag without committing idolatry. No matter how much one might respect or revere the nation-state’s symbols, they are neither “sacred” nor “holy.”

Similarly, there isn’t an unproblematic word in the phrase, “We’re better than this.” For starters, which “we” do you have in mind? The US throughout its history, replete as that history is with constitutionally sanctioned injustice, racism, and lethal violence? The US today, as divided and ideologically incoherent as it clearly is? Some artificial subset of the population? As for “better than,” I’m convinced every person is more than the worse thing they’ve ever done, but neither are they completely separate from it. And what does “this” refer to? Invading the Capitol? The current political division and nastiness? The cultivation of division over the past fifty years? The unhealed wounds of longstanding intentional racial, ethnic, and economic injustice? Many US citizens may aspire to be “better than” what happened yesterday, but that hardly means “we are.”

I could go on like this, but I fear I’ve already begun to sermonize. Though yesterday’s violence can rightly be called evil, this isn’t a battle between unquestionable good and unalloyed evil. Every human endeavor is somehow “alloyed” an I have yet to meet anyone untainted by what Paul calls “powers and principalities,” – those institutions that give order to common affairs though never without some form of corruption, compulsion, or moral compromise. Most people most of the time do what they honestly believe true and good. Some don’t, and many that do nevertheless act wrongly, sometimes terribly so.

Be reluctant, however, to demonize those with who offend you, lest you diminish your own humanity. You may have reason to be angry, but be angry for the right reasons, in the right direction, and to the right degree. Speak the truth, kindly if possible, bluntly if necessary, but never without respect for your enemy as a human person. Simply by being your enemy, she is a reflection of you and possesses part of the truth you need to hear, however distorted it may be.

Finally, I write all this not as my expert advice to the few who will read this, but as a declaration by which others may hold me accountable. Like anyone else, the sins and errors I’m best at recognizing are those I know from the inside. I am quite skilled at judging, condemning, and demonizing. Speaking against such habits is less about changing other people’s behavior than it is about mine. These are difficult and dangerous times. I can’t get by without help. Neither, I suspect, can you. Admitting that is a good place to start – now more than ever.

Image credit: Win McNamee, Getty Images

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