Like most of us, I have spent a lot of time pondering the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. I’ve processed some of those thoughts through social media posts and comments on other people’s posts. Still, thoughts about an event like this in history need to be brought together in one place to be able to remember them and process them further as the light of history eventually illuminates the things we may have missed in the immediate context.
One thing I have seen repeated time and again is the ubiquitous “both sides” excuse that tries to deflect analysis by reminding us of things the “other side” has done in the past. The one problem with this thinking is that this was not a “both sides” situation. This was Donald Trump vs. America and the system that we use to select our leaders (as flawed as they may be some times). Inside the Capitol, there were Representatives and Senators from both major parties whose lives were threatened by this mob. And, slowly, both sides are coming together to say that this was wrong. Those who refuse to do so will likely find themselves on the outside of their respective parties.
What we saw last Wednesday was a disgraced leader making a last ditched attempt (maybe) to hold onto power as the process to remove him through the vote of the people was going on inside the building where the official business of our citizens is conducted. Trump addressed a rally of protesters with strong language and his repeated unsubstantiated claims of fraud to rile them up in believing that he and they had been cheated. He named names and even threw members of his own administration under the bus for not standing with him in this ongoing charade. (We have since heard audio of rioters chanting for the death of Trump’s own Vice-President.) Then he walked away (even though he said he would be with them) to let the natural flow of a mob mentality take over. This can be described as nothing less than an attempted coup.
In my lifetime there have been two other presidents who lost reelection after one term and one who lost while filling out the term of his disgraced predecessor. Two of these men were Republicans, one was a Democrat. None of these men spent the months after the election demonizing the process and those who have been entrusted with the responsibility to make sure this process is carried out in a legal and fair manner. They all knew how to lose with dignity and place the wishes of the nation above their own agendas and reputations. They all probably experienced some level of hurt but they laid that aside for the common good of the nation. Trump has been incapable of doing that and has displayed a level of narcissism rarely seen before in our nation.
It is also important to remember that not everyone involved with the protest was there to riot. Just as we cannot say that all those who were protesting police brutality and the unjust treatment of black people by our law enforcement system this past summer were involved in the looting and violence that accompanied their protests, we must recognize that not all the people gathered to protest in D.C. this past Wednesday were engaged in rioting. There were people there who have legitimate concerns about the way our nation is going, whether or not I agree with the concerns. Some feel serious fear about the future. Some were small business owners who have lost their life’s work in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Some were people who feel isolation in the limits on public gathering sizes as a result of the pandemic. They went to D.C. to voice their concerns and fears. Donald Trump is a master at taking advantage of those fears for the sake of his own agenda. He is a master manipulator. This is what he did in rallying the crowd to storm the Capitol building.
The question we need to ask now is “what next?” How do we move forward, particularly for those of us who are followers of Jesus and know other Christians that have bought into the Trump lie. Over the past few weeks, I have had conversations with people close to me that were supporters of Trump who have slowly seen him for the man he really is as he has persisted in spreading misinformation about the election process and continued to insist that he had won. Part of me wants to just say, “What took you so long???” and sometimes I did. Still, I know as a person who follows a gracious God that I need to show grace to those who are authentic in coming to this realization.
As I have pondered this question, my mind has often gone back to what I remember learning about the Decian Persecution in mid-third century Rome and the years following. In January 250, in an effort to restore the greatness of the Roman Empire, Emperor Decius issued an edict demanding that all citizens perform a sacrifice to Jupiter in the public square and carry a certificate signed by the local magistrate acknowledging their sacrifice. Though this persecution was not specifically aimed at Christians, it resulted in many Christians being executed and several others suffering imprisonment and torture though the persecution ended before they were killed. In the years following the end of the persecution, there was a great debate about whether those who caved to the pressure, either by obtaining a certificate through fraudulent means or performing the sacrifice just once to get their certificate, should be restored to fellowship in the church after they repent. Ironically, the ones who had experienced torture yet survived, known as the confessors, were some of the most gracious people when it came to questions of restoring those who had lapsed in their faith. (The first 12 minutes of this video present a good summary of this part of church history.)
In no way would I want to compare the experience of those who challenged the influence of Trump in the evangelical church from the beginning of his term with that of Christians who were tortured and killed under Roman persecution. I am not aware of anyone who experienced martyrdom because of this. Still, many of us experienced the distancing of family and friends who questioned our devotion to Christ based on our lack of commitment to and strong disagreement with Trump. I remember recently being told that my lack of support for Trump implied that I was supporting candidates who “marched to the devil’s drum beat.” There has been a sense of loss of relationships for our convictions. Still, my personal hope is that the events of last Wednesday will be a wake-up call for friends and family to see Donald Trump for who he really is and who many of us saw him to be. I have already seen a trend that direction which gives me hope even if it is not as widespread as I wish it to be. As people begin to come to their senses, I need to remember the grace shown by those who suffered much more in their stand for Jesus and be willing to consider ways to restore fellowship with those who are truly repentant at the site of what we have seen in this week. This may take time but the grace of Jesus and His early followers compels me to show grace to others as they begin to come around.