Just hours before these words were written, Joseph R. Biden Jr. stood in front of the temple of democracy and was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. Everything about the day seemed to reinforce that this was the end of one era and the start of another — for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective.
As Donald Trump was taking off on Air Force One after one more tarmac rally, Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” was blaring from the speakers. Meanwhile, in keeping with tradition, Biden was being quietly driven to Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, a self-confessed sinner seeking God’s guidance.
The inauguration itself served, as it always does, as a secular High Mass. Trump was absent, but his vice president was there, along with former presidents from both parties. They attended to show unity to the world, and to reclaim a landmark that had been desecrated two weeks earlier.
We don’t have a common way of describing the events at the Capitol on January 6. Some say it was a protest or a riot, others an insurrection or an attempted coup. A few call it the action of patriots. Let’s settle on “riot” for now.
There’s much we don’t yet know about it: the extent of the intentions of the rioters, whether they were assisted by insiders, whether the now-former president will be held responsible for encouraging the mob.
It had all the trappings of an iconic moment — an inflection point — inviting comparisons to other wrenching landmarks of change in America’s past. When Joseph Welch asked Senator McCarthy “Have you no decency, sir,” or when Hazel Massery walked stoically through the angry crowd at Little Rock High School, possible trajectories of American history were, in significant ways, closed off permanently.
But it may be that the Capitol building, a “people’s house” built deliberately without fortifications, even after British soldiers burnt it to the ground, will always be surrounded by a seven-foot fence. It’s possible we will have to turn the National Mall into a Green Zone for future inaugurations, because we fear the violent rage of our fellow citizens.
The American system of government is determinedly secular, but rooted in virtues and commitments at the heart of Christian discipleship, many of them hammered out by Saint Paul in his heroic attempts to find a way forward for the embattled churches at Corinth, Rome, and Philippi. It expects that people of differing opinions can discern truth from error and make distinctions between primary and secondary goods. It assumes that the consciences of those who differ from us deserve respect, that the public good should take priority over private advantage, and that compromise is usually a sign of a generous heart, not the lack of a backbone. It assumes that the needs of the “least of these” should not be crowded out by those who come bearing gifts — and demands.
At its best, representative self-government is an invitation to “hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:9-10). When we call our leaders “public servants,” we tacitly invite them to imitate the Servant of all, to “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
There may be technical fixes for some of our problems — better content mediation on social media sites and clarifying executive immunity could be a place to start. But the kind of angry divisiveness revealed so outlandishly on January 6 will only give way when hearts are changed. For the common good, we must find ways to come out from behind our ideological bunkers, to listen with open minds and hearts, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” even those who vote a different way.
President Biden recognized this reality when he said America can come together “if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.” He is known as a person of deep faith who seeks, imperfectly of course, to have a servant heart. “My whole soul is in this,” he said, invoking Lincoln’s words in signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Episcopal Church has launched a timely new campaign that starts with a translation of e pluribus unum: “From Many, One: Conversations Across Difference.” It launched at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and invites us “to engage in the spiritual practice of listening and honest conversation across the many differences that separate us, starting with four simple questions: What do you love? What have you lost? Where does it hurt? What do you dream?”
A series of videos of Episcopalians modeling this practice will be released in coming months. The first one features a warm and respectful exchange between the Rev. Susan Russell and Bishop Greg Brewer, who have built a friendship after advocating for opposite sides in the same-sex marriage debates. Other videos will feature discussions across divisions of race, political ideology, and region.
Campaign organizers hope Episcopalians across the country will seek out conversation partners who see the world differently, and that prayer and gracious discussion will allow the Holy Spirit to reveal deeper unity and foster mutual love. Honest conversations will not be easy, because as Christians and Americans we have disagreements about important matters of truth, and great patience will be necessary. The campaign plans to gather some of these conversations as resources to inspire and encourage, at a moment when our nation desperately needs such signs of hope. The soon-to-be-released report of the Task Force on Communion across Difference will also provide helpful theological resources for this work.
The Living Church hopes to play our part in the effort with a series of profiles on congregations and church members who are building authentic communion across difference. Watch for the first one in our next issue, and more in the coming months. We admire and seek to follow those who are building friendships despite natural barriers, in common service of him who gave his life for all.