WASHINGTON, D.C. — From beginning to end, the attack lasted less than five hours, and that’s all it took to break open the rifts of the nation along with the broken windows and doors of the U.S. Capitol.
A year after thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the seat of U.S. Congress with hammers, Tasers and axes on Jan. 6, 2021, attempting to stop the final step certifying the election of then President-elect Joe Biden, the divisions in the country couldn’t be greater.
Former President Jimmy Carter, in a Jan. 5 opinion piece in The New York Times, wrote that any “hope that the insurrection would shock the nation into addressing the toxic polarization that threatens our democracy” has all but vanished.
“I now fear that what we have fought so hard to achieve globally — the right to free, fair elections, unhindered by strongman politicians who seek nothing more than to grow their own power — has become dangerously fragile at home,” he said, adding that “promoters of the lie that the election was stolen have taken over one political party and stoked distrust in our electoral systems. These forces exert power and influence through relentless disinformation, which continues to turn Americans against Americans.”
Among them are two different groups, each professing to follow Christianity. News reports largely have focused on those who participated in the violence, with at least one headline calling the politically charged attack a “Christian revolt.”
But Christians, including Catholics and other people of faith, were victims as well as witnesses, of that day’s violence.
Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern, who is Catholic, was the last lawmaker to leave the House of Representatives chamber as the mob moved in. A video shows him being escorted seconds before a rioter was fatally shot a few feet away.
“I saw these rioters, these terrorists with their fists smashing the glass to try to get at us,” he told Spectrum News 1 on the anniversary of the attack. “If you would have asked me to describe what hate looks like, I would tell you it’s what I saw in the eyes of those rioters.”
Other Catholics were out near the mob that day, trying to cool tempers.
One of them was Michele Dunne, a Catholic lay member of the Franciscan order, who was among the demonstrators in downtown Washington on the day of the attack.
Dunne was there as a “de-escalator” with a group called DC Peace Team, “engaging in peaceful dialogue and trying to defuse violent incidents,” she told Catholic News Service in a Jan. 4 email.
As a secular Franciscan, she is called to engage with everyone with courtesy and respect, no mater how much “we might disagree on certain issues,” she said.
But Jan. 6 seemed more about political ideologies than religious beliefs.
“It did hurt me to see some people conflating their political preferences with Christian values, for example a man carrying a handmade wooden cross that said, ‘God, Guns, and Trump,'” she said.
Some in the media, however, have become focused more on those types of signs, labeling it “Christian nationalism,” fueled by comments such as the ones made in the documentary “Four hours at the Capitol.” A man who filmed what happened said those who gathered that day did so because of Trump and used language Christians use to refer to Jesus.
“This man… he’s their savior, essentially, other than, you know, our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said.
To those like Jesuit Father Bryan Massingale, whose words the Catholic social justice organization Pax Christi USA used to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack, the movement might be best described as white nationalism, not Christian nationalism. He called it “the greatest threat to peace” in the country.
“White nationalism is the existential, visceral conviction that this country, its public spaces, its history, its culture, that these belong to white people in a way that they do not and should not belong to ‘others’, that America is and was meant to be and must always remain a white Christian nation,” he said.
However it is defined, some Catholics such as Dunne, a former career diplomat who now leads the Franciscan Action Network, are looking for ways to establish a middle ground, one that doesn’t seek to place blame but to foster dialogue.
“Faith-based organizations such as the Franciscan Action Network are called to be prophetic voices for peace, justice, creation, and human dignity while also creating the space for civil dialogue among those with different views,” she told CNS. “I find that there is a hunger among Franciscans and Catholics to relearn the habits of respectful dialogue in which we can each speak our truth and engage with others in order to understand their point of view, not to expose or humiliate them.”
Following the example of two lay Franciscans in Iowa, the Franciscan Action Network, organized a national interfaith vigil via Zoom Jan. 5 — the eve of the anniversary.
The event provided context of the repercussions of Jan. 6 and asked participants to reflect on questions such as:
“When have I put my political preferences above God?”
“Have I repeated or shared information I did not know to be true?”
“How have I demonized people whose views are not like my own?”
While trying to avoid blame, faith leaders who participated in the vigil’s reflections said it was important to face the truth about what happened before healing can begin.
That’s been hard to do, however, because some have tried to water it down, calling the attack a peaceful event. Others ignored the event altogether.
On Twitter, religious leaders such as Bishop Robert P. Deeley, of Portland, Maine, remembered Jan. 6, 2021, as a “terrible moment in our nation’s history.”
“The violent assault on the U.S. Capitol in Washington frightened and dismayed us. We do not expect this kind of thing to happen in America. And yet it did,” he tweeted.
President Biden addressed the nation at the beginning of the day, saying that “the Bible tells us that we shall know the truth and the truth shall make us free.”
The truth is that there was an attack; people were injured, some died, he said, adding that Democracy was, and still is, under attack.
“Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America — at American democracy,” he said.
And while some tried to summon hope, the danger is not over, said Congressman McGovern in a tweet.
“It’s tempting to think we’ve moved on from January 6th — that it was just the sad, desperate ending act of a sad, desperate presidency,” he said on the anniversary of the attack. “The problem is that’s wrong. And our democracy is in big trouble.”
It was sentiment backed by former Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, who accompanied his daughter, Wyoming Congress member Liz Cheney, to the Capitol on the anniversary of the attack to commend law enforcement and “reaffirm our dedication to the Constitution.”
“I am deeply disappointed at the failure of many members of my party to recognize the grave nature of the January 6 attacks and the ongoing threat to our nation,” he said, adding that “the importance of January 6th as an historic event cannot be overstated.”