By Paul Baxley
Yesterday’s riotous insurrection at the United States Capitol took place on the very same day Christians celebrate Epiphany by remembering the magi’s visit to see Jesus.
Yesterday was not the first Epiphany marked by such hatred and darkness. The biblical story of the Epiphany takes place in the context of horrific violence caused by the insecurities, words and deeds of a ruler and those close to him. King Herod hears the announcement of the magi that a new king has been born. Threatened deeply by the emergence of a new king, Herod instructs the magi to inform him as soon as they find the child. After the magi find Jesus and his parents and present their gifts, they have to decide whether they will do the bidding of the king, or whether they will take a different path. As we know, they refused Herod’s instruction, and following their refusal, he unleashed a torrent of violence that took the lives of all male children under two in the region.
On this day following Epiphany, and after the insurrection at the Capitol, we find ourselves in the same position as the magi after they visited the child Jesus. We must decide how we will respond to the horrific violence unleashed before our eyes. Will we participate? Will we remain silent? Will we choose a different way? What should people of Christian faith do? Where do we even begin?
Telling the Truth About What We Saw
We who follow Jesus must begin by telling the truth. Because those who carried out the insurrection carried Christian flags, crosses, and banners invoking the name of Jesus alongside confederate flags, they offered a vivid demonstration of the danger of Christian nationalism and made clear their commitment to white supremacy. They gave the impression that, in all of this, they were faithful to Jesus. The truth is far different.
Jesus commanded his disciples to renounce the use of violence. Jesus is not served by anger, hate and insurrection. White supremacy is contrary to the Gospel; the Christmas angels told us the birth of Jesus is “good news of great joy for all people.” (Luke 2:10). St. Paul taught the earliest Christians that “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer male and female, we are all one in Christ.” White supremacy is sinful and contradictory to the Gospel. Christian nationalism is idolatry. Both are evil and their devastating consequences were on full display yesterday.
There are other truths we must tell. Those who attacked the United States Capitol in a violent insurrection did not show up randomly, accidentally or without warning. They were encouraged and empowered by the President of the United States and his allies. That is not a partisan statement. It is not even a courageous statement. It is simply a truth borne out by reading the words of President Trump and those near him both the morning of January 6 and before.
The violence we saw at the Capitol, just like the violence around the magi’s visit to Jesus, was inspired and enabled by national leadership. Any Christian vision of government presumes that government exists for the common good. Can encouraging and enabling an insurrection be for the common good? As I see it, the answer to this question is no. We must demand more from our leaders, because the words, actions and examples of leaders carry tremendous power.
There’s another unavoidable truth. Most of the insurrectionists of yesterday stormed the Capitol violently and then were allowed to leave of their own accord. This was in stark contrast to events earlier this year when people engaged in peaceful protest were overwhelmed by force. Why were these insurrectionists allowed to leave on their own? Had the people who participated in the insurrection been black, brown or of another faith tradition, would they have been allowed to disperse on their own? What we have seen previously tells us the answer is no.
Telling the Truth About Ourselves
It is not enough to speak truth about what we have seen. We must also speak truth about ourselves. Have we participated in creating the violence that spilled over yesterday? Have we spoken words or acted in ways that perpetuate lies, feed insecurities, take liberties with truth, spread baseless conspiracies or attack those who differ from us? Have we by our silence or inaction allowed injustice, dishonesty and demonization to fester in the name of maintaining order, avoiding confrontation, or keeping the peace? Or in the belief that we do not have the power or capacity to make any difference? Have we waited for someone else to stand up, speak out, or take the risk required to challenge or seek change?
I find myself searching my heart and mind in a spirit of repentance for the times I have remained silent in the hope that someone else would speak, or in fear because I saw the retribution that others received, or because I believed the offering of an alternative witness and the living of a distinctly different life would be enough to drive out the darkness, discord and dishonesty around us. When I recognize the times I chose silence or inaction instead of speech and intervention, I am called to confession and repentance, remembering the words of the Church’s prayer: “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, both by what we have done and what we have left undone.”
Today we face a choice, just like the magi. Will we be overcome by the violence around us? Will we participate in it or enable it? Will we avoid it? Or will we find a different and faithful way?
The faithful way begins with telling the truth, not just about others but also about ourselves. It requires genuine repentance, prayers for forgiveness and a renewed commitment to living as followers of Jesus committed to loving one another and our neighbors as Christ has loved us. But then we can choose to join Christ’s mission of love, forgiveness, justice, healing and reconciliation.
If angry, divisive, and dishonest speech helped create the violence of yesterday, how much power could be unleashed by words that are persistently true, loving, just and redeeming? Dangerous words spoken persistently destroy, but faithful and healing words spoken relentlessly create a new world.
If human beings, left to our own devices, fear and avoid one another, how different would our congregations, communities and nation be if we who follow Jesus allowed him to remake us until we could be used in his mission? This moment invites truth telling, peacemaking, and an authentic discipleship that transforms us until we become agents of Christ’s transformation. Could a people who speak honestly, love genuinely, seek justice steadfastly, and serve relentlessly in the name and power of Jesus be light and life for a broken world?
Ultimately, the story about Epiphany is a story of light; a star that shines so brightly that it causes magi to change the course of their lives. Jesus calls his disciples to be that kind of life-changing light. I think that’s what the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind when he announced: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can.” Five decades after those words were spoken, it’s time to stop just quoting them and start living them.