Sacred Peace and Justice: A Response to American Insurrection

By: Blair Nelsen, Executive Director, Waterspirit

There are new bullet holes in the American Capitol today.

Yesterday, crucifixes and “Jesus Saves” signs peppered the mob landscape outside the building.

Jesus would never have supported the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The actions of the insurgents were anti-Christian and antithetical to the democratic process. I shouldn’t even have to write these words. This should be self-evident.

The work continues.

“This Isn’t America”: Living Through a Coup

Yesterday, I felt like I was in high school again. Nineteen years ago, I was a senior in high school in Caracas, Venezuela. Hugo Chavez had been president since his democratic election in 1998. In April 2002, he was violently ousted from power for 48 hours. CIA-funded protestors wreaked havoc in the streets, culminating in a violent shootout in front of the presidential palace. I watched them in the distance from our apartment’s balcony. Our electricity was intermittent and, given the extreme media polarization, it was nearly impossible to learn the facts of what was happening. I remember feeling frozen by fear, wondering how violent the city would get and whether our embassy would evacuate us. I remember US President George W. Bush coming on CNN to support the anti-democratic coup, and later backpedaling. Then, 48 hours later, Chavez was re-instated and business as normal resumed.

I share this story because it lives in my skin. I am hesitant to share it because of the endless stream of TV pundits comparing yesterday’s events to “banana republics” and “third world countries”. One CNN reporter, watching the footage, offensively commented that he felt like he was speaking with a reporter from Bogotá, Colombia (which was swiftly criticized on Twitter by actual reporters from Bogotá). These disparaging comments obfuscate the US’s involvement in the creation of those “banana republics”. They presume that there is something in America that makes it better than those other nations, a superiority that means that such things could not happen here.

As many, many people have observed: this is America. This can happen here. This did happen here. Yes, we saw a coup attempt yesterday. Call it what it is. It was not a successful coup attempt. It might be next time. We must be vigilant and protect the institutions of our American democracy to keep it from happening.

Democracy and the Sacred

The religious overtones of the insurrection were upfront and disturbing: a flag reading “Jesus 2020”. “Jesus Saves” signs. A large wooden cross near a large guillotine and nooses. A Camp Auschwitz shirt. A QAnon “shaman” sporting an appropriated horned headdress and Nordic tattoos linked to a white supremacist religious movement.

As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic, the rioters were repeatedly spouting the QAnon refrain that equates Trump with Jesus. The violence-inciting president is upheld as a “worker of light” bringing about a new era of enlightenment. “It’s all in the Bible,” one of the marchers said, “Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible. Get yourself ready.” This is not a fringe attitude in this movement.

Yet, we have also seen a faithful response to yesterday’s violence. Many Catholic bishops have decried the violence in the National Catholic Reporter, standing in contrast to the many right-wing Catholics who have joined the ranks of evangelicals unflaggingly supporting a president who represents the worst of this country. Fr. James Martin condemned Christian faith leaders who framed this election in terms of good and evil, turning a secular election into a religious act. Nancy Pelosi, upon reconvening to certify the results after the building had been cleared, cited Saint Francis before declaring the Senators’ work sacred and deeming the Capitol building a temple of democracy. Perhaps they are right — we are witnessing the playing out of secular religion together with a rampaging Christian nationalism twisted into a hateful perversion of the actual message of Jesus. I would hope, however, that what we consider to be sacred is actually beyond any of the structures of democracy. “Sacred” is not synonymous with “very important.” The peace that can only be had on the other side of justice — that is sacred.

Peace Through Justice

Community organizers and activists have taken to the media to share the glaring differences between their treatment as they peacefully called for human rights and the treatment given to the mob in DC. Waterspirit’s Public Policy and Justice Organizer, Rachel Dawn Davis, is a long-time activist against fracking. She has been on the frontlines at peaceful protests — sometimes with her children — and experienced the forceful retribution that water protectors experience. She shares,

“My body is still shaking at the real prospect of additional violence, done not only in the Capitol but in states everywhere. My body, that has only ever demonstrated peacefully, has faced potential arrest and following anxiety.

My body remembers the militant police staring at me holding my baby at a protest demonstrating for peace and renewable energy yet again in Philadelphia at the Global Frackdown. These ‘police’ were in navy blue outfits. They were intimidating. They looked at us blankly and were taking pictures of us with fancy cameras. This was so disturbing that it created a fear in me of taking our kids to protests. Much that happened since 2012 with respect to protesters has kept me at home during protests pre- COVID-19.

Yesterday, for a second — the time it took to NOT shoot a water cannon or rubber bullet — my body was shaking and wondering: WHERE IS THE NATIONAL GUARD? This then went on for hours and it felt beyond exhausting.”

I echo Rachel’s question: where was the response to yesterday’s seditious acts, publicized for weeks on social media? Why are white supremacists protected, their hands held as they are gently escorted out of the Capitol building, while water protectors and Black Lives Matter activists are shot and imprisoned? America’s racism was on full display on January 6. We still have much work to do, and we cannot do it until we acknowledge the full extent of the problem.

The charism of Waterspirit’s sponsoring Congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, is “Pursuing justice, we seek God’s gift of peace.” I have those words written in large letters on the walls of my office. They are a powerful north star. There cannot be reconciliation without repentance. There cannot be peace without a real reckoning with the racism of this nation, and the insurrectionists must be brought to justice. (Given their crowing on social media throughout the event, they shouldn’t be too hard to find.)

Resources and Calls to Action

If you are ready to take action, please call your representatives today. If they have not taken a strong stance against yesterday’s violence and its racist underpinnings, urge them to do so. Organize your family and friends to do the same, particularly if their representatives are any of the eight Senators or 139 Representatives who continued to undermine a free and fair election by opposing the certification of the election results.

A number of news outlets have shared tips for talking with children about yesterday’s events, including National Geographic Magazine. A crowdsourced resource list is also available here.

Use the spiritual tools at your disposal to process these events. One resource is the powerful interfaith prayer service shared to Facebook by Faith 2020. Waterspirit’s meditation for earth videos can also be a way to step back, ground yourself and direct your energies toward positive, earth-centered change.

The work for peace through justice is ongoing, and divine justice will prevail. As Waterspirit Program Manager Abbey Koshak writes, “I am praying for humanity so all lives can thrive and we can live in a peaceful and co-creative environment.” I add my sincere prayer that you are able to find a way to feel held and safe today. May you feel the united heartbeats of everyone who is working for a better world. The work flows like a river; the work is ever-new.

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