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Christian leaders reflect about their beliefs, leave Jan. 6 Capitol riot behind, in celebrating inauguration

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A staff member at the U.S. Capitol in Washington puts the Bible on a table Jan. 20, 2021, ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States. (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

Some Christian leaders said they watched the scenes coming out of the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 with “horror,” particularly as they saw some in the violent mob carrying “Jesus saves” signs.

That horror has been further compounded after a recently released New Yorker video that shows a shirtless man in a fur hat and horns on his head, with his face painted red, white and blue, leading a prayer thanking Jesus for allowing the mob to get in, as he’s perched from the seat reserved for the Speaker of the House.

“Flat horror” is how Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Prayer Breakfast, described how she felt watching the attacks at the Capitol unfold. Among the rioters, Christian prayers were blurted out, and the name of Jesus was shouted as a noose floated in the crowd and police officers were attacked.

Scenes of violence or participation in other moments of division should make Christians ask fundamental and basic questions such as: “Who do I want to serve?” said Williams-Skinner.

“Choose this day who you will serve. But as for me and my house, I will serve the Lord,” she continued. “Every one of us has that decision to make: Will I serve my political party? Will I serve my whiteness? My blackness? My Asian, Hispanic or Indian or Native American culture? Will I serve my money? My wealth?”

It was a question she posed during the “Faith and the Faithful in a Time of National Crisis and New Leadership” panel Jan. 14, an event organized by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

The panel featured a variety of faith leaders and a journalist who also offered a way forward after the contentious and violent events in Washington and during the recent presidential campaign.

Following the riots at the Capitol that left five dead, an event in which Christians took part in, panelist Eugene Cho, president of the Christian nonprofit Bread for World, said it was a moment to “lament.”

“We saw, as religious leaders … painful moments, there were so many … a litany of ¬†painful images that we saw, phrases that are very dear and important to us as followers of Jesus, being hijacked and used by the mob,” he said.

“I would encourage us to think about a few things. Number one is that we need to look back and lament. I’m not talking about a 15-minute prayer service and then off you go to the next thing. We should be broken in our soul for what we witnessed,” Cho added.

Some panelists suggested believers engage in deep reflections, about their beliefs, particularly in the figure of a Christ that came to the world for peace, not violence, what role they played in polarization, on social media or not engaging with others because of their political views, but mainly, to reflect on the basic Christian mission of love, which was not part of convulsion at the Capitol.

Gerald F. Seib, Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal, said the riots weren’t “a protest that went bad, a political march that went bad,” and Christians, as seekers of truth, need to look at the events for what they really were.

“This was the president of the United States sending thousands of his supporters to the Capitol to try to overturn the results of the election,” he said. “That would have been pretty shocking if that’s all it was.

“If it had been a peaceful march, it was still an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power because the transfer would not have happened in this march had succeeded. But it did turn violent. The more we know about it, the worse it sounds.”

In a speech at a rally on the Ellipse that day, Trump urged his supporters to continue the fight against the 2020 election results and “demand Congress do the right thing.” “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” he said.

As the country moves forward, it’s imperative to reflect on what the division means and why people still continue to support and defend the violence that took place.

Panelist Kathleen Domingo, of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the first thing people of faith need to do is something Pope Francis suggests: ¬†“We need to do an examination of conscience,” she said.

“Each of us individually … we’ve seen play out at times the damage that social media has done,” she said. “We know that we have had pastors and spiritual leaders who have come out very vehemently on either side during this campaign season and that has done damage.”

Whether it’s laity or religious leaders, “we need to make some changes” and engage in personal conversion, she said.

“We have to look at ourselves and say: What have I done and what do I need to do? And I think the final thing is, there’s a choice to be made in our Catholic tradition or Christian tradition,” Domingo continued.

“We can be the person who stands out in the desert and who shouts and yells at the center and who decries,” she said, “or we can choose to be the person who rolls up their sleeves in humility and sits down like Jesus did with the sinner and says: ‘What am I going to do? How can we get to work, how can we come together? How can we solve this?’ And that takes a certain amount of humility.”

Personal relationships, even with a person with whom we disagree, has to be part of the solution as a way to move forward as a country and beyond polarization, panelists said.

Williams-Skinner said a Christian’s role out of the ideological travails in which the country finds itself is to go back to basics.

“The mission is the same as it’s always been. It is to live to the core what Jesus taught: that love trumps hate. Excuse the pun,” she said.

“If there’s anything that challenged us (from the Jan. 6 events), it is how far away we’ve gone as a people,” she said. “We’ve gone from just disagreeing to literally demonizing. I think the mission is to see the humanity in every person, no matter what their politics … many pro-Trump Christians saw their engagement in the mob action as a holy war. Others of us sat aghast in horror.”

She said it’s important to reflect and ask: “Are we at a point where we can say, I want to be a peacemaker?”

“Our mission has got to be making peace and not division … not demonizing, it’s not devaluing. My friends laugh at me for praying for the president (Donald Trump), who I totally disagree with on almost everything, because it is my Christian duty.”

The Rev. Adam Russell Taylor, president of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, said it’s important to heed the lessons of the last few years.

“I think we make a mistake … if we become so aligned with a political party that in the process we become co-opted by that political party,” he said.

The Christian right, he said, was “co-opted by Trumpism, not just the Republican Party,” and while some may have believed there were good reasons behind it, he said, “they ultimately ended up forfeiting a great deal of their soul and essence.”

While Christians must be engaged in politics, going forward they must reflect, not “drink the Kool-Aid of social media” that feeds and energizes “vigilant toxicity,” said panelist Cho.

“First, let’s acknowledge that, yes, politics matters for us as followers of Christ,” he said. “But it is not the ultimate answer to all things. Politics has its place because it informs policies that impact people, oftentimes people that are marginalized. So, we have to acknowledge that it matters but we have to also acknowledge that if we’re not careful, it may grow to become idolatry.”

Christians have to move beyond that, he said.

“We have to be truth tellers and yes we can (disagree) in a spirit of love and grace, but we have to tell the truth and as Christians and as Christian leaders, people that are pastors or influential … we have Scripture that tells us that the truth will set us free and we are in very, very precarious situation in some ways.”