The year was 1856, and the topic of slavery was gripping the nation.
Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had recently made a speech about abolishing slavery and was sitting at his desk in the Senate chamber when Representative Preston Brooks from South Carolina entered and brutally beat Sumner with a cane, injuring him gravely.
To us, this incident in one of our greatest institutions seems almost unfathomable. And yet, we all know we live in an angry nation. And the anger seeps down from our highest institutions.
During July, a journalist witnessed Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez being called an obscene, misogynistic slur by a congressman from Florida. He later denied using the language. But we have become accustomed to denial and lies at the highest levels of our government.
In response, Ocasio-Cortez made an eloquent speech on the floor of Congress. You don’t have to share her views or her party affiliation to admire her articulate response to incivility.
In my own state of Nebraska, a place sometimes referred to as “Nebraska Nice” because of our vaunted good manners, a contentious debate in our legislature ended with a male legislator telling a female counterpart to “shut up” as he made an obscene gesture. So much for nice.
Who didn’t mourn deeply when U.S. District Judge Esther Salas’ only child, a Catholic University student, was murdered answering the door of their home? Allegedly, it was an act of revenge against his mother’s judicial role. There will always be dangerous crackpots among us, and it isn’t fair to lay the blame for violence at the door of someone else’s bad language.
And yet vile language by our leaders does nothing to calm the roiling national waters. And it can provide an impetus or an excuse for those already close to the edge.
We all play a part in this. Who hasn’t felt furious while watching the evening news? Who hasn’t let the word “hate” describe our feelings toward some national figure? Who’s looked at those refusing masks and thought, “Maybe they should get COVID,” before feeling remorse that that ugly suggestion crept into our hearts?
The ceremonies honoring the late Congressman John Lewis gave us balm for the soul. Here was a man who had been beaten and imprisoned, and yet still acted in a civil and dignified manner as he continued the long fight for civil and voting rights.
It was touching to see presidents of both parties honor him. It reminded me of the bipartisan nature of President George H.W. Bush’s funeral — full of hope for our country’s future, full of respect for someone even if we didn’t always agree with where he stood.
It’s sad that it takes funerals to remind us of the best of ourselves. Perhaps it’s the aura of worship that surrounds a funeral. We know that our God is a God of mercy and love toward all. We know it takes resolve and courage to serve such a God, but it also takes compassion and patience.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have decided to stick with love. … Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
This is a time for righteous anger. This is a time for taking a stand, working hard for change, for voting rights, for insisting that Black lives matter. It’s a time when we should remind our religious and political leaders that we want to see them speak out for justice.
But through all of the rough days ahead, we need to remind ourselves of King’s words. The God of love walks with us and helps us not to hate.