January 6, 2021, shocked and sickened many of us. It was a terrible, shameful day for the American Republic—truly yet another day of infamy in America’s bruised and bloodied history. As President-elect Joe Biden said in his pitch-perfect remarks, this “last best hope on earth” is “under unprecedented assault”—and “the world is watching.” Yet as the smoke cleared and the mobs receded, members of the House and Senate reconvened, fulfilled their constitutional duty, and reminded the American people and the world that what was true in 1794 and 1861 and 2001 remains true today: The Republic is stronger than those who rebel against it or assault it.
As the marauding mob rampaged through the Capitol, like thugs out of a dystopian Batman film, some tried to rationalize the enormity of what had happened by noting that mobs rampaged through our cities last summer. “Where was the shock and outrage then?” they asked.
The answer is that most Americans were shocked and outraged then, just as they are today. Lawlessness has that effect on the law-abiding. By definition, all rioters are lawless. All rioters should be prosecuted and punished. But all rioters are not the same. The rioters who rumble through a city after an NBA championship are not as dangerous or threatening as the rioters who loot a shopping center. And those rioters are not as dangerous or threatening as the rioters who throw Molotov cocktails. And those rioters are not as dangerous or threatening as the rioters who breached the walls and security cordons of the Capitol building, prevented duly elected officials from certifying the results of a presidential election, endangered and targeted four people in the constitutional presidential line of succession, and thus attempted what amounts to a coup.
In short, the Capitol Hill Riot was fundamentally different and worse precisely because of the target and objective of the rioters. They didn’t just destroy property or tear down statues; they didn’t just engage in violence and mayhem. They assaulted a symbol of the Republic, representatives of the Republic and mechanisms of the Republic.
Beyond that, beyond what this episode has done to how our children understand and view America, beyond the terrible scarring these images will leave on our collective memory, beyond the trauma a right-wing mob has inflicted on a deeply divided nation—an ugly coda, to be sure, to the trauma left-wing mobs inflicted in the summer months—the January 6 spasm of political violence against America’s constitutional order will be wielded by our enemies to great effect.
The world is indeed watching, as Biden observed. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin—insidiously and skillfully spreading disinformation all across the West for almost a decade now—will replay the images of chaos in America’s seat of government to fuel their assault on liberal democracy and strengthen their case for business-suit autocracy. Pointing to the “political coup… in the American continent,” one PRC state media outlet howls, “bubbles of ‘democracy and freedom’ have burst.”
Xi and Putin’s targets are not only their own publics, but also peoples in the developing world trying to plot a course away from authoritarianism; emerging democracies trying to transition from simply holding a free election to building a lasting liberal democracy; leaders torn between holding onto power and surrendering it peacefully; even groups within liberal democracies who are disenchanted with this form of government, impatient with the pace of change, tired of the burdens of compromise, unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship.
Builders and Ambassadors
For people of faith, one of those responsibilities, as Paul explained, is to pray for “all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.”
It pays to recall that Paul saw himself as a citizen of Christ’s eternal kingdom and Rome’s earthly kingdom. He called believers “Christ’s ambassadors.” Yes, that means “our citizenship is in heaven,” as he put it. But to extend Paul’s metaphor, it also means that where we live right now—this diplomatic posting—matters enough to heaven that God has placed us here to represent His interests. Chaos is never of God and never in His interests. Genesis tells us He brought form and order out of chaos. Paul writes that He is not a God of disorder, but of peace.
For those of us who live in the City of Man and yearn for the City of God, the implication is clear: Legitimate governments exist to protect life and property, to be instruments of justice, to deter and defeat enemies, and to secure what President Ronald Reagan called “the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order.”
Every generation of Americans is given the choice to continue building a “more perfect union”—or to tear it all down. On January 6, we saw the builders and the demolition crew at work. If those images don’t drive us to our knees to pray for the peace of this land, then nothing will.