Violence is beyond the pale
Christians must make that point with clarity
Early Friday morning a 42-year old man broke into the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and attacked her husband, Paul, with a hammer. Paul Pelosi suffered severe injuries, including a skull fracture and injuries to his hands and face. Investigators are still piecing together the details of the incident and what motives—if they are entirely discernible and coherent—precipitated the attack. In any case, this situation is a sober reminder of the vulnerability of our public officials on both sides. In recent years, officials from both parties have been targets of escalating violence.
This summer, a man traveled to the Washington, D.C., area with the specific purpose of assassinating Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. His plot was foiled by the FBI. This fall, a Pennsylvania man pled guilty to making death threats to California Congressman Eric Swalwell. In 2017, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was ambushed and attacked by a neighbor while mowing his lawn at his home, sustaining cracked ribs and other injuries. That same year, at a Congressional baseball practice, a gunman targeted Republican members of the House. Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise suffered severe injuries and nearly lost his life. And in 2011, Gabby Giffords, then a congresswoman from Arizona, was shot while at a campaign event at a grocery store in Tucson. Giffords sustained permanent injuries, while six others, including a Giffords staffer and a federal judge, lost their lives.
In the wake of such events, journalists and public officials try to understand the motives of those who attack public officials. In many cases, a quick search of their social media timelines seems to offer abundant clues. Pelosi’s attacker might have been motivated by opposition to the Speaker’s liberal policies. But reports also reveal a man who had previously voiced progressive sympathies (including his advocacy of on behalf of public nudism). Sen. Paul’s neighbor was a critic of the Kentucky politician’s conservative ideology. Kavanaugh’s would-be assassin this summer was upset by the justice’s role in the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. The Congressional baseball shooter was a Bernie Sanders supporter.
Derangement that leads to political violence is not limited to people on the fringes of just one political party. This kind of violence seems now to be a feature built into a political system where escalating rhetoric and mental health converge into a dangerous stew.
On one level, we can and should say that political violence is a consequence of our increasingly polarized political climate. Irresponsible rhetoric and personal demonization run rampant through social media and much of our political culture. All of us should remember that while holding and acting on deeply held views is a healthy part of our democracy, we must remember that the people with whom we disagree are fellow citizens. Christians should especially recognize the dignity of our ideological foes, for we see in them the image of God (Genesis 1:26). The Apostle James urged the people of God to avoid dehumanizing rhetoric (James 3:9). That admonition stands.
What’s more, we should resist the urge to justify the use of violence to advance a political agenda—which is what some liberals did in condoning the riots of 2020. Those riots, you may remember, left at least 25 Americans dead and caused billions of dollars in damage in cities around the country. The same principle applies to how some conservatives diminish the violent attack on the capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. That attack threatened the lives of Vice President Pence and other public officials.
Yet, while politicians and activists and journalists should be wise about their rhetoric, we should remember that the responsibility for these heinous acts lies ultimately with the attackers themselves. Bernie Sanders isn’t to blame for the person who committed violence in purported support of his cause, and if the Pelosi attack turns out to be politically motivated (as police now report), Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy is not responsible for the deranged person who broke into the Pelosi home. Thankfully, in both cases and the others mentioned above, leaders on all sides condemned political violence and wished the speedy recovery of victims.
Christians should resist the temptation to use an act of violence to make a cheap partisan point. Public servants, Romans 13 reminds us, are God’s servants for our good. So, our first instinct should be to obey Scripture’s commands in 1 Timothy 2 to pray for their safety, for wisdom, and for righteousness. Because we trust in the God who gathers history to himself, we can engage in politics in a healthy way, resisting the urge to turn political controversy into a totalizing obsession. Violence is beyond the pale, and Christians must stand first in line to make that clear.
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