We Have Always Been This Mean: Our History of Political Violence and the Only Way Out

We Have Always Been This Mean: Our History of Political Violence and the Only Way Out
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This past week marks that it has been 160 years since Congressman Preston Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina, walked into the chamber of the United States Senate with his gold tipped cane, walked up behind Senator Charles Sumner, who was working at his desk, and relentlessly beat him to a pulp until he lay unconscious in a pool of blood. Days before, Senator Sumner, a vocal abolitionist from Massachusetts, had railed against Congressman Brooks' cousin, who was a slave holding state senator from South Carolina and a man consumed with racial animus. The bloody beating of Charles Sumner is viewed today by historians as a key catalyst that further divided the nation over race and led us down the path to an even bloodier Civil War.

A lot has changed in 160 years. A whole lot. Slavery was abolished and slaves were given voting rights. Women earned the right to vote. Civil Rights legislation was passed. The list is of accomplishments we have achieved together as a nation is truly nothing short of miraculous.

But if you look at the last 60 years in particular, we still witnessed a persistent level of violence in our politics, particularly when it comes to race. It is a violence that we must face if we are to move forward well together for the next 160 years. We saw entire communities terrorized through voter suppression strategies throughout the country and see remnants of this now. We have seen both parties use race as a political wedge to invoke more hatred than love, more anxiety than peace, and more despair than hope.

As it is often pointed out, we do now have a black man in the White House, and black men and women in Congress, but like Charles Sumner, even one of them, Congressman John Lewis, shared Sumner's fate as he was beat in the head on the Edmond Pettus Bridge for taking the same stand Sumner did against racism and systemic injustice.

We don't have to go back 160 years, or even 60 years to see how entrenched our political practice and discourse has been in nastiness and violence. Even an honest assessment of the political primaries within the last six months has shown deeply alarming steps backward. You have one party that has rallied around a man that specifically incites violence by proudly flaunting a politics of hatred, exclusion, and bigotry (even offering to pay legal fees for people who get into fights), while another party gives plenty of lip service to equality, but while no one is looking has engendered decades of tokenism, systemic inequality, dependency, and benign neglect. Both camps of liberals and conservatives have abided a deep level of cold-hearted, cynical rancor that is toxic not only to our politics but also to our culture at large.

However, while there has been a lot of shock expressed at the vile and divisive the rhetoric and mob mentality we have seen emerge in our politics of late, none of this should really come to us as a huge surprise. For all of our talk of greatness and nobility, and even for all of the progress we have made, so much of our history has shown just how brutish, nasty, and downright mean our nation can truly be.

But here's the thing. We already know where all of this hatred leads. There is hatred, unforgiveness and self-righteousness on both sides of any issue that we will ever face. And the truth is that our sense of how "right" we are will nearly always make us blind to the fact that there are actually human beings on the other side of our argument, our cause, our "gospel", our protest, or our agenda. And in our collective gut we know that the bloodshed only leads to more bloodshed. In our hearts we know that the only way the bleeding will end is when we find a way to truly see, hear, and love one another as human beings made in the image of a holy, loving, and gracious God. And when we fail to do that, we descend into the very worst of who we are and can become.

So yes. We must stand for what is right and just. But we must also do the important work of making true peace, even with our enemies. It is during the times when we prioritize the work of justice over the work of forgiveness and peace making that we all find ourselves locked in echo chambers of our own belief systems, but ultimately wounded, frayed, and starving for hope. As a pastor and a follower of Christ, I believe that his ways are the path of both justice and peace. But in the ways of Christ, sacrificial love is the only way to justice and peace.

After the nation tore itself in two and endured a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln called the nation both to justice and to sacrificial love and peace. His words ring as true today as they ever have:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

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