The “Where were you when…?” question usually evokes conversations revolving around once-or-twice in a lifetime moments of shared national crisis or tragedy. Season three, episode twelve of Madmen (i.e. “The Last Year of Innocence” Nov. 1, 2009) nicely captured one of those moments that lives in the collective consciousness of American women and men of a certain age. I was born a mere seven days after JFK’s inaugural address in which he asked the nation to “bear any burden” in the service of liberty. Within that same ceremony, he took an oath to uphold the infrastructure of that liberty: The Constitution. Like the youngest of the Draper children in Madmen, I was too young to understand the 35th president’s assassination. Three years and ten months after his inauguration, I was old enough to perceive a pervasive sadness in my mother as she stayed riveted to our black and white television set for a cartoon-pre-empting day of funeral activities.
Thirty seven years later, on September 11, 2001, Lisa and I were still one child shy of our eventual full house. Our “Where were you when…?” moment occurred on one of Lisa’s weeks off from residency. She had taken my three and six year olds to Northern Wisconsin to visit my in-laws. I stayed home to work on my dissertation, and to bank more vacation time. I had just pulled into a local produce market when I heard the news of a second airliner crashing into the Twin Towers. Immediately, I remember my fatherhood instincts gripped my gut. I longed to hold my kids near to me as flights were cancelled, and lines for gasoline formed all over the nation.
This week, we have just lived through another, “Where were you when…?” moment. Just like so many Americans, on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, I was working from home when one of my clients informed me of a protest at the capital run amok. When I was finally able to tune in, I watched the disturbing images of men and women breaching a thin line of police protection to swarm into the capital building. Some wielded weapons. Some wielded flags: American, Confederate, and flags with the image of the 45th President, who just moments earlier, had addressed this crowd with a very different message than the 35th president delivered on another cold January day many years ago. Both speeches were meant as calls to action, but the actions they called for were…let’s just say…divergent in purpose.
I ask my readers to give me some grace as I appeal to an interpretation of this week’s events through the lens of the Christian tradition’s Feast of the Epiphany that occurred seven days past. Several weeks ago, I penned an article entitled, “The Holy Dark.” In that reflection, I was struck by the idea of how some epiphanies do not occur in the light, but take place in moments when things are dark. I return to that theme today, gazing at the dark events of this week, trying to find in them truths that can be gleaned from the rubble.
I understand that along the Western Front on a 1914 Christmas in WWI, German, and English troops found themselves climbing out of their respective trenches for a spontaneous truce. Together, they sang Christmas carols, and shared holiday treats. On Christmas morning, they engaged in soccer matches. The Generals on both sides found it difficult to get their men to resume fighting.
Perhaps the events of January 6 at the Capitol could provide our divided nation an inflection point. What was laid bare for all to see are the eventual results of living dug-into ideological trenches, following the orders of media and political personalities who stoke fear, hatred, and division. Perhaps one possible epiphany that could emerge in the darkness of January 6 is the possibility of a national New Year’s resolution to come up out of our trenches and engage the people we have been calling “the enemy.” Could this be the time to take a step back from the media you have been consuming? Like a pitcher attempting to develop his non-dominant hand, would you be willing to pick up a center-right newspaper, or a center-left paper, and learn your opponent’s point of view without stereotyping it, or vilifying it? If you know someone who exists on the ideological fringes of society, could you stay connected to them toward that day, when a little-at-a-time, you might provide them a life-line—an opening– to see how they have been manipulated.
In light of the events of this week, perhaps the citizens of this country could become wary of those leaders who deliver messages that amount to, “Ask not what you can do for the common good; ask what you can do for yourself, your tribe, or me.”
I would like to close this article with a lengthy quote by the journalist Peter Whener that could have been delivered from any American pulpit this Sunday.
“Beyond that, and more fundamental than that, we have to remind ourselves that we are not powerless to shape the future; that much of what has been broken can be repaired; that though we are many, we can be one; and that fatalism and cynicism are unwarranted and corrosive.
There’s a lovely line in William Wordsworth’s poem “The Prelude”: “What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”
There are still things worthy of our love. Honor, decency, courage, beauty, and truth. Tenderness, human empathy, and a sense of duty. A good society. And a commitment to human dignity. We need to teach others—in our individual relationships, in our classrooms and communities, in our book clubs and Bible studies, and in innumerable other settings—why those things are worthy of their attention, their loyalty, their love. One person doing it won’t make much of a difference; a lot of people doing it will create a culture.”
“Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shown.” (Isaiah 9:1)