After years of Republican candidates demonizing Nancy Pelosi in attack ads, and after Pelosi was literally hunted by the January 6 insurrectionists, her husband was violently attacked in the early morning on Friday by an assailant who wanted to wait for the Speaker to arrive with the hopes of killing her. And if that was not horrific enough to read about, I was floored by some of the reactions of her political opponents.
Virginia Governor, Glenn Youngkin, at a campaign stop in Virginia for a Republican running for a House seat, told the cheering crowd that it was “time to send Nancy Pelosi home to be with him!” The Republican he was stumping for, Yesli Vega, is still running nasty ads aimed at linking her opponent, Abigail Spanberger, with Pelosi even after the attack.
Far right conservative, Dinesh D’Souza, is even peddling on Twitter the nonsensical and baseless theory that the assailant and Mr. Pelosi were lovers.
There is only one right response to such violent occurrences: denounce the violence and support those who have been harmed. This is the only response by normal, empathic humans. But apparently, some people are simply not capable of responding in this way.
I know that political violence is not unique to the present day; the Burr-Hamilton duel that ended with Alexander Hamilton’s death and the attack of Senator Sumner by Representative Brooks with a cane on the floor of the Senate both come to mind. But doesn’t it feel like we have crossed a line recently?
Even in my lifetime political violence has become more common even in our personal interactions. In the first presidential election I was able to vote in, I was passionately in support of Michael Dukakis and campaigned on his behalf. I was a college student in Abilene, Texas at the time and needless to say, I was surrounded by supporters of George H. W. Bush. Well, when Dukakis lost that night, I was heartbroken, but do you know who comforted me? My friends who voted for President Bush.
That was when politics was just one part of life. Now, partisan politics has become self-defining.
I remember in 2006 when I moved to Washington DC and started working on Capitol Hill for the United Methodist Church on issues like immigration, the death penalty, and mass incarceration. Having grown up and served in local United Methodist churches I knew that the make-up of the church was as diverse as the US public; liberal to conservative. So, as I was charged to advocate for things like defending the rights of immigrants and abolishing the death penalty, I knew that those positions were not going to be universally celebrated. In fact, part of my job – and a part of it that I dearly loved – meant that I traveled to all parts of the country to talk with all kinds of people about the need for immigration reform, or a host of other issues.
I remember speaking to a couple of congregations in Walhalla, South Carolina about immigration reform. Now, Walhalla is most certainly not a liberal bastion of activity so I was not surprised that from the outset of our conversation a couple told me how opposed they were to “illegals.” However, by the end of my time there, after having an honest conversation about the missiological role of the church, both of them told me they were eager to find ways to support “undocumented people” who lived in their town.
Yep, when we have honest conversations, and when people are not demonized for having their opinions, transformation can and does happen.
But I am afraid those moments were far too few. Much more often, at the instigation of organizations whose sole purpose was to attack the work that I and others who worked in my office did, I was on the receiving end of angry and sometimes even frightening emails and phone messages. I received numerous threats to bodily attack me and I even had one email that described how they would put me to death because I was opposed to the death penalty.
The depth of the animus was stunning to me. It was also stunning to learn that the organizations that organized the attacks against me were started in the early 80s when the religious right was first being organized and they have been steadily funded by the same foundations that fund other fundamentalist and Christian nationalist organizations today.
So, while our natural human response to such horrific violence is concern for those harmed – and this is as it should be, we unfortunately should not be surprised that there are powerful and well-funded voices that seek only more harm and destruction. Apparently it pays well to seek evil instead of the common good.
Let us be the people who seek good and not evil.