The politics of accountability

February 10th, 2021

A plea for unity on Inauguration Day 

In some ways, January 20 looked like every other Inauguration Day at the United States Capitol. Former presidents and current legislators took their places on the platform in front of the Capitol’s dome and a bevy of American flags. There were soaring anthems by talented singers, solemn oaths administered by Supreme Court justices, and a particularly fine poem by Amanda Gorman, a young California poet. 

In other ways, however, the day was anything but ordinary. The ongoing pandemic kept attendance to a minimum, and the National Mall was filled, not with observers but with 200,000 flags. More strikingly, thousands of soldiers surrounded the site due to threats of disruption and violence from those who felt the presidential election was illegitimate. Moreover, no one watching could forget that the place where the new president stood just two weeks before was the scene of a riot and insurrection that saw the Capitol’s first breach since the War of 1812. 

With this as the backdrop, it was striking to hear the new president call for unity. He noted the continuing discord in the nation, saying, “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” He referred to the “riotous mob” that attacked on January 6, but he pleaded for the nation to “join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.” 

No harm, No foul? 

For many people listening to the Inaugural Address, President Biden’s call to unity raised other questions. Was it possible to move forward together without reckoning with the implications of the January 6 insurrection? How would we hold those responsible for the attack accountable? Were unity and accountability mutually compatible? 

In the two weeks between the insurrection and the inauguration, some preliminary steps had been taken against those involved in the riot. According to The New York Times, charges were filed against more than 70 people, and many more cases were opened pending further investigation by the FBI. The House of Representatives took up impeachment articles and, in a swift action, impeached former President Donald Trump for his part in encouraging the crowds to march on the Capitol. Rep. Jim McGovern defended the move as a necessary step, telling The Washington Post, “We all want healing. But in order to get to healing, we need truth, and we need accountability.” 

Other representatives disagreed, saying that the impeachment action would “further divide our country, further the unrest and possibly incite more violence,” as Rep. Debbie Lesko put it. “Please, let’s just move on and heal the country.” 

Beneath the struggle over impeachment was a more profound question of trying to name the harm. If the nation felt wounded, what was the nature of the wound, and what damage had been done?

An offense against the community 

In reflecting on the question of unity and accountability, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin recalled another time when the nation was forced to reckon with injury as it sought to come together. Following the Civil War, the newly reunited nation was faced with the question of what to do with states that had recently been in open rebellion against the government. 

As Rubin notes, the federal government did not merely paper over differences but set conditions for states to re-enter, including adopting the amendments that officially ended slavery. “Unity then and now must be conditioned on justice,” Rubin writes. “A ‘just and lasting peace’ means fidelity to democracy, to the sanctity of elections, and to honest, fact-based public debate.” Recognizing publicly when these values have been damaged is a condition for moving forward. 

The Rev. William B. Lawrence, former dean of Perkins School of Theology, also feels there should be some reckoning for Christians who were prominent in the Capitol attack. In a commentary for United Methodist News Service, Lawrence remarked on the four insurrectionists who paused in the Senate chamber to offer a prayer to God in the name of Jesus. 

Lawrence wondered how the church might honestly deal with this use of Jesus’ name in the context of this violent act. He refers to the process Jesus offers in Matthew 18:20 for dealing with someone who sins against you. That process involves a private conversation with the offender, followed by a discussion with witnesses, and finally, failing resolution in those forums, a public airing in the faith community. 

“If the community agrees that an offense has occurred, and if the offender does not listen to the church, then the member should be treated as one now outside of the community of faith, who can no longer speak in Jesus’ name,” Lawrence writes. They have committed “an offense . . . against the community of believers.” 

Truth and reconciliation 

The history of people seeking justice for past offenses can quickly turn grim. Political revolutions are all-too-frequently occasions for bloodthirsty revenge and atrocities. We would be wise to be aware of the dangers of retribution. 

One alternative to endless trials and recriminations was attempted in response to several painful situations in the 1990s. When apartheid, a system of racial hierarchy and separation, came to an end in South Africa, President Nelson Mandela created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that required white offenders to publicly confess their offenses during the apartheid period in the presence of their victims. In exchange, they were granted amnesty for their crimes. As the title of the commission suggests, the aim was reconciliation and a form of restorative justice. A similar commission followed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. 

While these truth commissions have had varied success in moving societies forward in unity, they provide a form of accountability. As McMaster University professor Bonny Ibhawoh puts it, the benefit can be a “permanent, public memorialization that inoculates the future against the mistakes of the past.” 

Many of the arguments that are currently tearing at the United States fabric boil down to disputes over where harm is seen and how to address it. When opponents are vilified and dehumanized, the opportunity for recognizing fallibility and the potential for restoration is lost. When we can speak the truth about our deepest wounds, perhaps we can find a common path to walk together.

About the Author

Alex Joyner

Alex Joyner is Superintendent of the Eastern Shore District of The United Methodist church in the Virginia Conference read more…
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