A year after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the District of Columbia remained largely silent. President Joe Biden gave a speech condemning the attack, Democratic members of Congress led remembrances, and different groups held vigils near the Capitol; a small group held a vigil in protest to the incarceration of those who participated in the Jan. 6 attack.
While these individuals and groups weren’t united in their response to the events of Jan. 6 — and their narratives about that day differed greatly — they all used religious language and invoked faith to provide context for their cause.
At a virtual interfaith vigil held on the eve of the anniversary by progressive groups condemning the attack, Rev. Traci Blackmon, an executive minister in the United Church of Christ, reflected on a reading from Revelation 21, recognizing the commemoration shared a date with the Christian feast of Epiphany.
“Epiphany is a reminder that light remains in the darkness,” she said. “In Revelation 21 John doesn’t suggest we will live in a perfect world. God dwells among us regardless of our faith or denomination ... God is with us, all of us. Redemption is possible when we live out love. Let us learn from the tragedy of the past and move toward light.”
In his speech the next morning, Biden quoted John 8:32 (“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”) to urge listeners to remember the truth about the attack. “Well, here is the God’s truth about Jan. 6, 2021,” Biden said. “Close your eyes. Go back to that day. What do you see? Rioters rampaging, waving for the first time inside this Capitol a Confederate flag that symbolized the cause to destroy America, to rip us apart.”
As a dim sun began to warm the cordoned-off and heavily guarded Capitol building’s east side, Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, a conservative pastor and director of the Christian Defense Coalition, an organization that supports issues of religious freedom and challenges Christians to “live their faith out in the public square,” placed two handwritten signs — “Pray for healing – reject violence” and “Pray for America! Reject violence” — against the barricades and knelt in silence. He was soon joined by another young man holding a peace symbol sign, kneeling in silence nearby.
Mahoney was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and witnessed what he called “a tragic day, a heartbreaking day … to see violence against [the Capitol] was shocking.”
“I was on the west lawn talking to some of my brothers and sisters in Christ who were using such harsh language and violent language to justify their response on that day,” he said. “From what I can understand of the gospel, our God is a God of peace, a God of justice, he certainly rejects violence.”
He said much work has been done to foster dialogue in the subsequent year on the role of a faith-based presence in political life, especially among Christians who invoked “biblical principles” to justify their actions on Jan. 6. The church, he said, can play a role in bridging the divide in perception through encouraging prayer and the rejection of violence.
Thea Alfons of Woodbury, Conn., had returned to the west side of the Capitol, where she stood with others last year as the building was breached. In 2021, she was at the Capitol in support of then-President Donald Trump and his false claims that the election had been stolen; this year she prayed for God to restore justice to America, for God’s will to prevail in the halls of congress, and for God to bless elected leaders.
She stood with a group of four women, all wearing “We the People Are Pissed Off” baseball hats. Alfons believes those that breached the Capitol were both ushered in by the police and incited to violence by them. She sees the imprisonment of those who participated in the Jan. 6 attack as a “sickening” perversion of justice and part of a larger effort to rid America of faith in political and private life.
“In losing a part of who I was, in realizing how much of my country I felt died on those steps, my faith had to get stronger,” she said. “It’s hard not to feel angry, it’s hard not to feel lost, it’s hard not to say, ‘God, why? Can you tell me why, Lord? Why did this happen?’”
Many people who participated in or supported the attack on the Capitol, she believes, lost their faith “for a short period of time,” but over the last year that faith has returned.
“The people you will see come back here [to commemorate Jan. 6] are coming because their faith is stronger,” she said.
Later in the day, at the early evening “Candlelight Vigil for Democracy,” a gospel choir provided opening and closing music for the progressive-led event where speakers condemned the attack on the Capitol, called for District of Columbia statehood, and urged support for proposed voting rights legislation. Held at the top of the National Mall near the Capitol with hundreds in attendance, the event featured speeches by Democratic leaders Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Jamie Raskin, Pramila Jayapal, Veronica Escobar, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, and included a moment of silence for those who died on Jan. 6, 2021.
Meanwhile, less than 20 people gathered at the D.C. jail for a vigil to protest what they considered the unfair incarceration and treatment of those who participated in the Jan. 6 attack.
Led by Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign aide and executive director of Look Ahead America, an organization seeking to enfranchise “millions of rural and blue-collar patriotic Americans” with political power, the vigil was punctuated by patriotic and religious hymns and speakers, including Micki Witthoeft, the mother of Ashli Babbitt who was shot and killed by police on Jan. 6 as she stormed the Capitol. The group has filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee regarding the fair treatment of those detained.
After categorizing the Jan. 6 attack as “a couple of boomers getting lost on a self-guided tour of the Capitol” and the subsequent police response disproportionate, Braynard, a Catholic, led the small group in 10 Hail Marys.
“People of faith have been at the root of every great civil rights movement in the history of this country going back to the anti-slavery movement, to the suffrage movement, to the modern civil rights mainly led by preachers,” Braynard said in an interview following the vigil. “Religious faith provides what people need more than anything else right now, which is hope.”
For his part, Mahoney sees a greater challenge for people of faith: going beyond partisanship and holding to the principles ingrained in religious values.
“As Christians, we aren’t about pointing fingers but pointing to solutions,” he said. “America is deeply divided right now. People of faith have a beautiful opportunity to transcend all that. When faith gets corrupted by politics, it’s a very toxic mix.”