Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

Martyrdom and Witness

Among the dozens of alarmed messages sent to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows during the attack on the Capitol, one proved prescient almost immediately. “POTUS has to come out firmly and tell protestors to dissipate,” a text made public by the January 6 Committee read, “Someone is going to get killed.”

Depending on when this text was sent, the tragedy may have already happened. At 2:44 P.M., U.S. Capitol Police fatally shot 35-year-old Ashlii Babbitt as she attempted to climb through a broken window leading to the Speaker’s Lobby. Until that instant, the standoff over this barricaded threshold was a perfect encapsulation of the opposing forces at play that day: On one side, Babbitt and her fellow rioters shouted “Go! Go!” as they pushed against the doors; on the other side, officers answered with “Get back! Get down!” as they tried to keep them at bay. The shattered glass, Babbitt’s advance, and the shot that followed transformed the moment into something else. In video of the event the sense of shock is palpable in the quiet after the discharge, as if no one knew how to react once the inevitable had occurred. 

That Ashlii Babbitt would become, for many supporters of the former president, perhaps the most potent symbol of January 6 was part of the media narrative surrounding her life and death almost from the first reporting. As Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, wrote the next day in the New York Times. “Her death shouldn’t have happened, and it should now be investigated, no question. What’s frightening, however, is that many Trump supporters are already heralding her as a martyr.”

Since then, as her posthumous fame has grown and Trump himself has called her an “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman,” the contours of Babbitt’s supposed martyrdom have been described mainly in political terms, with historical parallels drawn from earlier periods of turmoil.

Writing in Slate, historian Zachary M. Schrag of George Mason University saw in MAGA’s first martyr a twenty-first century George Shiffler, the 19-year-old apprentice craftsman and aspiring firefighter who was also shot dead during a riot – in his case, a brawl between rival native-born Protestant and immigrant Catholic gangs. Beginning soon after his death on May 6, 1844, he was widely known in the terms inscribed on his coffin: “The first Martyr in the Native American Cause.” The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis, meanwhile, compared to Horst Wessel, the brownshirt streetfighter whose mostly non-political death in 1930 was transformed by relentless propaganda into a call to arms. Wessel had been a member the Sturmabteilung, the assault division of the paramilitary wing of the early National Socialist party, while his assailant was part of the Red Front Fighters' League. Though his murder came as a result of an ongoing dispute with his landlord rather this political rift, the affiliations of those involved were enough to transfigure him into a slain saint of the rising Third Reich. As one of the many popular songs about him put it:    

Our hero brave, Horst Wessel, falls martyr to Red plot,
Our Berlin's noblest victim of criminal, bestial shot.
But Freedom's will, invincible, they cannot slay nor burn,
For soon the page of Destiny relentlessly will turn.

Nine decades later, such martial odes have found less formal echoes in several hiphop tracks that have sought to memorialize January 6’s first casualty, most notably a tribute by a performer going by the name Forigiato Blow, previously best known for touring with fellow Florida rapper Vanilla Ice:

Ashli Babbit. Yeah you know we hold you in prayer.
Ashli Babbitt. Yeah you know your soul’s in the air.
Ashli Babbitt yeah you know true patriots care.
Left your blood up on the battle ground. Life isn’t fair.

Yet while much has been said connecting Babbitt to other politically manufactured martyrs, the religious framing her death received from the beginning has been less often noted. Early efforts to tell her story at times borrowed tropes dating back to the first Christian martyrs, among whom the word itself – martyr – maintained its original meaning of witness. In this understanding, those who died for their beliefs did so not only willingly, but as testimony both arising from and demonstrating their virtue. This act of witness was then witnessed by others, who each in turn grew in faith themselves, drawing on the sanctity of the sacrificial act and fueling the growth of the nascent sect.

One of the first attempts to frame Babbitt’s story in these terms was made by an Oklahoma pastor, Ren Schuffman, who shared videos on Facebook and Parler, the social networking site favored by many Trump supporters, throughout January 6.

In one video, streamed live on Facebook shortly after 4 P.M. as Schuffman hurried through the crowd toward the site of the siege, he shouts excitedly, “Hey guys, I’m live at the Capitol! I’ve been trying to go live all day.” He would claim in subsequent messages he had come to document the protest and pray for those participating; at that moment his interest seemed singularly focused on a rumor that had spread quickly through the mob.

“There was a 16-year-old girl that was just shot and killed,” he says. “That they killed trying to breach the Capitol right now. They’ve taken the Capitol Building. I’m live, share this out really quick. Share it out like crazy. They’ve taken the Capitol Building. They shot and killed a 16-year-old.” As he moved closer, he noted that Trump supporters had made their way inside. “They shot and killed a 16-year-old girl, that’s what I was informed,” he says again. “Sixteen supposedly, they shot and killed her.”

Four times in the 72 second video he repeats the age he believed her to be: 16. This was what all those around him believed to be the case. Though he would later post a correction on Parler (“She was not a teenager. People thought she was.”), it’s clear that parts of the narrative about her death had already taken hold less than two hours later: Her youth. Her innocence. 

Stories of adolescent martyrdom have been particularly influential in U.S. evangelical circles through the past two decades, dating back to the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School. Among the thirteen students murdered that day, two were known to be committed Christians -- 17-year-olds Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall – who, it was claimed in the aftermath, had declared their belief in God as they faced death, each becoming a martyr by being a witness to the faith. That this was not actually the case did not prevent a martyrdom industry of movies, books, and music from springing up in their memory, making witnesses of a generation raised to see themselves as martyrs-in-the-making, considering the possibility of being shot for their beliefs nearly as a right of passage.  

Thirty-five years old, with more than a decade’s service in the military, Ashlii Babbitt was far from an innocent teenager – but the people who first told her story apparently wanted her to be one. In Schuffman’s next video, he had moved closer to the Capitol, where he stood among many who had just been inside.  

“This man right here was eight feet behind the girl who got shot,” Schuffman says of a bearded, middle-aged man who seems visibly shaken in the video at the top of this essay. “What happened?”

Later identified as Phillip Bromley of Alabama, he answers deliberately: “Everybody needs to know the truth.” He describes the moment he and others encountered US Capitol Police blocking two large glass doors. “We were talking to them. We reminded them of their oath.” But then it all changed. 

“Gunshot went off,” he says. “A young girl at the very front, she was about eight feet in front of me, fell backwards, onto her back, somebody had opened up the glass door, and shot her in the neck.”

“She was about 16?” Schuffman asks.

“She was young. I don’t know exactly how old she was.”

After Bromley shared all that he could recall, Schuffman asked if he could pray for him. His prayer confirms him as a witness to a martyr-making moment and declares him, in a sense, as a martyr himself as a victim of trauma.     

God Lord, protect this soldier for you, this man that was brave. Father Lord, I just declare right now, this lionheart, that the angels of God be protecting over him. Father Lord, any trauma, any trauma from this event, Father I just declare and decree right now that it’s all broken, that this man is secure and safe and held in your hollow of your hand. Lord, thank you for his heart to serve his country and be a patriot. And we declare right now the blessings and favor of God on his life on his family, Lord. We speak it in the mighty name of Jesus, will protect him and guard him and strengthen him in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.  

“All glory and victory to God,” Bromley responds.

Pastor Schuffman’s videos from January 6 were likely seen by a relative few. Despite his 113,681 Facebook followers, his first video mentioning the shooting has only 79 likes as of this writing. It is clear, however, that his view of Babbitt’s death represents a common impression that quickly took hold.

The day after the attack, Parler lit up with sentiments entwining Babbitt’s memory with Christian faith: “Her name is ‘Ashlii Babbitt’…May she rest in perfection at JESUS’s side for eternity, Amen,” one user wrote. “GOD bless her and her family. She is loved and will be missed, truly.” Another described the reward she would receive in heaven: “Don’t forget Ashli. Don’t forget America. Rest In Peace beloved Ashli, you deserve to be honored for your courage, for your patriotism, for your civility, and for serving this Country. Beloved Ashli, May the Lord Jesus Christ have you in His Glory. I pray that He gives you the Crown of Life.” The author of one post was apparently so moved, only verse would suffice:

Ashli Babbitt, a beautiful Patriot was she.
Her soul to Heaven, the first set free…
She rose in protest against their lies.
An election stolen before her eyes.
May God grant her eternal Peace,
For confronting those dark entities.

In the year since Babbitt’s death, her legend has grown to the point of being merchandised, much as the stories of Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall did two decades before. For a time, major retailers including Kmart and Sears were selling t-shirts emblazoned with her name above a tattered American flag.

As the scholar Elizabeth Castelli noted in her comparison of the “Columbine martyrs” with early Christian narratives, martyrdom is “product of discourse rather than a matter of unmediated experience.” It is “not simply an action but rather the product of interpretation and retelling.” 

Contrary to what one might assume, martyrs don’t die. They’re born. As we have been reminded by the events of January 6 and its ongoing aftermath, the births of martyrs both religious and political occur in the imagination of those who remember them. Their stories need not conform to fact or reality to have power.

Peter Manseau is the Director of the Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History at the National Museum of American History.

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