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The Lion, The Crowd, and Amazing Grace
Theodore Louis Trost
This 43-second video clip was shot from near the western entrance to the United States Capitol building at 4:02 p.m. on January 6, 2021. The camera pans left and downward over a large crowd to focus momentarily on an opened door at ground-level through which various individuals pass. Some in the crowd are singing the first verse of the hymn "Amazing Grace." The camera pans back to the right to include numerous banners intermingled with American flags and an array of partisan placards. Abruptly the camera zooms in on the image of a lion. Emblazoned above the lion's head is the name "Trump"; below his mane is written "Proverbs 30:30"—a biblical reference that some in the crowd might recognize as containing the words "The lion in you never retreats." The camera angles farther to the right, then upward and brings into view a multitude on the scaffolding across the way. As the gathered celebrate this "festive" moment, some seem also to encourage their groundling peers to press onward with their forcible incursion into the breached edifice of representative democracy. Meanwhile, those singing "Amazing Grace" have reached the end of the first verse and are struggling to recall the words to the second. "Nobody knew the words," a voice from the fractured chorus declares. As if to punctuate or to justify the hymn's ignominious demise, a voice adds, "Ah! Something's burning my eyes." The video ends.
Whether one tears up because of the chemicals that are blowing in the wind or for other reasons, it is admittedly difficult to see clearly, let alone to understand, what is going on in this juxtaposition of sounds and images. For the purposes of this meditation, I would like to extract three elements from the flow of events and subject them to scrutiny as religious curios—that is, as novel examples of convictions and concerns associated with religious practices and beliefs that currently circulate in American culture.
The image of thousands assembled before a great civic shrine conjures up associations of biblical proportion. In Matthew's Gospel, for example, crowds process before and after Jesus as he enters the city of Jerusalem to the uniform cries of "Hosanna!" With the advance upon the Temple, Matthew notes that "the whole city was in turmoil." Jesus himself enters the Temple unmolested and, like an exorcist of economic exploitation, casts out the money changers and the merchants. The crowd outside is not necessarily aware of what's going on inside but their very presence speaks loudly in affirmation of those interior machinations. Still, Matthew offers a cautionary tale about mob action. For in less than a week, a similar crowd of Jerusalemites and their companions from the scattered precincts of diasporic Israel will unite their voices in a different petition, "Crucify!" On January 6, roughly two millennia later, intimations of this executioner's call were sounding on Capitol Hill, as folks in other parts of the crowd were captured on video footage chanting, "Hang Mike Pence"—their hero's evangelical confidante and right-hand man now turned betrayer. The loyalty of the crowd, it would seem, at least for now, was single-minded in its devotion to the one man who had assured his followers that he would "be there with you" as they walked down to the Capitol to "cheer on" members of the government's legislative branch in the effort to discredit the results of the recent election.Certainly the lion embodies virtues that Trump has espoused over the years: power, virility, and dominion, among them. In Christian iconography, the Lion of Judah makes an appearance in the Book of Revelation (5:5) and is thereby associated with the second coming of Christ. Perhaps the lion banner connects Trump to the return of Christ, either as harbinger or personification. But the dizzying metamorphoses that constitute the Book of Revelation undermine too quick a correlation between Trump and Christ in this regard. For the sheep, who are despised in the Mussolini quote that Trump favors, find their symbolic fulfillment in the Lamb that the Lion becomes in the very next verse from Revelation (5:6). The Lion as sacrificial Lamb is the one deemed worthy to break the seven seals, open the scroll, and usher in a new age. Similarly, while the biblical lion who refuses to retreat according to Proverbs 30:30, may serve as inspiration to those attacking the Capitol, his apparition in Proverbs is only penultimate. The thirtieth chapter of Proverbs concludes with these words of wisdom and warning to any would-be Lion King:
Although President Trump was not physically engaged in the advance upon the Capitol, his presence was heralded among the many banners that bore witness to him. Of these, the lion stands out as a particularly salient stand-in for the then-President, for he had associated himself with the lion already four years earlier during his campaign for the Republican nomination. On February 28, 2016, candidate Trump retweeted this proverbial assertion: "It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep." When it was pointed out that these watchwords came from Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, Trump responded, "What difference does it make whether it's Mussolini or somebody else? It's certainly a very interesting quote."
If you play the fool and exalt yourself,
or if you plan evil,
clap your hand over your mouth!
For as churning cream produces butter,
and as twisting the nose produces blood,
so stirring up anger produces strife.
Whether this video clip chronicles an occurrence of strife or an occasion of celebration is a matter of interpretation. The signs of the times are blurred and ambiguous. The sequence does come with its own soundtrack, though, and thereby provides a third intimation of religiosity for communal consideration. With its portrait of radical transformation from a state of being lost to the celebration of a new life, John Newton's eighteenth century hymn "Amazing Grace" has long captured the American imagination in its conjuration of limitless possibility—in this life and beyond. The hymn became popular during the nineteenth century evangelical revivals of the Second Great Awakening. In the twentieth century it was rendered as both a gospel hymn and a song of solidarity among partisans of the civil rights movement. Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins all made popular recordings of "Amazing Grace," and Arlo Guthrie drew his set to a close at Woodstock with his folk-revivalist version of the tune. In recent memory, the hymn "Amazing Grace" was brought to public attention by President Obama, who sang it a capella at the memorial service for Pastor Clementa Pinkney, one of nine persons shot dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Obama drew his eulogy to a close by linking the affirmation of "amazing grace" to the patriotic anthem "America the Beautiful," with its plea, "America, God shed his grace on thee."
What kind of grace is being shed upon the nation on this particular day of reckoning, while some members of the crowd sing together "Amazing Grace?" Do these voices proclaim a redemption or a rededication of national purpose that God's grace affords? Or do they celebrate an efficacious grace, a guaranteed "election"—or predestination—that ensures the righteousness of their cause apart from any contestable election result of mere human calculation? Is this a manifestation of the brotherhood "America the Beautiful" prays for, an irresistible goodness that prevails "from sea to shining sea," or at least from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial? Is the flock gathered on the National Mall the sheep who once were lost but now are lionized? The video clip draws to a close with a reference to burning eyes. Are these the eyes of those who now can see? Or is the inverse operative and those who could see have now been blinded? The video ends on this unresolved note...
Theodore Louis Trost is Professor in the Religious Studies department and the New College at the University of Alabama. He teaches courses in religion in popular culture, biblical studies, and the rhetoric of religion. During the spring semester 2022, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Edinburgh University.
Hanging Democracy on the Gallows
Everyone who has watched a western has seen gallows. Often situated at the center of town, they stood as the focal point where justice was meted out on criminals. The gun and the gallows were inseparable in the old west of law, order, and justice.
No surprise then, that the gallow would make an appearance at the failed January 6Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In the minds of some of the so-called “patriots”, their hastily built gallows was the place where justice would prevail over their imagined injustice of a stolen election. Fortunately, their plot was foiled; no one was executed by the mob. What did die that day was the illusion that democracy and patriotism have the same meaning for Americans. The violence of the mob revealed to the world that America was drunk on its illusion of being the beacon of democracy to the world. The reality was, and still is, that its political regime is fragile. America, like any country, can fall into disarray and disunion.
What hung on the gallows that day was democracy itself. Eager to share their enthusiasm for the hoped-for violence to come, eager executioners built the gallows, posed for selfies by it, and inscribed messages on the wood. Trump 2020 Philadelphia. “God Bless the USA. Hang Em High.” “Hang For Treason.” “WHERE ARE YOU, THOMAS JEFFERSON?”. “In God we Trust.” While Trumpers swarmed the stairs of the capital, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Capitol police, chants of “Hang Mike Pence” echoed on the steps and the hallways of the building.
In their quest for their twisted vision of morality, some may be prepared to commit the ultimate immoral act: murder.
For the insurrectionists, the gallows represented both the practical and the ideal. It was a place to punish those who had subverted the will of their “We the People,” as well as conveying the power they believed they held. They were to be both judge, jury, and executioners. The bloodlust of their hatred produced the gallows, a symbol of the old west justice brought to the Capitol grounds.
But what to make of the intentions of those hopeful executioners? Nothing good. They were in fact, a lynch mob. They took the time to build the gallows hoping that they would be able to execute politicians that they disliked. Like the lynchers who hunted and killed countless numbers of people, including women, children, African Americans, Jews and others, they hoped for a spectacle. Their God was surely on their side, and would deliver their enemies to them.
These beliefs do not coalesce in a vacuum. People don’t build gallows as a hobby. The gallows were built for the ultimate political retribution. Threats of violence against politicians and media figures are no longer anathema, but a regular feature of the right-wing media complex. In the case of the insurrection, a muscular, violent image of punishment, coupled with prayers and violence, turned the men and women of the Capitol insurrection into instruments of God’s punishment on those who opposed their (and their God’s) choice for the nation’s leader.
These ideas about retribution, punishment, and judgment are part of their Americanized Christianity, where babies, guns and Jesus rule the land, and good Christian patriots build gallows. The gallows were a symbol of their moral righteousness, the need to shed blood to bring back righteousness to the land.
Looking at the pictures of the gallows reminded me of how Christians in America participated in lynching and hangings. President Lincoln ordering the hanging of 38 Dakota Native Americans on December 26, 1862 in Mankato, MN. Over 2000 African Americans were lynched in America. Hanging was a preferred method, to watch people suffer more as their breath exhaled from their bodies, they soiled themselves, and contorted as they tried to breathe. Hangings were designed to be deterrents: to warn, to frighten, to subjugate.
Had Pence been captured and marched out to the gallows, it would have been the moment that all the barbarity and murderous intent that has undergirded American history would have been undeniable. But we’ve seen this before, whether in Daley Plaza, or at the Lorraine Hotel, or at the Ambassador Ballroom. Violence is as American as apple pie.
Finally, the gallows, more than many of the other symbols surrounding the capitol on 1/6, show the depth of the intent and intimidation that the rioters hoped they would achieve with executing Vice President Pence in public. By building the gallows, they signaled that they were done with democracy. Murder was the only way they could put Trump back into office. Rather than prayer, rather than engaging in a democratic process in the next election, murder was the choice they made.
What did die on those gallows was American democracy. As long as there is a political party whose members are willing to kill to remain in power, it is American democracy that is hanging on by a thin breath on those gallows. Let’s hope that the stand won’t be kicked out from under it.
Anthea Butler is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and chair of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her recent book is White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America on The University of North Carolina Press. A sought-after commentator, Professor Butler is an op-ed contributor for MSNBC and served as a consultant to recent PBS series including Billy Graham, and The Black Church.