An Analysis of the Capitol Protests Through Senate Chaplain Barry Black’s Prayer
John E. King
This article is part of our “Chaos at the Capitol: Law and Religion Perspectives on Democracy’s Dark Day” series.
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Early in the morning on January 7, 2021, the Senate Chaplain Barry Black offered a prayer following the certification of Joe Biden as the lawfully elected President of the United States. Chaplain Black’s prayer was the conclusion of a long and dark day in the history of the United States of America. Only hours before, on January 6, a mob of protestors attacked the United States Capitol building at the behest of the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump.
The sitting president encouraged a group of his supporters, gathered to protest his defeat in the November General Election, to march over to the Capitol and “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” The next hours saw thousands of individuals carrying Trump flags, QAnon paraphernalia, Confederate flags, and guns invade and attempt to occupy the Capitol building. For the first time since 1812, the U.S. Capitol was breached by assailants. To make matters worse, the building was full with nearly every elected congressional member.
Chaplain Black’s prayer voiced the anger and frustration of a group of public servants who had attempted to fulfill their constitutional duty and certify the election. Black’s appeal to God contained many phrases that decried the day’s events and requested healing going forward. However, one phrase, a reference to a Bible verse, made his prayer particularly striking: “(T)hese tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue.” Black’s reference to Proverbs 18:21 here offers a stark reminder. The words of one man led to an unprecedented assault on democracy and five individuals’ deaths so far.
Since 2015 it has become commonplace to hear phrases such as “fake news,” “misinformation,” and “my truth.” President Trump ushered in an era in U.S. culture and politics where it is common to label information problematic or disagreeable to oneself as untrue. It has been his habit to conduct himself in this way, and January 6 was no exception. President Trump has fed his supporters a steady diet of claims that the November General Election results were lies and false and that he was the rightful winner. Trump has made these claims without offering verifiable evidence, and he has lost multiple court cases that he launched to prove his claims. Nevertheless, on January 6, he walked out on a stage, stoked up his supporters with more of these baseless claims, and then unleashed them on elected officials merely trying to do their jobs.
Barry Black on 26 March 2020 at Governors’ Video Teleconference on Partnership for the COVID-19 Response / Wikimedia Commons
There are multiple dimensions to the events of January 6. President-elect Biden has suggested that race played a part in the response of law enforcement to the mob. Other senators have decried the actions of the mob as terrorism and needlessly violent. However, one dimension—perhaps the simplest, yet the most overlooked—is that the value of words is under attack. The behavior of politicians, media, and scholars over the past five years have brought Chaplain Black to pray for us to remember that simple words have great power.
Not only did Chaplain Black pray that we be reminded of the devastating power of our words, but he also stated powerfully: “Lord, you have helped us remember that we need to see in each other a common humanity that reflects your image.” The events at the Capitol on January 6 suggest that the gulf of division between the two political parties in the U.S. has deeply affected how we view one another as humans in this country. Chaplain Black’s prayer seeks to remind all of us that regardless of political affiliation, there is shared humanity that we must respect if we seek to continue operating as a beacon for democracy. Human decency should serve as the bare minimum of behavior in an educated democratic society. However, the events of January 6 suggest that we are struggling to meet that bar.
Chaplain Black’s prayer asks us to remember that we share a common humanity. It is easy to identify with the congressmen and congresswomen and their staff under siege for several hours on January 6; it is less easy to identify with the mob. Chaplain Black’s call on all those who hear his prayer to not dehumanize the people who attacked democracy is the bravest aspect of his prayer. This moment makes it clear that Black is both a public servant and a man of faith. It is a core tenant of Christianity that people are called to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, but it is not a core tenant of two-party politics. Chaplain Black appeals to a divided nation to show compassion to those who seek to do us irreparable harm.
January 6 was a profoundly traumatic day not just for Americans, but for all those who love democracy and look to America as a beacon of hope, regardless of nationality. Nevertheless, Chaplain Black calls on us to respect the humanity of the mob that attacked the Capitol.
There is a profoundly American aspect to the response he suggests. Throughout America’s history, there have been multiple instances where democracy and its symbols have been attacked by individuals seeking to overthrow them. Rather than give in, Americans have always risen to the occasion. On January 6, a group of people sought further to divide the United States’ political community. Rather than give in, Chaplain Black prayed that God might “use us to bring healing and unity to our hurting and divided nation and world. Thank you for what you have blessed our lawmakers to accomplish in spite of threats to liberty.” Part of the healing that Chaplain Black petitions for includes dialogue and engagement with the very people who attempted to occupy the Capitol. His prayer makes evident that when people of faith like Chaplain Black engage in politics, the outcomes sometimes seem to defy logic.
This type of prayer would not shock many Christians in the United States, and many in the crowd at the Capitol on January 6 have most likely heard variations of it in church services if they attend them. However, this type of radical engagement strikes discordantly in the aftermath of such a traumatic event. Senior Republican and Democrat congressmen and congresswomen have all spoken out and vehemently condemned the mob’s actions. However, few on either side have called for healing and unity in the same way that Chaplain Black has. In fairness, it would seem out of place for Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell to reverse months of rhetoric that demonized the other side in favor of calling for forgiveness and reconciliation. But Chaplain Black demonstrates the reality that many people of faith navigate when they engage in political activity: there are a complicated set of allegiances to reconcile.
Regardless of allegiances, however, Chaplain Black’s point is well taken: healing and unity is the goal in the aftermath of such a gruesome day. The admonition in his prayer that we need to see each other as sharing a common humanity and that we must realize that our words have a sincere and terrible power to them are possible avenues that America must explore in the healing process. Chaplain Black describes the terrifying reality that despite their brutal actions and problematic rhetoric, the protestors at the Capitol are humans just like us. We share things in common with them. However, this shared humanity is why they must be engaged with by Republicans and Democrats alike.
The events of January 6 will forever remain a part of President Trump’s legacy. In his speech that he delivered to protestors before they attacked the Capitol, President Trump espoused his accomplishments while he had been in office and lamented how they were not enough to ensure his apparent reelection. However, nowhere in his speech does President Trump take responsibility for his role in the division in the United States, nor does he change from the rhetoric and tone that he has become known for the past four years. Since this speech, he has been suspended from several social media accounts, suggesting that these sites are beginning to tap into the sentiment of Chaplain Black’s prayer: words have consequences. As the United States moves forward from January 6, Chaplain Black’s prayer serves as a useful guide for the nation. We must respect one another as human beings, we must be careful with the power of our words, and we must unify as Americans to protect our nation because, as Chaplain Black says, “eternal vigilance continues to be freedom’s price.” ♦
John E. King is a second-year MTS Student at the Candler School of Theology. He does research on evangelicals and political engagement.
King, John E. “An Analysis of the Capitol Protests Through Senate Chaplain Barry Black’s Prayer.” Canopy Forum, January 14, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/01/14/an-analysis-of-the-capitol-protests-through-senate-chaplain-barry-blacks-prayer/