By Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D., Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence, Central Seminary
Election Day has passed with robust turnout and no reported violence at the polls. My heart is grateful. Back in the mid-2000s, when I was talking with our Haitian seminary students regarding their worries about violence occurring in their country's upcoming elections, I could hardly imagine what it would be like to view voting as a dangerous activity and to worry about the eruption of election violence. That is no longer the case.
Extremism experts have been warning for months that the threat of political violence is increasing. On 10/29/22 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI issued a joint warning about the potential for violence around the mid-term elections inspired by election conspiracies. That same day a man broke into Nancy Pelosi's house hoping to kidnap and torture her and ended up fracturing her husband's skull with a hammer. As our country waits for close election results and the aftermath, the concern about political violence remains.
Political violence has been part of the American scene to a limited degree for a long time. Presidents and significant political figures have been assassinated in the past. Democrat Representative Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011, and Republican Representative Steve Scalise was shot in 2017. But the last few years have seen threats of political violence escalate dramatically. U.S. Capitol Police indicate that there were 9,600 threats against lawmakers documented in 2021 compared to 902 such threats in 2016. That is a ten-fold increase in just five years. Angered by the unfounded belief that the 2020 election was stolen, the attack on the U.S. Capitol demonstrated how many people were willing to participate in such violence. Millions of Americans, including 40% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats according to a December 2021 poll, now state they support the use of political violence under certain circumstances. The threatened targets of such violence have greatly broadened to include election officials and workers and other public figures.
How are we to understand what is happening? Scholars who study political violence note that globally there are a number of risk factors for political violence - a close and competitive election that could change who is in power, political divisions based on identity (such as race and religion), electoral rules that allow winning by exploiting those divisions, and weak restraints on violence such that accountability for violence seems unlikely. With strong partisan divisions, each group may feel under threat and experience deep anger towards the other, which increases social polarization and often leads to dehumanizing views of each other. Politicians often have political reasons to further stoke anger, utilizing dehumanizing language and violent rhetoric, because outrage increases engagement and support. Unfortunately, it also increases the likelihood of violence.
So, what can be done? Scholars suggest it requires action both from the top and from the bottom. It has been found that when political leaders denounce the violence perpetrated by their own side, their followers listen. The situation can then deescalate, and further violence is deterred. When they refuse to do this and remain in complicit silence, the violence continues. Leaders of both political parties, along with other influential leaders, must make it clear that political violence is never acceptable. In addition, political leaders need to enact policies that ensure election integrity, along with swift justice and accountability when violence occurs.
But action at the grassroots level is also important in bringing peace to divided communities. Developing informal relationships with those who are in the opposing political party allows us to listen, talk, and bond over common interests. Grassroots peacebuilding associations can also help to bring peace into politically tense environments.
This indicates there is necessary work for us to do as faith leaders and people of faith. This accords with our biblical mandate to be peacemakers and reconcilers. In the letter to the Ephesians, we read how God's plan in Christ is to bring unity, to break down dividing walls of hostility between groups of people, and to make peace. Whereas for the Ephesians the divided groups were Jews and Gentiles, in our country today hostility divides political groups. In either situation, we are called to be reconcilers and nurturers of peace. Toward the end of the letter to the Ephesians in chapter 4:25 - 5:2, there is practical expression of the type of behavior needed to build peace - speaking the truth, controlling anger, putting away bitterness and wrath, honesty, not slandering or speaking evil, being kind, forgiving, and tenderhearted, and living in love. These are what people and leaders need to be called to do, particularly if they say they are aligned with the Christian faith.
Such relational peacemaking can occur in our neighborhoods. I just came in from a morning walk where I ran into three of our neighbors talking. Having heard that some heated emails were circulating among our home association, they affirmed their desire for people to get along. On this morning after Election Day, the four of us stood together - two Democrats and two Republicans - affirming that differences of political opinion did not need to impair friendship relationships. In a sense, we were standing up against the societal trend toward political polarization.
Many congregations have members from both political parties, and while this may be challenging at times, it is also an opportunity to build relationships that bond community together despite varying political alliances. Within the small discipleship group that Jesus called to follow him was the range of diversity - a tax collector who was a collaborator with the Roman occupying force for personal gain, a zealot who was likely so filled with zeal for their religious law that using violence for its enforcement was sometimes deemed acceptable, and many others in between. Jesus called them all and showed them how to seek God's reign together.
One of our seminary alumni from Kenya demonstrates to me how grassroots peacebuilding can be done. Wilson Gathungu was concerned about the election violence in his country after the 2007 election in which political leaders from different ethnic communities whipped up long held resentments and anger for political gain and made the way for violence in which 1200 people were killed. In a particularly stunning incident, people who had taken refuge in a church, many of them women and children, were set on fire by an opposing group. He returned to Kenya after many years away and reached out to faith leaders of the many ethnic communities in conflict. He got them to agree to come together for the common goal of learning how to better deal with conflict and bring peace. Over several days, with the help of Dan and Sharon Buttry, they sat next to each other and learned conflict transformation skills. They ate together and worked together on common projects. They listened to each other, built relationships, and nurtured trust. Then they were sent out to work with their own various ethnic communities in the same way. Other grassroots organizations and nonprofits were doing similar things. Top leaders in the country also realized they needed to do things differently, and in the next election they choose to work together. The next election occurred with little violence. Just recently political tensions were simmering again, and Wilson again gathered community leaders together to learn how to be peacemakers. That election has now passed with very little violence occurring. Political violence can be rolled back with broad-based commitment and intentional action by both politicians and everyday grassroots peacemakers.
Warnings of political violence need to be heeded and outright violence totally rejected. Violence is never the way to solve problems, but only increases them. Jesus has taught us another way. Political violence was an option in his day, and he totally rejected it. We need to hold our elected officials accountable for their political rhetoric, particularly those who spew lies, inflame grievances, voice conspiracy theories, or wink at prejudice and resorting to violence. We need to support leaders who speak truth, are honest, and are willing to work with others for the common good. And we need to be reconcilers and peacemakers within the arenas in which we live, helping our congregations and those we know to better follow Jesus' way of truth, love, and nonviolence.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Photo by Andy Feliciotti