The Sadness of the Sacred

The Conflict of the Rotunda, Failed Theology, and the Renewal of Faith

In recent days, I’ve moved from anger to sadness regarding the terrorist attack of January 6. Both feelings — rage and grief — spring from the same source: a sense of violation that something precious and important has been damaged.

A number of politicians have referred to January 6 as a “desecration” of the “sacred halls of democracy.” Many progressive Christians quickly questioned calling the Capitol “sacred,” seemingly eager to point out the flaws and hypocrisies of American politics. I read several tweet threads eschewing or belittling the use of the words “sacred” or “desecration” in conjunction with what happened. Indeed, most of these critics blamed conflating American political institutions with anything “sacred” for creating the very problems that led to the whole violent event.

Theoretically, I agree with this. American history is fraught with issues arising from the confusion between religion and politics, the all-too-easy identification of biblical purpose with national causes. Civil religion served to justify racism, white supremacy, and manifest destiny. It is a bad story. I’ve delivered scores of lectures and sermons urging clarity and a more historically-informed cleavage between the two.

So, why was I sitting in my family room, staring at CNN, and screaming at terrorists in the Rotunda? Why tears upon reading that the invaders defecated on those floors? Why the blinding rage of seeing the Confederate and Trump flags waved in that particular place?

This was a moment when theory didn’t address my own reality. When my theology of church and state failed.

Somehow, the Rotunda is sacred. Even to me, long-cynical of American civil religion. Desecration is the only word to describe what happened this week.

And my initial anger has given way to a surprising an unanticipated grief.

Before last Wednesday, the last major public event in the Capitol Rotunda was on July 27, 2020: The Lying in State of Congressman John R. Lewis. (Note: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was lain in Statuary Hall.)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened the solemn ceremony, with the flag-draped coffin of Representative Lewis on the same catafalque that once supported the body of Abraham Lincoln, with these words:

“John Lewis often spoke of a ‘beloved community,’ a vision that he shared with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the community connected and uplifted by faith, hope and charity.  And, indeed, John had deep faith, believing that every person has a spark of divinity making them worthy of respect.  And he had faith in the charity of others, which is what gave him so much hope.

As he wrote in his book, ‘Release the need to hate, to harbor division and the enticement of revenge.  Release all bitterness.  Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.’  John the optimist.

Through it all, John was a person of greatness.  He also was a person of great humility; always giving credit to others in the movement.”

Thus, she said, “John Lewis joins this pantheon of patriots.” In a biography that followed shortly thereafter, Jon Meacham put it this way: “John Robert Lewis embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term.”

A little more than five months later, the scene was not that of quiet contemplation of saintly patriotism. On January 6, 2021, the Capitol Rotunda was Ground Zero of a white nationalist terrorist insurrection against the United States government.

This was anything but “beloved community.” It was as if someone purposefully took John Lewis’ words against hate, revenge, and bitterness and turned them into a political platform for a radical mob of right-wing extremists. The anti-Lewis insurrection, the opposite of the America for which he had worked and the one his colleagues honored on a summer day only weeks earlier.

Two images. Same place, not far apart in time. One an image of reverence, the other of rage.

Sacred means to be “set apart.”

Certainly, things associated with religions are sacred — buildings like churches or temples; rites and rituals like feasts and fasts, of birth and death; items set aside for religious purposes, like beads, bowls, and books, altar cloths and chalices; and images like statues and paintings, icons and written words.

Religions bless things and make them sacred, usually in formal and ritualized ways, setting these things apart for non-worldly purposes. To make something sacred is to make it holy. Indeed, in Christianity bread and wine becomes Jesus when blessed; and human beings become “ontologically transformed” into priests. Set apart, different from the ordinary things they seem to be.

Through history “sacred” things are often left untouched in times of turmoil. Churches left standing in war; relics or sacred art protected in times of invasion. But particularly vile armies often raid what was “sacred” first — almost as if raping a culture, violating a faith as a way of bringing an entire people to their knees. Temples sacked; nuns murdered; statues of the gods felled. That is desecration.

An entire book of the Hebrew Bible is about desecration — Lamentations. Oddly enough, it isn’t about the desecration of something we think of as conventionally “religious,” it is about the desecration of a city. Tradition ascribes the work to the Prophet Jeremiah, whose poems both rage and weep over the destruction of Jerusalem, a city of the Jews, a place set apart for peace, the dwelling place of God. The sacred city had fallen.

“How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave” (Lamentations 1:1). The Bible gives us a template of anger and sadness when a city is invaded, when a sacred site is desecrated. To mourn a city violated is, in itself, a holy thing.

But what counts as sacred?

Of course, Washington DC isn’t the biblical city of Jerusalem nor is the Rotunda a religious temple.

Yet, through American history, Christians who settled here imagined that the new world was a New Jerusalem. Those early European colonists equated their cities with the cities of the Bible, even naming some after their ancient scriptural predecessors believing their civic purposes to be the same as God’s. What the inhabitants of this New Jerusalem did, they did with a sense of divine mandate. And, from that conflation, America justified all sorts of horrors — from the Native genocide to black enslavement to manifest destiny and liberal imperialism.

Certainly, the admixture of biblical story and colonization is a dangerous, even sinful, business with disastrous consequences. That’s what critics had in mind when tweeting that the Rotunda isn’t “sacred.”

But this begs the question: Why do human being persist in ascribing divinity to places and purposes? What counts as sacred?

As already stated, religions make things sacred. In the Bible, God chose Jerusalem as a sacred city. These are theological definitions of “sacred,” singular in application, arising from particular communities, particular faiths, and particular stories. Lamentations is a Jewish story, about a real people in a real place.

Sacredness, however, arises from more than just theology. We human beings actually make things sacred when we separate them from ordinary life, ascribing transcendent meaning to certain places, spaces, rituals, or roles. We do this by telling stories, attaching memory, investing meaning, and performing rituals. Thus, while most of us might agree that Notre Dame is holy by virtue of being a Christian religious site, we also might experience some sense of the sacred while visiting the Grand Canyon or Gettysburg. In all these locations, we are moved beyond the ordinary into transcendence — where we might consider the power of beauty, creation, or death.

In the case of Norte Dame, religion made a space sacred (although it is worth noting that many Christian holy sites are built atop more ancient sites that had been considered sacred by older tribal cultures) and exerts a certain authority over how its holiness is interpreted and practiced. In the cases of the Grand Canyon and Gettysburg, however, no religious authority controls the location or the story. These are places that hold power on their own, one gifted by geology, the other made sacred through war.

Yet, most of us sense something similar in all three — wonder, transcendence, the rising of the spirit. No matter how that “sacred” sense was birthed, we know it when we stand in the nave, at the edge of the cliff, or in the middle of a field. And we know what it feels like when these places are desecrated, whether we are religious people or not. A fire. A threat to build a dam or a resort. Monuments vandalized by graffiti. We cry. We protest. We are horrified with disgust. In this sense, Lamentations expands to include other people, other cities and becomes part of universal human experience.

Sacredness is far more than what is strictly religious. It exists outside the ordinary flow of our lives. The “aha” moment, the sudden tears, the hush of reverence, the surprise of insight. Sacredness may occur anywhere. But, as human beings have always known, sacredness tends to break through repeatedly in some places. We mark some places as especially prone to it. Like the Capitol Rotunda.

There are theological definitions of “sacred,” and those are generally specific and narrow. And there are sociological ones, how we human beings construct and experience the sacred. The latter ones are fluid and open. Theologians like to manage the sacred; the rest of us just go about making the sacred as it comes.

In religion, even where definitions of “sacred” are more closely guarded, conflict is inevitable. People cross lines, touch untouchable objects, violate rules and rituals. Some people think certain things are sacred, others say they are not. Tribes go to war over such things. Myriad denominations have been founded on such. Heretics and infidels have been burned for questioning what is holy. Religious division persists over arguments on what counts as sacred.

In the other realm, the sociological one, conflict is also inevitable. Perhaps even more so. Indeed, one “sacred” tradition of America was outlined above — the story of the New Jerusalem, a divinely chosen nation that must defeat all of God’s enemies and rise like a city on a hill. But that wasn’t the only sacred story of America. Some imagined America as a Peaceable Kingdom; others as the land of sad exile or liberating Exodus; still others saw this land as the womb of creation or the Mother of the People. These sacred stories have been in conflict with the others since the beginning of European colonization.

And so The Rotunda — and those two recent events.

The photo of John Lewis, Nancy Pelosi’s remarks, and Jon Meacham’s canonization are sacred to me — to many of us. To most of you who read this newsletter. The Rotunda is sacred because the bodies of Abraham Lincoln and John Lewis and John F. Kennedy and Rosa Parks all laid there. We’ve inscribed on that place a story of heroism and courage and the long arc of justice, a room splattered with the tears of equality’s long struggle, the light of liberty shining down from above. We’ve made it a temple of American aspiration to the better angels of our nature. If that’s not sacred, I don’t know what is.

But the Rotunda itself also bears another story in the art on the walls, in its statues: colonization, western expansion, submission of native peoples. Indeed, the funerals of Rosa Parks and John Lewis sanctified the Rotunda by, in effect, challenging the iconic paintings on its walls. By reminding the American people that the temple of democracy was built by those enslaved, and that a greater justice presses us toward a different future. To me, that makes the Rotunda even more remarkable. It was intended to be a temple of American imperialism and is becoming the sacred space for a far more inclusive and just nation.

To me, the second picture is one of desecration. A group of violent invaders literally spitting on the floor where Lewis had recently rested. Yet, those insurrectionists were reenacting some of the scenes of conquest on the Rotunda’s own walls. The rioters imagined themselves heroes like those enshrined in marble in the Capitol’s own statues. I know — without a doubt — that (at least many) of the terrorists believed that the John Lewis event was a desecration and that they were re-baptizing the Rotunda with blood.

And that’s why I am sad. It isn’t enough to say “the Rotunda isn’t sacred,” “American civil religion is the problem” or “religion is to blame.” The Rotunda is sacred. It is a place of story, meaning, and memory. Humans make things sacred. Societies create transcendent meaning from their history and aspirations. We build buildings to enshrine our stories. Making sacredness is what we do. The questions are what we understand to be sacred and how we go about doing it.

My sadness arises from how hard it is, this making of sacredness, of the hallowing of place. The recent history of the United States isn’t a fight between the “secular” and the “sacred,” between the faithless and the faithful. The conflict is between two visions of what we hold as sacred — depicted in those two photographs.

Although I trust and hope that most Americans gravitate toward the transcendence of the first image, January 6 revealed how many of our fellow citizens view this in exactly the opposite way. Some people, including some of my family and friends, see the first photo as a desecration and the second as revolution to take back what they believe to be their sacred space.

Anger and sadness — all part of a long argument over the sacredness of a city. Not Jerusalem, surely. But certainly America’s geography of lament. An extended conflict about whose story gives us meaning, about which people count, about freedom, equality, and justice. This week’s events may be a dramatic moment in that story, where the conflict moved into the temple of democracy itself, but it isn’t new. And whatever those of us who lean into the first picture do, we can’t give up on the idea that striving for democracy is sacred, and that its desecration will leave us aghast. We deny the transcendent dimensions of this week at our peril.

“I have long believed,” wrote John Lewis, “I have long preached that our nation’s moral compass comes from God, it is of God, and it is seen through God.” Ours is a sacred struggle. Lewis goes on:

“There are forces today in America trying to divide people along racial lines. There are forces today that are still preaching hate and division. There are forces today who want us to return to the old ways. . . It makes me sad, for we don’t want to go back. We want to go forward and create one community — one America.

The journey begins with faith — faith in the dignity and worth of every human being. . . Adversity can breed unity; hatred can give way to love.”

In Lewis’s final written words, he insisted: “You have to believe that. You have to believe that.”

So, yes. I grieve. It is hard and demands courage. This isn’t going to end for a long time. And my life may end before this struggle does. Yet, in the darkness, I find my faith renewed. Thus, I offer my confession to St. John Lewis of the Rotunda: I believe. I believe.

*The John Lewis quotes in this article are from Jon Meacham, His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.

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Lift Every Voice and Sing
by James Weldon Johnson

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land. 

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