Insurrection: Does the January 6 Capitol attack fit the definition?

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Was January 6 an “insurrection”? Why weaponizing words imperils the future of our democracy

January 4, 2024 -

FILE - Those loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

FILE - Those loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

FILE - Those loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

As the third anniversary of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol approaches, attention is being focused on the question: Was it an “insurrection”?

As of October 2022, the approximate losses from the events of that day totaled more than $2,881,360. Approximately 140 police officers were assaulted; more than 1,100 people have been charged in connection with the event, and more than 600 have pleaded guilty to federal charges. Five people died in the riot.

But was it an “insurrection”? The question matters enormously since two states have now barred former President Trump from appearing on their election ballots after claiming that he participated in such an action on January 6. They cited Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids those who previously held office but “have engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States from holding office again.

Section 3 does not specifically include the presidency among its listed offices, leading some to argue that it does not apply to Mr. Trump. Others question whether the January 6 event constitutes an “insurrection”; if it does not, they claim that Section 3 does not apply to the former president.

The latter question is obviously relevant to our national politics, but there’s an even more foundational issue here that speaks to the future of our democracy.

“An attack on democracy that should never be forgotten”?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “insurrection” as “an organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government and take control of their country, usually by violence.” I have italicized the three elements that make up this definition. 

Some point to the “violence” of January 6 as justifying this description; others claim that the “object” of the riot “was to prevent a legitimate president-elect from assuming office,” thus constituting an “insurrection” by virtue of the second definitional element.

However, others cite the first element—an “organized attempt”—as invalidating the charge of “insurrection.” They note a Reuters report: “The FBI has found scant evidence that the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol was the result of an organized plot to overturn the presidential election result.” The article adds: “The FBI at this point believes the violence was not centrally coordinated by far-right groups or prominent supporters of then-President Donald Trump.” Some even believe that “the riot was instigated by law enforcement to suppress political dissent.”

The partisan nature of this issue is enormously significant. In a poll published this week, 55 percent of US adults agreed that the storming of the US Capitol on January 6 was “an attack on democracy that should never be forgotten.” But note: 89 percent of Biden voters agreed with the statement, contrasted with 17 percent of Trump voters.

The commodification of truth

“Democracy” translates the Greek demokratia, from demos (“the people”) and kratia (“power, rule”). As Abraham Lincoln so memorably proclaimed, the American democratic experiment entails “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

As George Washington and many others have noted, such consensual governance requires shared values derived from shared religious convictions. But these shared values require a shared vocabulary by which to understand and communicate them. Even more foundationally, the exercise of consensual governance itself requires a consensual vocabulary by which people choose leaders, enact jurisprudence, and enforce laws.

If words become weaponized for partisan purposes, the fundamental means by which democracy exists and functions is undermined. This is where we find ourselves in America today.

As consumers in a consumption-based society, everything and everyone has become a potential commodity. We purchase those goods and services that we believe are worth more than their cost. In a postmodern, “post-truth” culture, we feel free to do the same with our words, using them in whatever way suits us and advances our agendas.

Consequently, millions of Americans believe their former president, currently leading in polls to become their next president, is an “insurrectionist” who is therefore constitutionally barred from office. Millions of others believe this charge to be yet another illegitimate attempt to deprive Americans of their constitutional right to vote.

The chasm between these two positions is dangerous to our future as a nation.

When we choose to live biblically

The demise of a shared vocabulary and the objective reality it describes is an existential crisis for any democracy. Our response as Christians should be to pray fervently and work redemptively to help our nation turn to the one true God and the objective, authoritative truth of his word. Such a moral and spiritual reformation is vital not only for the spiritual health of Americans but for the future of America.

As we pray for others, however, we must take care to pray for ourselves as well.

I am as tempted as anyone to commodify biblical truth, “buying” those parts that appeal to me and refusing those that do not. Every time you and I do something Scripture forbids or do not do something it requires, we make this choice. We exercise our “will to power” by choosing to be our own god (Genesis 3:5), the foundational sin behind all sins. In so doing, we forfeit God’s best for our lives and for those we influence. And we abandon our calling to be salt and light in a broken culture dying for purity and truth (Matthew 5:13–16).

By contrast, every time we choose to think biblically and act redemptively, we glorify our Lord and advance his kingdom in eternally significant ways. The higher the cost of such obedience, the greater its value in this life and the next.

If you were to live even more biblically than you do now, what would you change first?

Why not today?

NOTE: A new year brings the promise of change. We pray that our new and free online course, The Greatest Commandment, will draw you to the Father’s heart over the next five weeks. In this self-directed course, you’ll learn why Jesus linked loving God with loving others and how you can better exercise each of those aspects of your faith.

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