Lights surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, placed as a memorial to COVID-19 victims Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington, after President-elect Joe Biden spoke, with the U.S. Capitol in the background. Alex Brandon AP

Some Thoughts on Inauguration Day 2021

Like so many others, I have deep and mixed emotions on this Inauguration Day. This awful chapter is coming to a close and there is a lot to celebrate about the incoming administration, but there is also wreckage upon wreckage to examine, and it goes all the way back to the foundations of our nation. In a moving ceremony at the Reflecting Pool last night, with 400 lights shining to represent the 400,000 lives lost to Covid-19, President-Elect Joe Biden said “to heal, we must remember.” This wisdom is itself a guiding light forward.

Rev Dr. William Barber II is among those who have explained that the kind of mob violence we saw at the Capitol on January 6 has a long history of terrorizing communities in this country. The symbols on display on January 6th reflected the white supremacist ideology behind the breathtaking sense of entitlement to desecrate whatever sanctuary it claims. While not all of us can ever fully grasp it, we must acknowledge the trauma that this touches and exploits.

There was also a religious element to the insurrection. As many have noted, there were prayers and signs and shouts that invoked God, the Bible and Jesus. This too must be examined. To say that White Christian nationalism has always been a force in this country is an understatement. As many have documented (and I touched on in a blog last spring), the presence of people of European heritage on this land was launched in large part by proclamations from the Vatican in the mid-15th century that invoked the Bible for authority to “conquer, vanquish and subdue.” The way that American history has been taught (the revanchist 1776 project is a reminder) tends to downplay the extent to which dehumanization (and even demonization) of Black and Indigenous peoples worked in tandem with the narrative that God ordained the presence and reign of people of European descent (who came to be known as “white”) in this land.  

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas calls it “racial-religious synchronicity.” In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, she brings plenty of “receipts,” as they say, painful and important to read. For the field of earth ethics, it is important to note the construction of whiteness included language exalting ecological domination as part of the proof of racial superiority. For example, in 1775 in Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Benjamin Franklin wrote approvingly of “scouring our planet, by clearing woods, and so making our side of the globe reflect a brighter light” in making his argument that America should not “darken its people.” 

Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, speaking in 1846, at the height of the myth of Manifest Destiny: “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! For it is the only race that has obeyed it, the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish.” There are unmistakable echoes of this sentiment among the MAGA crowds today. At the Republican National Convention this past August, Rep. Matt Gaetz proclaimed: “The frontier, the horizon, even the stars belong to us.” On January 6th, a current Senator from Missouri,  Josh Hawley gave a salute to the stirring mob as he entered the Capitol to dispute the clear outcome of a free and fair election in which  the candidates who stood for an end to systemic racism (and the assault on our climate) prevailed.

On a personal note, I feel reverberations from family experience during every Presidential election cycle, but this one has been especially so. I did not take the time to consider it in depth until idle chatter at the beginning of a zoom meeting a last week prompted me. Someone said, “oh I remember when this whole thing was happening with your father,” and someone else said something like “when this was all happening in 2000 . . . ” It was not the time to articulate it, but the details came rushing back to mind. There was a stark contrast between that occasion and recent events. In 2000, the candidate who won the popular vote and only lost the electoral college by a razor thin margin in just one state made a gracious concession and gave a heartfelt blessing to his rival. And let’s not forget that the circumstances in Florida in 2000 left plenty of room to stoke ongoing controversy and fan flames of division, if he so chose. My father attended that Inauguration, of course, and though he was not onstage today, I feel moved to honor him for his role in upholding American democracy.

Now that Trump is leaving office in disgrace, we must have the courage to look at what he has revealed about us as a nation. We can remember that racism and ecological destruction were joined in a mistaken belief system that was present at the founding, but need not define us any longer. This administration is off to an excellent start with these executive orders that restore the U.S. to global leadership on climate, respect Indigenous people and address environmental justice. There are several other urgent actions they should take, including stopping Line 3, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the mining of Oak Flat, a sacred site for the Apache. All economic development decisions must be made with an ethical lens that includes long term vision. There is also a need for a major revitalization of civics education, not only to enrich our collective knowledge of how a healthy democracy functions, but also to help us remember and heal the wounds that almost caused us to lose it.

As National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman spoke today in The Hill We Climb: 

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it
Somehow we do it.
Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed
A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

p.s.
I also want to share Amanda Gorman’s “EarthRise” which she performed for Climate Reality Project’s 24 Hours of Reality in 2018.