“The Hill We Climb” — Reflections on the Inauguration

Washington Post photo, 1/20/2021

It’s been a few days since the inspiring inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris here in Washington. The hopeful feeling that I, my wife, and our political friends experienced then has survived the first days of the new administration and is showing some possibility of sustaining itself through at least the proverbial “first hundred days” of the Biden administration.

The not-entirely-peaceful transfer of power, performed within the Red Zone of the Capitol and Washington Mall, guarded over by thousands of police and National Guard troops, was an event that we’d long anticipated. Yet I awoke Wednesday with doubts whether a meaningful inauguration ceremony could be enacted on the very site where Trump’s insurrectionists had seized the Capitol and threatened the lives of the entire U.S. Congress only two weeks earlier.

During the three decades I worked as a spiritual counselor at a non-denominational rural retreat center, I made a careful study and practice of ceremony and ritual.   I had learned that I and others are hungry for meaningful rituals, especially at threshold events in our lives: weddings, divorces, births, deaths – any event representing a significant passage into another way of being.

For many of us, the recent presidential inauguration qualifies as such a significant passage. As a practitioner of ritual, I had learned the importance of physical setting. Churches and other temples of worship consciously provide safe, protected, beautiful, sometimes awe-inspiring venues for experiencing a divine presence. Working with Native American teachers and healers, I had learned that the natural world could also provide the environment for profound experiences of the sacred.

Our U.S. Capitol building is the principal temple of our national political life. Many Congressional representatives spoke of the January 6 insurrection as a desecration of our national political temple.  I myself held a reverence for the Capitol since my first visit there as a 12-year-old. Yet after the murder and mayhem waged by the insurrectionist mob on January 6, and the ensuing militarization to prevent further disturbance, I wondered whether the sense of sacred space could still be invoked.

The inspiring unfolding of the Biden-Harris inauguration was therefore especially gratifying to behold.  Despite the restricted number of attendees and the raw memories of the traumatic upheaval two weeks earlier, I felt transported to a place of renewed political commitment and genuine love for our nation and for the institutions that had allowed us to move forward.

The two moderators of the event, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota and Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri were gracious and upbeat.  The swearing-in ceremony was preceded by a series of prayers, short speeches, and songs that served to lift the energy and spirit of the occasion. President Biden is a genuinely spiritual person and his choice for the clergy to speak the Invocation (a Catholic priest friend) and the Benediction (a protestant minister) demonstrated that his brand of Christianity was of the “servant leadership” variety.  Lady Gaga’s rendition of the National Anthem stirred me with her soaring vocal artistry and unusual wardrobe.  Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks each brought their uniquely soulful styles to “This Land Is Your Land” and “Amazing Grace” respectively.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ swearing-in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor followed.  The history-making ascendance of the first woman to attain that office was all that needed to be affirmed.

After swearing his fealty to the Constitution and to the responsibilities of the presidency, new President Joe Biden delivered a forceful and moving speech, focused mainly on finding common ground within our deeply divided country. He spoke to the fragility of democracy, as witnessed by ongoing denial of the election results and the violent insurrection exactly two weeks earlier.  He also spoke to the resiliency of our democratic institutions as demonstrated by both houses of Congress reconvening at the Capitol just hours after the attack to formally certify the election.

“So now, on this hallowed ground where just days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.”

Those words had greater weight by virtue of three former presidents (Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama) attending, and Biden’s also sharing his phone conversation with Jimmy Carter the night before.

President Biden’s speech was an affirmation of his optimistic, spiritually grounded belief that we are capable of meeting and overcoming the many existential challenges facing us:

“The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us.

“Over the centuries through storm and strife, in peace and in war we’ve endured, but we still have far to go.

“We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain.”

A neighbor had joined my wife and me to watch the inauguration on television.  We found ourselves spontaneously standing up and clapping together at various points, as if we were physically there!  It was then that I realized that the concentrated commitment and energy of the ceremony had transcended the recent insurrection, the necessary military security, and the still raging pandemic.

Inspiring as President Biden’s speech was, the capstone of the ceremony for me was what followed:  the reading of an inauguration poem by the twenty-something African American woman poet, Amanda Gorman.

Associated Press photo of Ms. Amanda Gorman

Ms. Gorman wore a bright yellow coat and red headband.  She was a slight in her physical presence, but exhibited a poise and grace that was visually, as well as poetically, compelling, especially in her fluid, graceful hand-arm movements, and clear, strong elocution.  Her poem is titled “The Hill We Climb” and it uncannily echoed many of the themes just spoken by our new President, as evinced by the following segments:

“We are a nation that isn’t broken

but simply unfinished…

We are striving to compose a country

committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions…

We close the divide because we know

to put our future first

we must put our differences aside….

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped,

That even as we tired, we tried…

The hill we climb,

If only we dare

Is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into

And how we repair it.”

After the long¸ dark, dispiriting years of the Trump presidency, I felt my soul being washed and healed.  A strong, positive feeling continued throughout the day and was reinforced by the inspiring, televised “celebration event” sponsored by the inauguration committee that evening.

Like President Biden and everyone else I know, I have no illusion that the road ahead for our country will be an easy one.  But Inauguration Day’s ceremonial events succeeded in opening a genuine sense of hope that enough of us had come together to begin the long, hard climb ahead.

John Bayerl, 1/24/2021

The Battle for Washington

The Battle for Washington

January 6 was a tragic yet historic day here in the Washington D.C. area. Like many others watching the live broadcasts from the Capitol, my wife and I were horrified to see the most sacred bastion of our American republic stormed, looted, and otherwise desecrated in unspeakable ways while both houses of Congress were meeting to formally certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President. That the riotous mob of insurrectionists had been incited by the sitting president made the spectacle even more appalling. The fact that five people lost their lives in the melee and that the lives of every one of our Representatives and Senators, as well as that of the Vice President, were put at risk, made the whole event downright criminal.

The ensuing week was like recovering from a battle. As Congress regrouped and completed their work of certifying the election in the wee hours of the following morning, the slow, painful climb back to a semblance of normalcy began. There is little doubt that Trump incited the mob to this shameful act of treasonous sedition. As he sought to diminish and disavow his involvement, it became clear that the only suitable response would be a second impeachment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Congressional lieutenants rose to the occasion to fulfill their Constitutional responsibility by formally impeaching Trump for a second time. This time even a handful of Republicans voted to sanction Trump,

By last week my wife and I and another couple were feeling a desire to remove ourselves from Washington for a brief respite. A friend of mine living in Frederick, MD had recently escorted me on a beautiful walk along the Monocacy River, not far from his home. I suggested that spot as a good place for a nature walk and we all agreed to meet there one clear, bright morning.

I hadn’t paid much attention to it in my first walk there, but the pastoral site along the Monocacy is actually a National Park, commemorating the Civil War “Battle of Monocacy”. This time I took the initiative to do a little research before our visit. The National Parks website had excellent historical information and maps of what transpired there on July 9, 1864, now sometimes called “The Battle for Washington”.

In brief, by July 1864 Ulysses Grant and the Army of the Potomac had Lee’s Confederate army bottled up in Petersburg, VA (south of Richmond). Lee recognized that the city of Washington was being only lighted guarded and he saw an opportunity. He ordered one of his cavalry commanders, Jubal Early, to take about 15,000 men and ride up the Shenandoah Valley through Virginia and proceed to cross into Maryland for an assault on the capital. Union troops prevented Early’s crossing of the Potomac by burning the bridge at Harper’s Ferry. Early proceeded east to Frederick, MD with an eye to marching down to Washington on what is now Route 355. He threatened to burn Frederick to the ground but was appeased when city officials paid his requested fee of $200,000.

Meanwhile, the Union general Lew Wallace (author of “Ben Hur”), stationed in Baltimore, was informed of Early’s entry into Maryland by an official from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He traveled by train to the Monocacy Junction station, just south of Frederick on the Monocacy River. Knowing that Early was then approaching Frederick and that Washington itself was lightly defended, Wallace devised a plan to block Early’s cavalry from crossing the Monocacy. He summoned about 5,000 troops from Baltimore to deploy to Monocacy Junction and soon had them setting up defenses along the riverfront.

When Early’s men approached the river crossing at Monocacy Junction on the morning of July 9, they encountered Union soldiers and artillery commanding the bluffs across the river. Their first attempt to cross the bridge was repulsed. Early then ordered some of his cavalry to attempt crossing at the Worthington Ford, about one mile downstream (now the site of the pastoral hiking trail). The Confederate cavalrymen got across but were soon met by massive volleys of rifle fire from Wallace’s men hidden behind a long wooden fence. Hundreds of Confederate cavalrymen were killed or wounded in this ambush, and the rest were forced to retreat.

By late afternoon though, it became clear that Early’s forces outnumbered Wallace’s by about 2 to 1. Continued fighting along the riverfront resulted in Wallace having to pull his forces back. Wallace’s army retreated back to Baltimore, but not before having delayed Early’s march south by an entire day.

In his autobiography, Ulysses Grant commended General Lew Wallace’s foresight and initiative at the Battle for Washington. The extra day was enough time for Grant’s dispatch of his VI Corps to reach and secure the capital. Jubal Early’s cavalry made it to the outskirts of Washington, but were repulsed at Fort Steven, with President Lincoln himself observing the Union victory there.

Studying up on this other “Battle for Washington” helped me to put last week’s insurrection at the Capitol into better perspective. I realized that it was no accident to see Confederate flags among Trump’s mob on January 6. The site of those flags inside the Capitol was especially alarming. And the ghastly site of portable gallows on the Mall in front of the Capitol was a clear statement that the insurgents would even dare to threaten lynching. The Confederacy may have lost the Civil War, but it’s clear that present-day advocates for the “Lost Cause” continue to advance their ideology of racism, now joined with Trump’s unique blend of fascism which shows little respect for the Constitution or the rule of law.

The small Indivisible group that my wife and I started four years ago is called “For The Common Good”. We initiated it largely because of our deep disturbance by Trump’s election in 2016. We resolved ourselves to countering the ugly racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant programs that Trump and his lieutenants were promulgating. After the white supremacy outbreak in Charlottesville in 2017, it became clear just how closely allied Trump was with the most reactionary forces in our country.

With President-elect Biden’s decisive victory in November, our group has re-doubled our commitment to finding dialog with Republicans, even those who may have supported Trump. Our commitment to understanding and dialog continues. Yet the events at the Capitol last week cannot simply be swept under the rug.

Lincoln was temperamentally a master of negotiation and compromise. Yet in his first inaugural address, with more southern states still seceding, he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. He realized that the nation had reached a point at which the southern slave states could no longer be simply appeased.

The Civil War was a violent expression of deep-seated divisions that had been extant since our country’s Constitutional beginning. The insurrection at the Capitol last week is an indication that some of the basest beliefs of the Confederacy are still alive in our midst. Before we can move ahead with real healing, the fundamental racism at the heart of Trumpism needs to be fully repudiated. Before President Biden can move us forward towards healing and unity, the Robert E. Lee’s and Jubal Early’s in our midst need to be called out, exposed, and fully repudiated. There is no compromise possible with those who avow that the most secure election in American history can simply be denied by fiat.

A slogan from Al-Anon is: “Without consequences, there is no healing”. Trump has shown himself to be an existential threat to the principles of our republic. Those who supported and enabled him now have to face the consequences of their obeisance. The latest “Battle for Washington” is a sobering reminder that dialog and reconciliation can occur only after perpetrators of sedition are firmly stopped and brought to justice.

John Bayerl, 1/17/2021