“I knew this job would be hard,” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said last Thursday. “But I’ll be honest, I never could have imagined anything like this.” An investigation had been ongoing for months, but the news broke on Thursday. Six men were charged with plotting to kidnap Governor Whitmer before the November 3 elections and are in custody. In addition, seven others who are part of a militia group called The Wolverine Watchmen were charged with terrorism, including attempting to attack the state Capitol, plotting to kidnap a sitting governor, and starting a civil war.
According to a New York Times article on October 8, “The men spied on Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home in August and September, even looking under a highway bridge for places they could place and detonate a bomb to distract the authorities, the F.B.I. said. They indicated that they wanted to take Ms. Whitmer hostage before the election in November, and one man said they should take her to a ‘secure location’ in Wisconsin for a ‘trial,’ Richard J. Trask II, an F.B.I. special agent, said in the criminal complaint.”
Earlier in the year, on May 14, the Capitol building in Lansing was closed when demonstrators gathered on the Capitol steps to protest Governor Whitmer’s “stay at home” orders related to the coronavirus. Two weeks before that, demonstrators, some of whom were armed, entered the capitol building and demanded to go into the legislative chambers, which were closed because of social distancing. They also demanded an end to the state of emergency and were angry that gyms in Michigan were closed in mid-March because of the threat of the spread of COVID-19. Gyms were allowed to reopen on a limited basis on September 9.
This is a stressful time for people around the globe, including the United States and here in Iowa. COVID-19 has not spared any part of our world. We are one human family, and what affects one affects all. Through connections with United Methodists across the globe, I sense how very difficult life is right now for all of us. And, at the same time as we affirm our freedom of speech, we have an obligation to speak out against harmful words and hate crimes. As John Wesley encouraged followers, “Seek to do no harm.”
We have a few weeks leading up to our presidential election, and threats of partisan violence are real. How are we going to act as Americans? David Leonhardt wrote last Friday in The New York Times, “Three years ago, the polling firm YouGov asked Americans whether they thought it could ever be justified for their political party to use violence to advance its goals. The overwhelming response was no. Only 8 percent of people said anything other than ‘never.’
“This year, YouGov asked the same question – and the share saying that political violence could be somewhat justified roughly doubled. The increase spanned both Democratic and Republican respondents.
“‘We’re seeing more and more citizens expressing openness to violence as more and more partisan leaders engage in the kinds of dehumanizing rhetoric that paves the way for taking violent action,’ Lee Drutman, one of the political scientists who oversaw the YouGov poll, told me.”
In response to last Thursday’s arrests, Governor Whitmer said, “So let me say this loud and clear: Hatred, bigotry and violence have no place in the great state of Michigan. If you break the law or conspire to commit heinous acts of violence against anyone, we will find you. We will hold you accountable, and we will bring you to justice.”
We have a violence problem in our country, and it is on both sides of the political spectrum. Angry rhetoric. People making assumptions about others’ beliefs. Differing views on coronavirus mitigation. Terrifying threats. How do we as people of faith respond? I sense the polarization and tension increasing as Election Day draws near and would like to offer a few observations.
- God never intended to create us to be exactly alike, and each one of us has a right to our own views.
- Differences are a part of the beauty of our democracy.
- In our churches, we are called to model respect for all, even for those with whom we strongly disagree.
- We must make it clear that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we believe that violence is never an acceptable path to resolving differences, and we unequivocally denounce hate groups.
- We can disagree without vilifying others. We can debate without becoming contentious, and we can dialogue without creating enemies.
- We can honor one another’s convictions without feeling that we are “giving in.”
- No one should ever be coerced to vote in a certain way.
- Respect, understanding, and open dialogue model healthy conversations.
- Putting people down and spreading mistruths is never acceptable.
We live in a democracy where voters will decide the course of our leadership on November 3. Gary and I will likely participate in early voting, and I will make sure to thank all those who are working to provide safe and secure locations. We are blessed and privileged to live in a country where democracy affords equal opportunity as well as freedom. However, with freedom comes responsibility.
What responsibility can you commit to now? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? (United Methodist baptism, confirmation, and membership vow) Will you commit to dialogue about important issues while respecting one another? Can you acknowledge that differences are part of the beauty of our democracy? Will you do your best to ensure that no one is forced to vote in a certain way?
May God bless our country as we prepare to vote, and may God bless our entire world as, together, we commit to doing whatever we can to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Most of all, may we do no harm as we share God’s love as one diverse human family across the world.