“A Time to Heal”

Yesterday Vice President Mike Pence declined to invoke the section of the 25th Amendment that would allow him temporarily to assume presidential powers from Donald Trump, setting up a historic impeachment vote today in the House of Representatives, with Democrats and even some Republicans likely to vote to send Donald Trump to a second Senate trial within the space of just twelve months.

Pence and Nancy Pelosi at a joint session of Congress in 2019 – Creative Commons (NATO)

I happen to think that Pence is right to be wary of setting this kind of precedent with an amendment meant to address the possibility of presidential incapacity. Instead, I hope that the House votes to impeach Trump for — among dozens of other impeachable offenses — inciting last Wednesday’s violent attempt to keep the legislative branch from fulfilling its constitutional role in peacefully transferring power to the people’s choice for the presidency. (Note that the impeachment article also refers to Trump’s documented attempt to get the Republican secretary of state in Georgia to change the results of Biden’s win in that crucial state.) Given yesterday’s report that majority leader Mitch McConnell supports impeachment, I’m even somewhat optimistic that the Senate will quickly convene for a trial that results not only in Trump being removed from office, but barred from holding office again.

But in his letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (a Roman Catholic), it was a bit frustrating to see Pence (a self-described “born-again, evangelical Catholic“) quote this part of the Bible as part of his rationale:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven… a time to heal… and a time to build up.

Eccl 3:1, 3

“That time is now,” he continued. “In the midst of a global pandemic, economic hardship for millions of Americans, and the tragic events of January 6th, now is the time for us to come together, now is the time to heal.”

While this kind of call for healing and national unity has suddenly become a talking point for many Republicans, keep in mind that Democratic president-elect Joe Biden quoted the same verses to a similar effect in his victory speech last November:

It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again. Listen to each other again. And to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans. They’re Americans.

The Bible tells us to everything there is a season, a time to build, a time to reap and a time to sow. And a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America.

In fact, both Pence and Biden are repeating a rhetorical move that’s been fairly common in U.S. history. According to Lincoln Mullen’s always-fascinating tool, America’s Public Bible, Ecclesiastes 3 was most frequently quoted just before, during, and after the Civil War. In September 1872, for example, Horace Greeley quoted Eccl 3:8 to start a speech in Pittsburgh, in which he condemned a Union veterans’ gathering for the 10th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam:

The wise king says there is a time for war and a time for peace. The city of Pittsburgh has recently witnessed a rehearsal of the pomp and pageantry, the blazonry and circumstance of civil war. A very large number of men were collected, at a vast expense, with the single purpose of rekindling the bitterness and hatred, the animosity and antipathies, the fears and exultations of a civil war, for the advantage of a political party…. Fellow citizens, are we never to be done with this?

For context: Greeley was campaigning for president against the incumbent Republican, Ulysses Grant, the former Union commander who that spring had signed an amnesty for former Confederate soldiers, but also continued to use federal power to crush the Ku Klux Klan and promote the goals of Reconstruction. Greeley was the nominee of both the Democrats and a Liberal Republican splinter group that opposed Reconstruction. In the end, Grant handily defeated Greeley, and Reconstruction continued until the contested election of 1876, controversially resolved by a compromise that kept the White House in GOP hands at the cost of withdrawing federal troops from the South.

One of Thomas Nast’s anti-Greeley cartoons from the fall of 1872 – Wikimedia

The echo of that Reconstruction debate seems instructive to me. The aftermath of the Civil War was a time to heal and build up, but first, it was a time for the biblical purpose that Pence left out: “to break down” (v 3). Alas, instead of following through on the task of breaking down white supremacy and building up multi-racial democracy, white Americans rushed into a hasty reconciliation that left a successor to slavery in place for decades to come.

In the mid-19th century or the early 21st, the American nation cannot continue as what Abraham Lincoln (quoting a different scripture) called “a house divided against itself.” But a false reconciliation will only deepen the divide, most likely at the expense of the nation’s most vulnerable members. I think Joe Biden is right to make the restoration of national unity as an overarching goal of his presidency, but it is impossible for a democracy to unify when a large part of the population and its elected representatives reject and demean democratic institutions, processes, and norms, like the rule of law and the acceptance of facts as truth. (Even after the invasion of the Capitol last Wednesday, Republican senator Ted Cruz tied his continuing objection to certification to his call for a revival of the 1876-77 commission model, supposedly to resolve an election whose results are only disputed by conspiracy theorists.)

Further on in Ecclesiastes 3, we read that there is also “a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing… a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (vv 5, 7). Until a majority of Republicans break their silence and unreservedly speak out against the violence of January 6th, hold accountable the president and other politicians who incited that mob, affirm that Joe Biden won a free, fair, and not especially close election, and reject the race-baiting, conspiracy-fueling, fear-mongering rhetoric that brought us to this point, I fear that the times for healing, embracing, and building up will not come.