On election day every year we take our children to the polls, hoping to instill in them a sense of civic participation. The poll workers expect this, and usually have stickers or treats. This year we visited the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on election eve. Tourists took pictures of themselves grinning next to cardboard cutouts of their favorite candidates. School children giggled on their way to see the artifacts of our democracy. It was just another day in the nation’s capital. We faced none of the electoral violence of Zimbabwe or Kenya or too many other places in the world where parents would not dream of endangering their children by bringing them near the polls. On the brink of a dramatic change of power, there was no drama in the capital’s streets, no riots, no bullets, no violence.
Democracy has many faults. It allows us the freedom to elect bad leaders and make bad laws. We elect crooks and celebrities. We have passed bad laws, from the horrors of slavery to the strange outlawing of juggling on Sundays in Wyoming. But the genius of democracy is that it gives us tools for peaceful change. Like our God, it allows second (and third and fourth) chances to try to get things right. The freedoms of speech, assembly, press, religion and others, along with the vote, work together to allow us to change course. Change may take years, or in the cases of minority and women’s rights, even centuries. But the levers for peaceful change are built into the system, within reach of every hand that can scribble a sign or pull a voting curtain. I can say to my students with confidence, “I’ll meet you on Jan. 20 on the Mall every fourth year, for the peaceful transfer of power.”
Peaceful political transfer is not magic; it has been purchased with the blood of martyrs, and we must cherish and protect it. The United States is not immune to political violence, from civil war to assassinations, Birmingham to Kent State. But we have been able to rebuild the political peace after each breach, so that today we have “Get Out the Vote” drives because people are too bored to vote, not because they are too afraid to vote.
Peaceful political transfer is under tremendous threat this year, from both practical and ideological dangers. Unprecedented inaugural crowds and logistic dilemmas create challenges. Officials estimate two to four million people will attend the historic inauguration of President Obama, a 500 percent to 1,000 percent increase from the capacity crowds that swamp the Mall annually for Fourth of July festivities. Even opening the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial cannot accommodate that many bodies. Understandable security searches and fences will create chokepoints and waits. At least 10,000 buses have been chartered to bring people to the inauguration, not counting other private buses, school and church buses, and vans. A line of 10,000 buses would encircle the Capital Beltway and back up all the way north to Baltimore. Where will they park? How will the riders then get to the swearing-in ceremonies? If people were crushed to death at Walmart stores during holiday sales, how can our infrastructure accommodate these guests without incident, on top of the six million people who already live in the capital region?
Those are merely the practical, logistical obstacles. Police face a much greater challenge to peace: white supre-macists who deliberately plot violence. At least two plots to assassinate Barack Obama have already been intercepted and the conspirators arrested. If you think hate groups are a thing of the past or do not operate near you, think again. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Web site tracks hate groups and crimes by state and zip code (splc.org). Many of these groups celebrate Obama’s election, believing it will finally stoke the race wars they have tried so hard to incite. As David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, puts it in his article “A Black Flag for White America,” “Obama is a visual aid for White Americans who just don’t get it yet that we have lost control of our country, and unless we get it back we are heading for complete annihilation as a people.”
Let us work and pray this Epiphany that Americans will reject violence and seek the light of Christ’s peace, that our children and our world will remember the inauguration as a celebration of peaceful change.
Political transfer is under tremendous threat this year.