jan 6 protesters

Epiphanies Of Power and/or Goodness

The epiphany of this January is at root about the profound need to civilize the nation.

By William Schweiker|January 12, 2022


Sometimes incongruous events fall on the same day and date in such a way that it jars one's understanding. So it was on January 6, 2022. In the life of this country the date marks the first anniversary of the deadly attacks on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.  And yet around the world, January 6 was also celebrated by Christians as the Epiphany, the manifestation, of Christ to the Gentiles by the Magi from the East (Matthew 2: 1-12). Insofar as Sightings seeks to grasp glimpses of religion in public life, here and abroad, the odd simultaneity of these two events sparked this columnist's reflection. What insight does the concept of epiphany, Christian or otherwise, shed on the national horror, embarrassment, and for some citizens boastful pride?

In a well-known essay, Paul Ricoeur noted that there are religions of manifestation and religions of proclamation, or, that these different religious forms are found in a single religion. Using the idea of epiphany as an interpretive tool, I want to articulate some of the dynamics of our lived reality that too easily get lost in the torrent of words that define the nation's current public life. These dynamics, we will see, are operative in most, maybe all, human communities. After elucidating the interpretative tool, I will turn to the events unfolding in public life, filling the nation alternately with fury and profound anxiety about the state of democracy here and abroad.


In the remembrances of January 6, 2021, the meaning of terms like "terrorist," "insurrection," "mob violence,” and "patriot" was hotly debated in politics and the media, from FoxNews to Twitter to the Washington Post. Obviously, clarity is also needed about the term "epiphany" if it is to serve as an interpretive tool to understand the events we are now living. The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives several related meanings. When capitalized, Epiphany refers to the Christian festival of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles and, in Eastern Christianity, to the baptism of Christ. More germane for Sightings are its other meanings: (1) the appearance of a divine being; (2) the sudden manifestation of the essential nature of something; (3) the intuitive grasp of something; and (4) a discovery, realization, or disclosure. Our focus here, initially at least, is on meanings (2) and (3), since we are not seeking a disclosure of the divine, nor can one assume that anybody has an intuitive grasp of what January 6, 2021 means for the nation, even if pundits right and left claim to possess that insight.
Epiphanies have an objective and a subjective side to them. Objectively, the "essential nature" of something is suddenly revealed, while, subjectively, someone has a grasp, intuitively or otherwise, of its meaning. In other words, the objective disclosure of something without its perception is meaningless, and the subjective intuition of a manifestation alone is a possible fantasy or illusion. Herein lies the first set of problems in our societal moment. No one can agree on what, if anything, was disclosed in the events of January 6, 2021, nor can anyone convince others who are not in their social bubble that they in fact rightly perceived the event. On its first anniversary President Biden gave a powerful and clear account of the events of the day in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol. He said that those "who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America, at American democracy.” In short time Donald Trump, FoxNews, and others lashed out at the President. And so it goes.
Given society’s deep divisions, many perceive an actual threat to our democracy and some worry about a coming civil war. Others, like Francis Fukuyama, survey the damage done to the nation's global influence. On the other side of the culture wars, Tucker Carlson and Ted Cruz debated the meaning of "terrorists" and "insurrectionists" which the senator now considers unfitting terms for the mostly peaceful demonstrators of January 6, 2021. There is good reason, then, to wonder about the usefulness of the idea of "epiphany" to articulate the current moment. Seemingly, no divine being(s), no shared perception or intuition, and no "essential nature" was revealed.


Perhaps this conflict of interpretations is richer in meaning than a single line of interpretation.  What, we can ask, is at stake in these conflicts about the meaning and significance of January 6, 2021? Obviously, what the day meant, means, and will mean for this nation is an ongoing question. Nevertheless, I want to shift our focus of interpretation and, ironically, attend now to the first meaning of epiphany as the "appearance of a divine being.” How could it pertain?
At least within the major monotheistic traditions the idea of God has often, but not always, synthesized notions of power and goodness. This conception of the divine has, of course, been challenged by historical events like the Shoah or modified because of critical trends in religious thought like Process Theology or Liberation Theology. Still, the idea of God as both powerful and good seems to live on. And here the interpretive point of the tool called "epiphany" confronts us with a basic human question--if not a divine reality—namely, whether the good can be powerful and whether power can be good, as H. Richard Niebuhr once put it. Is power, as the ability to create, shape, and respond to reality, at all related to goodness, that is, to that which respects and enhances the lives of human beings, communities, and non-human life?
This question has been variously debated throughout Western history. From Callicles, in Plato's dialogue Gorgias, to Thomas Hobbes, Nietzsche, and current tyrants, the answer is that power equals goodness. Insofar as beliefs about goodness are social constructions meant to restrain the powerful, they stunt life. By contrast, more idealist minds claim that, in the end, goodness will win out. But history is agonistic, an unrelenting struggle over this basic human question. The genius of democratic systems built on the balance of power is that no one can be trusted with absolute power, say, Kings and Queens, and therefore people, the demos, must endure the slow and hard labor of self-governance to ensure that the people rule, and not the strong. But even here there have been revisions since the majority of citizens can too easily oppress the minority. (The history of race relations in the US is a horrific testimony to that fact.) Effective democratic self-governance rests on the trust that everyone involved in these constraints on power will abide by them. That is what is at stake in the so-called "rule of law," the balance of power, the dream of fair markets, in sport, truthful conversation and debate, and on and on.
The epiphany of January 6, 2021, and its one-year commemoration, present us with a struggle to rebuild social trust and to fortify those institutions that constrain and direct power for the sake of the common good. In this respect, Nietzsche was right about the social and moral limitations put on the brute will-to-power. Yet those limitations can be, and when working in fact are, productive of the social good even as they help to advance the social order. What has been manifest, it seems, is that those, on the so-called right and the left, who would tear down the institutions that channel raw power into a fallible human system of justice and equity do not fully capture the nightmare of unleashing undirected and unconstrained power.
For President Biden we are in a battle for the soul of the nation. Yet also at stake are the very conditions of social life itself. Oscar Wilde, touring the country, wrote that "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." Whether Wilde was right or not, the epiphany of this January is at root about the profound need to civilize the nation, i.e., to rebuild trust and reconstruct our society's institutions that promote the common good and delimit and orient exercises of power. And that requires sustained reflection on and interpretation of what appeared in January 2021: epiphanies of power and/or goodness.


William Schweiker

Columnist, William Schweiker (PhD’85), is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.