Screen shot from Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2021. Video by Joy Sharon Yi.

I’m sure Kate Woodsome of the Washington Post didn’t set out to write a parable when she covered the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol last week. That’s not what reporters do. She’s the Post’s op ed video editor, and since Nov. 3 she’s been turning in some brilliant coverage of political tribalism and sectarianism — right-wing extremism, in other words.

(Coverage I want to go back to, by the way, as I think through a conceptual framework for expanding my research on 19th-century Swedish immigrants.)

But when President Trump urged his supporters to march on the Capitol and somehow stop Congress from certifying the Nov. 3 election, Woodsome and photojournalist Joy Sharon Yi went along to cover it. Their report appeared Jan. 11 on the Post’s website.

And their story did what a parable does.

I’d better explain: How can I claim a news story, even a finely nuanced op ed piece, is anything like the homey little stories Jesus told about mustard seeds or guests at a first-century Palestinian wedding? Well, without getting too English teacher-y about it, I think it’s because they’re both stories. As an English teacher, and as a newspaper reporter before that, I lived and died by stories.

But a parable is a special kind of story. James Martin, SJ, whose simplified approach to Jesuit spirituality I follow, likes to quote the British theologian C.H. Dodd, who said:

At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.

(This quote’s on Twitter, but Fr. Martin expands on it in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage.)

And Kate Woodsome’s story on the violent mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol made me think. Not only that, but it made me think about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Not so much the parable itself as St. Luke’s setup to the story. Remember? Jesus tells a lawyer the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor.

“And who is my neighbor,” asks the lawyer. With that Jesus is off and running with the Good Samaritan, but the question remains.

And it’s a question we have to keep asking.

Who is my neighbor? Woodsome’s op ed piece in the Post asks that same question 20-odd centuries later. And like any good parable, it leaves my mind in doubt. I have to think about it.

Woodsome’s lede sets it up like this:

What does a mob look like? In today’s America, at least, it looks like the people in your neighborhood. The mom and dad who bring the kids to soccer on Saturdays; the cousin who tinkers with his car on Sunday afternoons. It also looks like the kidnappers and terrorists you see in movies: knives on their belts; a crazed look in their eyes.

The mob looks like America. Because it is America.

That’s what I saw on Jan. 6, when fellow Americans smashed the windows of the Capitol, chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” and writing, “Murder the media” on a door.

As the crowd of Trump supporters broke through police barricades and swarmed onto the Capitol grounds, the mood turned ugly. By degrees the crowd turned into a mob, and the mob turned on the reporters in their midst. Woodsome continues:

Joy and I are heckled at every Trump event we cover. We’re no longer thrown by people screaming “fake news” in our faces. What frightened me at the Capitol was the delusion of those I interviewed. They truly believed the lie — apparently shared by millions — that the media changed the election results by working with Big Tech, judges, state officials, Democrats and now, apparently, the vice president. Some believed that President Trump was ordained by God, and that only “dark forces” could explain his loss.

When a delusion is promoted by the man with the nuclear codes, normalized by Republican leaders and reinforced by armed groups aching for a revolution, it’s not just democracy that’s in danger. We all are. These mobs will turn on anyone who doesn’t support their version of reality. They erected a gallows to hang Vice President Pence, beat at least one policeman to death and screamed at EMTs giving CPR to a protester, saying, “You look like traitors with those masks on.”

Woodhouse and Yi were wearing bulletproof vests, but she feared for their safety. “The president has said for years that we are the enemy, so the Capitol rioters believed they were patriots and we were traitors,” she says, and as the mob grew more excited they took out their rage on the media:

We can’t hide that we’re press. Joy carries a video camera. So we, and all the other reporters covering the unrest, became targets. An AP photographer was dragged down the Capitol steps and thrown over a wall. A pen of television reporters was overrun by a mob that slammed and kicked their cameras on the ground, using the media’s tripods to smash them apart. Joy ran forward to film, but I pulled her back, fearing her camera would make her prey. We hid our press badges and stood on the outside of the pen as a rioter told us, “We wouldn’t do this if they were honest people.”

As they followed the mob, keeping on the move and trying to avoid personal conflict, Woodsome and Yi tried not to engage with rioters who asked, “Who do you work for? Are you communists? Are you Chinese?” Their account in the Post includes video of an unhinged, angry diatribe by a rioter who compared them to the Stasi, the secret police in communist East Germany.

Then, something remarkable happened. Woodsome introduces it, like a good teller of parables, with a question:

How do you relate when you don’t share an objective reality? Fact-checking delusion is not effective when the president is promoting conspiracy theories. After I had been screamed at for five minutes, something strange happened. A young man tried to appeal to me by reminding me who I was — a “middle-aged woman.” And in that moment, I snapped out of the trance and reconnected with myself and my sense of humor. I jokingly responded to him with mock offense, which in turn seemed to break his own trance …

Yi’s video records the conversation, as Woodsome asks the man, “Which part told you I was middle aged? ‘Cause I’ll have to work on that.”

He laughs, and looks flustered. “Younger to middle aged,” he replies.

Woodsome continues:

This man, who told me I’m lucky he’s not antifa or else he’d beat me, got nervous that he’d offended me with a reference to my age. He really was the guy next door. But while we share a country, we do not share a reality.

She didn’t come out and say it. She didn’t have to. But what happened on the Capitol steps that day left me with the age-old question. Who, indeed, is our neighbor?

Works Cited

James Martin, SJ. “Gospel: ‘Why do you speak in parables’ ask the disciples,” Twitter, July 23, 2020

Kate Woodsome and Joy Sharon Yi. “This is what it looks like when the mob turns on you,” Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2021

[Published Jan. 15, 2021]

One thought on “‘… and who is my neighbor?’ — a parable for a time of civil discord (as angry Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol)

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