One of the loveliest Inauguration rituals is the presentation of a painting to the new President, borrowed from the Smithsonian collection to set a tone for a fresh administration. Today’s selection was made by First Lady Jill Biden, who chose Landscape with Rainbow by Robert S. Duncanson, the most celebrated African-American artist of the mid-nineteenth century. Born in New York and based in Cincinnati, Duncanson was active in the struggle against slavery. As a black man navigating a culture of white dominance, he was familiar with the divisive tensions of American society. Yet in his paintings he depicted his country as a peaceful and harmonious paradise. By painting a more perfect Eden, he nourished a vision of hope.
In Landscape with Rainbow, the storm is over. In the clearing sky, a rainbow offers the biblical promise of a redemptive future. Painted in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, Duncanson’s landscape sees a light beyond the present darkness. Explaining the reason for choosing this work, Dr. Biden said, “I like the rainbow—good things to follow.”
A year after Duncanson’s Arcadian picture of joyful calm, Frederic Edwin Church painted a very different atmosphere, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860). His agitated, bloody sky, applying vivid new cadmium pigments, seemed to augur the apocalyptic battles to come. It was twilight in America—dark things followed.
When I saw Duncanson’s landscape unveiled today in the Capitol rotunda, its peaceful luminosity reflected the sense of relief and hope most of us are feeling today after 4 years of dispiriting storms. We pray the darkness which swirled in that same rotunda a fortnight ago can be dispelled. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about Church’s Twilight.
I have always loved Church’s painting. It’s an exuberant celebration of American wilderness, and scholars resist literalizing it into a prophecy of war. But for me, on a purely sensory and emotional level, the contrast between Duncanson’s rainbow and Church’s dying day captures the essence of this pivotal American moment. Asked to choose between rainbow and twilight, we chose the brighter thing.
Three days before the 2016 election, I posted The Top Ten Reasons To Stop Trump Now. All of them, sadly, turned out to be valid forecasts, but three of them remain especially worrying over the next two weeks:
Nuclear threat Giving control of the world’s most powerful military, not to mention the nuclear codes, to an emotional toddler is clearly insane.
FascismBelieve me. I alone can make America great. Everyone else is stupid. Trump is part of a worldwide erosion of democracy by a resurgent authoritarianism. Fear and hate have made many sell their souls to naked power. When fascism spread in 1930’s Europe, Americans were confident that “it can’t happen here.” Now we aren’t so sure.
Hatred Racism, bigotry, misogyny, bullying, scapegoating and political violence have been making a shocking comeback, with Trump as their enthusiastic cheerleader. He has endorsed and normalized the most vile sins of the American shadow. God help us should he and his alt-right thugs and cronies ever come to power.
I wrote my warning on November 3, 2016. I wish I’d been wrong.
After yesterday’s insurrection, many are calling for the immediate removal of the President from power, and I add my voice to theirs. His seditious incitement of a coup may have been ridiculously futile, but it cannot be indulged as another childish tantrum. It was both physically dangerous and symbolically toxic. It will take our country a long time to live it down.
Breaking the law and shaming his country should be reason enough for immediate removal. But we should also be genuinely worried about the dangerous unpredictability of a cornered rat. He still controls the nuclear codes. He is still an unstable sociopath, a clear and present danger to America. As a Republican congressman put it today in calling for Trump’s removal, we need “to ensure the next few weeks are safe for the American people, and that we have a sane captain on the ship.”
One way or another, Trump will exit, but the venom that produced him will remain in our system for a long time to come. The alternative universes of social media continue to erode the very notion of a Union. It’s now all too easy to secede from consensual reality. Millions upon millions are joining delusional confederacies of bitterness and hate. And unprincipled, power-hungry cynics like Senators Josh Hawley (educated at Stanford and Yale) and Ted Cruz ( Princeton and Harvard) will continue to harvest money and votes from the killing fields of ignorance and bigotry.
For Christians, the defilement of the Capitol also tainted the Feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the manifestation, or revealing, of Christ’s light to the whole wide world. The Episcopal Collect for the Epiphany prays for the Beatific Vision: “Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face.” Sadly, what the world beheld on Epiphany was not the Light of the world, but an eruption of darkness from the vilest murk of the American id.
As with any healing, you can’t begin treatment until you get a diagnosis. Could yesterday’s “epiphany,” revealing the seriousness of our affliction, be the beginning of a cure? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic who knows the sacred feasts, expressed this hope. “Let us pray,” she said, “that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.”
The bizarre coincidence of the insurrection with the culminating celebration of the Nativity calls to mind the famous ending of William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming:”
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
All of us who were transfixed by the slouching horror on our screens yesterday feel the resonance of Yeats’ disturbing image. But my preferred poem for the day would be T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” a first-person account of the original Bethlehem Epiphany. Like every pilgrim, the speaker has tales to tell about the hardships of the quest. However, about the moment of revelation—beholding the Incarnate God face to face—he is curiously reticent, as though it would diminish the experience to put it into words.
Once he returns home, with time to reflect, the Magus finds himself “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods.” Having looked divine Love in the face, he finds a world without that love to be less than “satisfactory.” No longer able to settle for anything less than what he glimpsed in the Bethlehem stable, he finds himself “no longer at ease.” The journey to the Divine birth becomes for him a kind of death, a perishing of his old world and his old self.
In the light of the Epiphany—the revealing of ultimate truth—the Magus is transformed. He will never be the same. Dare we say the same about yesterday’s terrible “epiphany”? Has seeing our own darkness face to face shaken us to the core? Has it shocked us into renouncing its terrible sway? If we suddenly find ourselves “no longer at ease here,” thanks be to God! Our journey toward the Dawn can begin at last.