Democracy won today. The United States of America has stepped away from the edge of the authoritarian abyss, and countless hearts—and the planet itself—are sighing with relief. Yes, so much damage to repair, and immense challenges ahead, and the work will not be easy. But let us embrace and enjoy this day’s levity of spirit, and breathe in the winds of joy.
Where once Thy churches prayed and sang
Thy foes profanely rage…
– The Sacred Harp
In the year 390 the populace of Thessalonica rose up in revolt against the local Roman authorities to protest the arrest of a popular charioteer. The Roman emperor Theodosius, known for his thin skin and quick temper, was swift to respond. He sent a letter ordering troops to punish the inhabitants, which they did by means of a terrible ruse. They invited the whole town to attend a special sporting event. Once the stadium was packed, the soldiers locked the exits and slaughtered the entire crowd. The notoriously erratic Theodosius, meanwhile, had cooled off and changed his mind, sending another letter to contradict his original order, but it was too late. Seven thousand Thessalonicans were already dead.
Bishop Ambrose of Milan, where the emperor had his official residence, condemned the massacre, refusing to say mass in the presence of Theodosius until he repented his crime. Van Dyck’s painting (above) depicts the bishop barring the emperor from entering the cathedral. It was an unprecedented example of the Church speaking truth to power. The bishop explained his position in writing:
“What could I do? Should I not hear?… Should I remain silent? But then the worst thing would happen as my conscience would be bound and my words taken away. And where would they be then? When a priest does not talk to a sinner, then the sinner will die in his sin, and the priest will be guilty because he failed to correct him.”
Sadly, there will be no bishop to bar the Father of Lies and his minions from the National Cathedral in Washington this Saturday. The inaugural prayer service, a tradition since FDR’s inauguration in 1933, will go on as usual despite fierce protests from the many Episcopalians who regard such normalization of the president-elect to be at best a foolish mistake and at worst a desecration of sacred space.
The diocesan bishop, Mariann Budde, has cited two “spiritual principles” to justify the cathedral’s decision. The first is inclusiveness: Episcopal churches, she says, “welcome all people into our house of prayer.” She is aware that Trump is not a model citizen. “Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean we agree with or seek to legitimize.” But I think she fails to acknowledge the critical difference between opening our doors to notorious sinners and letting them dictate the content and flavor of our worship.
Bishop Budde’s second principle is that “in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all.” This reflects the noble Anglican ideal of church as family. We may not always agree or get along, but we don’t stop gathering or trying to love each other anyway. We recognize truth not as the fixed possession of a single faction, but the product of a dialectic exchange, where we each contribute our incomplete perspectives to a process of mutual listening and collective discernment. This process is ongoing and never finished.
But a commitment to communal harmony has its price. At the time of the Civil War, the Episcopal Church maintained its structural unity by declining to make an official condemnation of slavery. As a result, it was spared the North-South splits of other denominations. While many individual preachers, parishes and dioceses spoke out against slavery, the church at a national level remained silent on the gravest moral crisis of the 19th century, lest they endanger the principle of welcoming all people.
The Bishop of Washington hopes that the inaugural prayer service will, at a time of intense national conflict, “offer a few moments of spiritual solace and the healing gift of transcendent beauty.” As a priest, liturgist and artist, I am a great believer in the value and necessity of providing sacred space and time, where sin and strife are hushed and we may encounter the world of God, not only in our minds and hearts but also with our senses. However, that should not mean losing touch with the imperatives of justice and love. Worship isn’t just to soothe and bless. It must also challenge, unsettle and transform.
As I understand it, the inaugural service will do none of these things. Preaching (always a risk) has been forbidden by Trump’s people, who are tightly controlling the whole order of “worship.” Judging from everything the president-elect has said and done over the years, we may expect no prayers of repentance for racism, misogyny, or xenophobia, or petitions that God may frustrate the designs of evil tyrants. Trump is no more submitting to the norms of Christian worship than he is to the norms of our democracy. He is essentially renting the spectacular Gothic edifice to bathe his authoritarian persona in a faux-religious glow. To allow such a charade threatens the integrity of the cathedral’s essential mission while abetting the fascist tendencies of Trumpworld. All glory be to the Leader.
At least one member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has bravely refused to sing at the inauguration. “It would be like throwing roses to Hitler,” she says. The National Cathedral choir, however, has agreed to participate. As the cathedral dean explains, “We do not pray or sing to bless a political ideology or partisan agenda…We sing to honor the nation.” But is it really the church’s business to honor the nation?
Despite our roots in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church is not a state church. It is time to shed all pretensions of being an indispensable cornerstone of civil religion. Our job is not to bless the status quo or national interests, but to proclaim and embody the gospel. Instead of praying for the president as if the soon-to-be-degraded office earns him any special attention, let us pray for everyone in the world who wields power, that they may do no harm and nurture the common good. Let us pray not just for the leaders of the nations and economies of the world, but for the prophets who speak to power and the activists who work for change. Less elitism, more democracy in our prayer life. Less nationalism, more globalism as well. Such an expanded range of attention retains the Anglican commitment to engage public affairs rather than flee them, while rejecting the fiction of American exceptionalism.
Concurrent with the controversy over the inaugural prayer service is a lively debate over prayers for the president at any public worship. Are we praying for the man, the office, or good governance? For those of us who may be his victims, are we praying for an enemy? If so, what is the aim of such prayer? And if we mention him by name, do we risk polluting worship with a rush of negative associations?
All this bears close consideration, but it is not really pertinent to the question of whether the National Cathedral should host the inaugural prayer service, to which the answer should be an unequivocal no. It is one thing to pray for our enemies. It is quite another to let them dictate what happens within our sacred spaces. Bishop Ambrose regrets that he cannot attend on Saturday. Is there anyone who will take his place at the cathedral door?
What just happened? Has half the country endorsed hate, fear, ignorance, racism, white nationalism, misogyny, sexual assault, xenophobia, environmental suicide, nuclear instability, and a war against the poor, the immigrant and the “other?” It has certainly given us the sickening prospect of unprecedented vulgarity, cheesiness, immaturity, dishonesty and self-dealing in the White House for the indefinite future.
Is this a case of “they know not what they do?” Those who proudly wear swastikas or Klan hoods, or wallow in the swamp of alt-right delusion, knew exactly what they were doing, but they are relatively small in number. A far larger faction has argued that while Trump might be a “scumbag” (to quote a Facebook friend who voted for him), his opponent, seen through the lens of misogynist fears and Republican fictions, was far worse.
Then there are the pragmatists and cynics who accept the Trumpian nightmare as unavoidable collateral damage in the war for political victory, ideological supremacy, “moral” and “religious” agendas, control of the Supreme Court, and economic privilege. They might cry a few tears for the victims, but somewhere deep down they “love the smell of napalm in the morning” because “it smells like victory.”[i]
And for the many who have swallowed Trump’s vague promises at face value, he is the strong man who will cure what ails them and make America great again. But the authoritarian dream is a con game, “a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”[ii]
Trump has great appeal for the dispossessed who burn with resentment and pain, the ones so long ignored, laughed at, or forgotten by a world which has left them behind. Trump’s very awfulness makes him the perfect weapon for striking back. “To those ignored, suffering people, Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites.”[iii]
Of course, my own sense of bewilderment and shock at the outcome brands me as one of the arrogant and clueless elite. For the crime of writing my last post, Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now, I have had to sweep up my share of broken glass. But where do we go from here? Are truth and reconciliation viable options in such a divided America? Can’t we all get along?
I addressed this very question in a homily following the presidential election in 2004. It was preached at the Episcopal cathedral in Philadelphia, where I had spent a week getting out the vote. The same lectionary readings will be read in the churches this coming Sunday. Portions of what I preached then remain relevant today, and I publish them here:
At the end of the eighteenth century, the President of the United States, supported by the religious right and a wealthy elite, began to round up dissidents and throw journalists in jail. And he garnered support for this assault upon civil liberties by stirring up fears about war and foreign enemies while dividing the country along the fault lines of self-interest and resentment.
The Vice President, deeply disturbed by this mockery of America’s founding ideals of liberty and the common good, tried to summon hope.
“A little patience,” he wrote, “and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. … If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.”
So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1798.
Eighteen centuries earlier, Jesus surveyed the prospect of imminent public disaster, and how the game would run against his own followers:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be earthquakes, famines and plague.
And you will be hunted down, arrested, thrown in jail.
Some of you will be killed.
But don’t give in to fear.
Endure. Endure. Keep the faith and you will be saved.[iv]
Jesus’ prophetic vision mingled the political with the cosmic. Jefferson’s concerns were more specifically political, but he also sensed that larger issues were involved. “Principles were at stake.”
But if principles are at stake, is any common ground possible between opposing views? Compromise is the enemy of conviction. As the prophet Malachi wrote:
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts…[v]
In the end, Malachi suggests an alternate possibility: The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.[vi] But is that only possible once the demonized “other” has been eliminated?
The dream of forging a new order with blood and fire has mesmerized much of human history, and the Bible sometimes veers in that direction, the direction of “sacred violence”—violence that intends a better world.
Sacred violence has its allure: the dream of remaking the world with force. It’s the dream of terrorists, it’s the dream of the Christian right, and if we ourselves are honest, it’s a dream each of us can understand. Who among us could not suggest a few “arrogant evildoers” as appropriate stubble for God’s cleansing fire? I’ve got my list.
But the Bible, unlike the terrorist, tends to take the point of view of the victim of violence, a perspective which destabilizes all notions of violence as sacred or good. The Son of God hanging on the cross makes all violence suspect.
When the last of the prophets, John the Baptist, considered the tree that fails to produce good fruit, he said, “Chop it down and burn it.” But if we did that, if we really did that, what would be left but a world of stumps and ashes?
When Jesus began his ministry, he renounced the Baptist’s axe, and let himself be nailed upon that barren tree. And by his act of powerless love, he awakened us from the mesmerizing dream of violence and vengeance and victory over our enemies, and made the earth fruitful at last with the feast of forgiveness, the banquet of reconciliation, the food and drink of new and unending life in God.
But how far we now seem from such reconciliation in our civil war between red and blue, rich and poor, rural and urban! If right-wing extremists hate the idea of being in communion with progressives in America, the feeling is certainly mutual. How do we live with these people? How do we dance with these people? Are we not in fact “two nations under God?”[vii]
O Jesus! O Jefferson! Where lies our hope in such a time? Can we endure, as Jesus counsels? Keep on keeping on. This too shall pass.
An imperial, bellicose, gluttonous America is unsustainable in the long run. Reality is simply against it. Whether it’s environmental disaster, economic collapse, civil strife, a Middle East quagmire, or the spiritual costs of building our politics on selfishness and lies, the bill will come due. Must it be the cleansing fire of apocalypse?
Or is there a way of national transformation not so costly to the earth and its people? Is it possible to forge together a political and economic life guided by the better angels of our nature?
In 1630 a little ship called the Arabella brought a group of immigrants to the shores of this country. Their leader, John Winthrop, preached to them before they disembarked: We shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.
His words would be taken out of context in the 1980s to celebrate a selfish and greedy America of unbridled private interest, where it was believed that the opposite of “wrong” was “poor.” But in fact, the heart of Winthrop’s sermon proposed a vision of the common good that remains unsurpassed in its description of public life as the space where we act out our essential connectedness:
…we must be knit together in this work as one… We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.
Is this really possible? Can we truly delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together? In one of the darkest moments in American history, this is the work we have been given to do.
Is anybody listening?
[i] Robert Duvall utters this famous line during a battle in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979)
[ii] Wikipedia reference: Barnard, Rita. “‘When You Wish Upon a Star’: Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West,” American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51
[iii] David Wong, “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind”, Cracked, Oct. 12, 2016: http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-reasons-trumps-rise-that-no-one-talks-about/ Wong’s analysis is a must-read.
[iv] Luke 21:10-11, 16-18
[v] Malachi 4:1
[vi] Malachi 4:2a
[vii] Thomas Friedman, New York Times, Nov. 2004
[viii] Luke 21:19
[ix] II Thessalonians 3:13
Whatever happens on Election Day, the fact that close to half of American voters are willing to embrace the most dangerous and disgusting presidential candidate in American history makes me tremble for my country. With just three days until we choose our fate, here’s my top ten of the catastrophic nightmares currently slouching toward Washington.
1) Climate change Environmental policies rooted in denial, ignorance, and greed would do irreparable damage to this planet. Time is literally running out. Four years of suicidal idiocy could be irreversible. For this alone, a vote for Trump is both senseless and unforgivable.
2) Nuclear threat Giving control of the world’s most powerful military, not to mention the nuclear codes, to an emotional toddler is clearly insane.
3) Fascism Believe 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.
4) 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.
5) Supreme Court Imagine a Trump majority for the next 25 years.
6) From Russia with love Trump’s crush on Putin, combined with his own stupendous ignorance, would make him Russia’s perfect fool. Throw in Trump’s extensive financial ties to Russia, and the downside risk to global stability is considerable.
7) Republicans strike back If the right gets its way, millions will lose their health care, the rich will get richer, the earth will be plundered, minorities will be oppressed, the debt will explode, and the lucky few will escape to Canada.
8) Cultural debasement Under Trump, the Puritans’ shining city on a hill would become a putrid swamp of vulgarity, sleaze, bigotry and selfishness. I don’t really understand why so many Christians love this guy. To quote Holden Caulfield, “Jesus would puke” at the shameless vanity of Trumpworld.
9) Corruption Trump’s businesses, already suspect for their history of exploited workers, unpaid contractors, cheated investors, and shady international ties, would not go into a blind trust, but be carried on by his children. That should go well.
10) Stupidity When I was laughing off the Trump candidacy in a London pub a year ago, a British woman gave me a sobering warning. “Watch out,” she said. “When Boris Johnson ran for mayor of London, he made the whole political process dumber. Trump could do the same thing to you.” And as we have witnessed, the bar has been lowered beyond belief. We are in danger of electing a man of unfathomable ignorance and stupifying shallowness, who has neither capacity nor desire to learn or grow.
That’s my list and I’m sticking to it. God save our country from such a fate. I have recently read about conservative pastors warning their congregations that voting Democratic would condemn them to hell. I myself would never presume to foretell the afterlife of any voter. But I am pretty sure of one thing. No one need go to hell if Trump is elected. Hell will already have come to us.