American Demons: The Horror Show in Charlottesville

Hate on the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 11, 2017. (Adapted from photo by Samuel Corum)

And though this world with devils filled
should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure:
one little word shall fell him.

–– Martin Luther

 

Nazis on the march in America. We recoil at this news with a sense of shock, like getting a bad diagnosis. Our first instinct is denial. Could the social body really be this sick?

Naomi Klein, writing about Trump in The Nation last month, said that we can’t really be shocked by where we find ourselves. “A state of shock,” she writes, “is produced when a story is ruptured, when we have no idea what is going on. But in so many ways, Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination––the logical end point––of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a long time. That greed is good, That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate, and the 1 percent deserve their golden towers. . . . That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this.”[1]

We breathe those toxic narratives daily, she says, so a Trump presidency is no real surprise. But it is a horror story. Night has fallen, and America’s demons have come out to play.

The grotesque images of mindless anger in Charlottesville raise disturbing questions––about American society, certainly, but about human nature as well. How did those young men come to be so possessed by hatred and rage? Has the image of God been entirely erased from their twisted faces?

Richard J. Evans, examining the rise of Nazism in the 1920s, saw desperate and resentful young men being attracted to extremism and violence “irrespective of ideology.” They weren’t looking for ideas, but meaning. They desired a cure for melancholy and malaise, a pick-me-up to restore a sense of personal significance. “Violence was like a drug for such men… Often, they had only the haziest notion of what they were fighting for.” Many found a sense of heightened self in “a life of almost incessantly violent activism, suffering beatings, stabbings and arrests.” Hostility to the enemy de jour––Communists, Jews, whomever––was the core of their commitment. As one young Stormtrooper later reflected on the bonding effect of collective violence, it was all “too wonderful and perhaps too hard to write about.”[2]

Evans’ description provides clues to the pathology of white resentment and the resurgence of right-wing extremism, but explanations bring little comfort. None of us remain neutral observers, standing a safe distance from the fray. The demons are Legion, and we are all being swept along, however unwillingly, in the Gadarene rush to the cliffs of madness and destruction (cf. Mark 5:1-13).

Why is there evil? Where does it come from? The Creator spoke the world into existence, and saw that it was good. But as the old stories tell it, the world’s goodness was soon complicated by a persistent power of negation, whose source remains something of a puzzle, though some say it is the diabolic urge to reject or destroy the gifts of life as a show of independence from the Giver.

Before he became Satan, Lucifer was one of heaven’s brightest stars. But his pique over being outshone by Christ precipitated his all-out war against God. His narcissistic self-assertion refused to bow to a greater reality, and he became the archetypal image of creaturely resentment: “the gloomy angel of darkness, on whose brow shines with dim lustre the star of bitter thought, full of inner discords which can never be harmonized.”[3]

Bitter thought, inner discords. None of us is uncontaminated by this negation. At the end of his 2000-page trilogy on the rise and fall of German Nazism, Evans concludes,

The Third Reich raises in the most acute form the possibilities and consequences of the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us. It demonstrates with terrible clarity the ultimate potential consequences of racism, militarism and authoritarianism. It shows what can happen if some people are treated as less human than others. It poses in the most extreme possible form the moral dilemmas we all face at one time or another in our lives, of conformity or resistance, action or inaction in the particular situations with which we are confronted. That is why the Third Reich will not go away, but continues to command the attention of thinking people throughout the world long after it has passed into history.[4]

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky shows us this diabolical rage for destruction in Liza Khokhlakov, a sickly young woman once engaged to the saintly Alyosha Karamazov. Feeling herself in a world without God or grace, she dwells in the hell of lovelessness. “I don’t love anyone,” she insists to Alyosha. “Do you hear? Not a-ny-one.”

Dostoevsky gives this scene the title, “A Little Demon,” because Liza seems possessed––and shamed––by an annihilating spirit. “I just don’t want to do good,” she says, “I want to do evil…” Alyosha asks her, “Why do evil?” And she answers:

“So that there will be nothing left anywhere. Ah, how good it would be if there were nothing left! You know, Alyosha, I sometimes think about doing an awful lot of evil, all sorts of nasty things, and I’d be doing them on the sly for a long time, and suddenly everyone would find out. They would all surround me and point their fingers at me, and I would look at them all. That would be very pleasant. Why would it be so pleasant, Alyosha?”

Liza enjoys the fantasy of her self-loathing being confirmed by many accusers, but Alyosha refuses to take the bait. He simply responds without judgment, “Who knows? The need to smash something good, or, as you said, to set fire to something.”[5]

Nazi salute in Charlottesville, VA (August 2017). Flames added as theological commentary.

Rowan Williams finds in Liza’s words the hellish despair of a morally indifferent universe, where there is just as much self-hatred as hatred of the “other.” If there is no God, then there is no redemption or release either, “and the sense of nausea and revulsion at the self’s passion for pain and destruction is beyond healing. . . . [T]his is what Liza endures: to know the self’s fantasies of destruction or perversity and to feel there is no escape or absolution from them, to know that you are a part of a world that is irredeemable.”[6]

Is there any exit from this ludicrous horror show? What word can we speak to fell the demons? Jesus? God? Love? Although such words have been misused at times for demonic purposes, at their purest they signify the beauty for which we were made, the true Form toward which all beings tend. They drive away the powers of negation, and make our faces shine with the light of heaven. They set us free from the toxic narratives of hate, fear, domination and greed, and give us a better story, in which everything is gift and everyone is neighbor. They bring us home at last to the abundant feast of divine communion, where everything is a You and nothing is an It.[7]

Paul Evdokimov, an orthodox theologian, once suggested that the saintly characters in Dostoevsky were like “the icon in the room, a ‘face on the wall,’ a presence that does not actively engage with other protagonists but is primarily a site of manifestation and illumination. Others define themselves around and in relation to this presence.”[8]

I don’t know exactly what is being asked of God’s friends in Charlottesville, but I suspect it has something to do with embodying such a transformative and defining presence, “a site of manifestation and illumination” where others––maybe even some of those young haters––may rediscover their true Christlike faces, and begin the exodus from the perversities of this dark time into a better country and a brighter day.

 

Related posts

How far can we sink? Donald Trump and the Vortex of Rage

Can this be happening? Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

 

 

[1] Naomi Klein, “Daring to Dream in the Age of Trump,” The Nation, July 3/10, 2017, p. 15.

[2] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 220-21.

[3] Alexander Herzen, 19th century Russian thinker, commenting on Lucifer in Byron’s Cain, q. in Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 649.

[4] Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War: 1939-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 764.

[5] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. By Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsk (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 585, 582.

[6] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008), 70-71.

[7] Adapted from W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 306. The original line: Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

[8] Paraphrased in Williams, 29.

Not in Our House: Why the National Cathedral Should Refuse the Inaugural Prayer Service

St. Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck (1619-20), National Gallery, London

St. Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck (1619-20), National Gallery, London

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?

 

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Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now

Can This Be Happening? – Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now

bosch-hell-cub

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.

 

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Can This Be Happening? Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

How Far Can We Sink? – Donald Trump and the Vortex of Rage

Can this be happening? – Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

image

If I had a bell,
I’d ring out danger,
I’d ring out a warning …
all over this land.

– Peter Seeger & Lee Hays

I want to write about something other than politics or violence—theology, art, music, film, nature—but it is impossible to ignore the unsettling spectacle of hate and fear in Cleveland this week. Thankfully, it has already set off a multitude of alarms in the mainstream media, which has for too long been complicit in the normalization of the Trump phenomenon as just another option.

The editorial board of the Washington Post has taken the unprecedented step of declaring, at the very outset of the general election season, that Donald Trump is not only “uniquely unqualified to serve as president, in experience and temperament,” he poses “a threat to the Constitution … a unique and present danger.” His presidency “would be dangerous for the nation and the world.”

Has a major American newspaper ever issued such stark condemnation of a presidential candidate?

Many others are joining in the chorus. The Bloomberg editorial board says that Trump’s dystopian rhetoric in Cleveland was “the most disturbing, demagogic and deluded acceptance speech by any major party nominee in the modern era.” Ezra Klein, declares that “Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.” The headline for Klein’s indictment reads: “Donald Trump’s nomination is the first time American politics has left me truly afraid.”

We are familiar with the customary partisan hyperbole of an election year, but the current cries of alarm seem radically different. We have seen American leaders exploit the politics of resentment before. But such calculated manipulation of fear and xenophobia by an unprincipled practitioner of arbitrary will seems more suggestive of Germany in the 1930’s than anything in our own history.

Although Trump’s acceptance speech attempted to paint a patently false picture of a America in extreme chaos and distress, the United States in 2016 is not the Weimar Republic. And Trump is not Hitler. But there are some parallels worth thinking about. Let me offer a few citations from Richard J. Evans’ The Coming of the Third Reich.

Describing the growing electoral success of Hitler’s roughneck party in the 1930 election, “the Nazi gains reflected deep-seated anxieties in many parts of the electorate … more and more people who had not previously voted began to flock to the polls. Roughly a quarter of those who voted for the Nazis in 1930 had not voted before.”[i]

The cult of the strong man who would fix everything quickly and easily made other leaders seem ineffective and weak by comparison. A desperate and aggrieved population was swept away by a vague and undefined promise of a better future.

“Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic… The vagueness of the Nazi program, its symbolic mixture of old and new, its eclectic, often inconsistent character, to a large extent allowed people to read into it what they wanted to and edit out anything they might have found disturbing.”[ii]

The German political and economic establishment had significant reservations about Hitler and his movement, but they believed that he could be controlled and guided once he was in power. Eric D. Weitz, in his excellent piece, “Weimar Germany and Donald Trump,” sees the same cynical capitulation going on today: “Today’s Republicans and similarly-minded figures in Europe are like the conservatives who put Adolf Hitler in power: delusional about their influence, playing dangerously with the structures of our democracy.”

In exchange for returning right-wing ideology to the White House, more traditional conservatives are willing to endow Trump with an aura of legitimacy. He’s not so bad. It’s all an act. He can be controlled. But as Hitler said in 1930, “once we possess the constitutional power, we will mould the state into the shape we hold to be suitable.”[iii] Or as Trump would put it: “It will be tremendous. Believe me.”

One final thought. As a person of faith, I found the frequent linkage of God, guns and hate in Cleveland to be sickening and blasphemous. It’s not the Christianity I know, and as Holden Caulfield would say, “Jesus would puke” if he had been forced to watch (I imagine he just went fishing this week). But it troubles me to consider how easily piety can be seduced into something demonic.

As Richard Steigman-Gall has pointed out in his study of Nazi conceptions of Christianity, it became a postwar trope to dismiss Nazism as anti-Christian. We venerate the costly resistance of Bonhoeffer, the Scholls, and the Confessing Church. But there were also many German churchgoers who knelt willingly at the altar of power, hate and fear. ”Whereas millions of Catholics and Protestants in Germany did not think Nazism represented their interests or aims, there were many others who regarded Nazism as the correct Christian response to what they saw as harsh new realities.”[iv]

Lord have mercy.

 

 

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How far can we sink? – Donald Trump and the vortex of rage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] The Coming of the Third Reich (London/New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 261

[ii] ibid., 265

[iii] ibid., 455

[iv] The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 262