“We must love one another or die”—What Does the Iliad Tell Us about the Invasion of Ukraine?

Francisco de Goya, “Ya no hay tiempo” (There isn’t time now), from The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

It is true that our weakness could prevent us from defeating the force that threatens to overwhelm us. But this does not prevent us from understanding it. Nothing in the world can stop us from being lucid.

— Simone Weil

Humility before the real, before untamable existence, is what we learn from the grief and supplications of the tragic poets and the exhortations and lamentations of the prophets.

— Rachel Bespaloff

In the summer of 1939, two women visited an exhibition of Goya’s The Disasters of War at the Geneva Museum of Art and History.[i] Goya’s 82 etchings, graphic depictions of the human cost of war, impressed each of them deeply, especially in the shadow of looming European conflict. The day after the exhibition closed, Hitler’s troops invaded Poland.

Rachel Bespaloff.
Simone Weil.

Rachel Bespaloff and Simone Weil did not know each other. They saw the Goyas in Geneva on different days. But they had many things in common. Both were of Jewish descent, and both were French, although Bespaloff had been born in Ukraine. Both were philosophers, consumed by the questions of affliction and human suffering. Both would die too soon—Weil at 34 from malnutrition and heart failure in 1943, and Bespaloff at 53 by suicide in 1949. And both responded to the outbreak of World War II with influential essays on the Iliad

Homer’s tragic epic, the founding work of European literature, bears impartial witness to the creative and destructive forces at work in the finite historical world. The poet sings of war, but his underlying theme is the complexity of human nature and human experience. There is rage in the Iliad, and cruelty, but wisdom and compassion as well. 

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the reflections of Weil and Bespaloff on this ancient epic provide a timely lucidity. For example, Weil’s analysis of wrathful Achilles pinpoints the ultimate futility of force. In the Iliad, the harder Achilles tries to enforce his will, the more resistance he generates. Weil could have been describing Vladimir Putin: 

“Homer shows us the limits of force in the very apotheosis of the force-hero. Through cruelty force confesses its powerlessness to achieve omnipotence. When Achilles falls upon Lycaon, shouting ‘death to all,’ and makes fun of the child who is pleading with him, he lays bare the eternal resentment felt by the will to power when something gets in the way of its indefinite expansion. We see weakness dawning at the very height of force. Unable to admit that total destruction is impossible, the conqueror can only reply to the mute defiance of his defenseless adversary with an ever-growing violence. Achilles will never get the best of the thing he kills: Lycaon’s youth will rise again, and Priam’s wisdom and Ilion’s beauty.” [ii]   

Weil argued that the Iliad’s true subject was not any one figure, but the fateful dynamics of force to which both Greeks and Trojans were subject: “Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.” [iii]

In her opening paragraph of her essay, Weil sees both the victors and the vanquished as dehumanized and uncreated by powers not of their own making. The victors are “swept away” when force goes its own way, generating consequences they can’t control. The vanquished are turned into “things,” stripped of the capacity to think, or act, or hope. Even if a victim’s life is spared, he or she is as good as dead. Force “makes a corpse out of [them]. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.” [iv]

Francisco de Goya, “Que Valor!” from The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

Goya’s war images convey this truth. They grant no wider picture of strategy or purpose, but only offer snapshots of an ambient violence, which seems to exist independently of the anonymous actors caught up in war’s depersonalizing horror. “What courage!” reads the artist’s caption, “Que Valor!” Was Goya being ironic? One might interpret this etching as an image of resistance—a brave woman standing on the bodies of her fallen comrades to reach the cannon’s fuse and repel the oppressors. But I can’t help seeing a pile of indistinguishable corpses, and a faceless figure whose own subjection to the laws of force has but one future. 

As Weil put it, “for those whose spirits have bent under the yoke of war, the relation between death and the future is different than for other men. For other men death appears as a limit set in advance on the future; for the soldier death is the future, the future his profession assigns him.” [v] In his classic novel of the American Civil War, Stephen Crane said the same thing even more chillingly: War is “like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine.” Its “grim processes” are designed to “produce corpses.” [vi]

This pair of photos posted last week by a young Ukrainian couple on social media feels both stirring and sad. Scheduled to be married in May, they realized they might not live that long. So they rushed the wedding. As sirens sounded the Russian attack on Kyiv, they made their vows of lifelong fidelity. Then they took up arms to defend their city. Their courage is inspiring, like the man before the tank in Tiananmen Square. But their vulnerability is heartbreaking. May God protect them.

Weil describes the immutable laws of force, which has no regard for such “perishable joys.” [vii] “To the same degree,” Weil says, “though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.” In battle, thought and choice and hope are swept away. “Herein lies the last secret of war,” Weil says, “a secret revealed by the Iliad in its similes, which liken the warriors either to fire, flood, wind, wild beasts, or God knows what blind cause of disaster, or else to frightened animals, trees, water, sand, to anything in nature that is set into motion by the violence of external forces.” [viii]

In other words, everyone involved is a victim of war. That is why neither Homer nor Goya seem to take sides. The unflinching visual witness of The Disasters of War may have been undertaken in protest against the brutality of Napoleon’s army in Spain, but as the series evolved it became harder to distinguish the nationality of perpetrators and victims in the images. We only see human beings equally deformed by the workings of force. There is no great cause in these pictures, only suffering. 

Attribution: Nexta TV

For me, one of the most disturbing images of the war’s first week was this video of a Russian soldier taking evident pleasure in the firing of missiles into Ukraine. As a Christian, I am obligated to see Christ in his arrogant face, but it is not easy. He is smiling at the death of his fellow beings. The patch on his uniform reads: “They will die and we will go to heaven.” Nevertheless, understanding this man to be himself a victim of force plants a seed of compassion in me. He has lost his humanity to the machinery of war. I must pray for him as well. 

In writing about the Iliad, Weil was repeating Goya’s message that “violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim. And from this springs the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress. The conquered brings misfortune to the conqueror, and vice versa.[ix]

Francisco de Goya, “Las mujeres dan valor” (The women are courageous) from The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

Rachel Bespaloff, writing during the Nazi invasion of France, attributes the Iliad’s impartiality to the seeming impartiality of life itself: 

“With Homer there is no marveling or blaming, and no answer is expected. Who is good in the Iliad? Who is bad? Such distinctions do not exist; there are only men suffering, warriors fighting, some winning, some losing. The passion for justice emerges only in mourning for justice, in the dumb avowal of silence. To condemn force, or absolve it, would be to condemn, or absolve, life itself. And life in the Iliad (as in the Bible or in War and Peace) is essentially the thing that does not permit itself to be assessed, or measured, or condemned, or justified, at least not by the living. Any estimate of life must be confined to an awareness of its inexpressibility.” [x]

The impartiality of Homer and Goya is echoed in one of the most remarkable battle scenes in the history of cinema. In Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, U.S. marines are trying to take a Japanese position on a Pacific island in World War II. But instead of encouraging the viewer to take sides, the director presents both the Americans and the Japanese as common victims of force, as if we were seeing war through God’s eyes. On the soundtrack the gunfire and explosions remain faint, barely there, while a slow elegiac score, like the music of weeping angels, allows us to reflect on the tragedy of violence instead of stirring our partisan emotions. One of the soldiers, a kind of Christ figure, speaks in voice-over: 

This great evil, where does it come from? How does it still enter the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this, who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth? Is this darkness in you too? [xi]

Impartiality is not the same as indifference. Although she favored pacifism, Weil wrote her essay after joining the fight against fascism in Spain (the near-sighted and clumsy intellectual had to be sent home after accidentally stepping into a pot of boiling oil). She spoke out in favor of struggles for independence in the French colonies, and worked for the French Resistance. Similarly, Bespaloff renounced her own pacifist sympathies when Hitler seized France. Both women felt their ideals constrained by the “yoke of necessity.” [xii] Sometimes force simply won’t let you abstain. Bespaloff would later lament that history had forced her entire generation “to live in a climate of violent death,” amid “the smoke of crematories.” [xiii]

To see everyone as a victim is to realize the limits of force and begin to discover the power of compassion. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” said Jesus. And Weil, who got to know Jesus pretty well in her final years, urged us to “learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate.” [xiv]  

This is not a prescription for passivity in the face of naked aggression. Along with most of the world, including many of Russia’s own people, I support the Ukrainian resistance, but it’s not enough just to take sides in the ancient game of force. Even as we are swept up in the necessities of conflict, we must strive to imagine a better way and a better world. 

In late 1942, when Weil was working in the London office of the French Resistance, she proposed a plan to parachute hundreds of white-uniformed nurses onto battlefields, not only to tend to the wounded but also to provide an image of self-sacrificial goodness in the midst of cruelty and violence. She herself wanted to be in the first wave of this non-violent invasion. In submitting her plan to the Free French authorities, she made a visionary argument:

“There could be no better symbol of our inspiration than the corps of women suggested here. The mere persistence of a few humane services in the very center of the battle, the climax of inhumanity, would be a signal defiance of the inhumanity which the enemy has chosen for himself and which he compels us also to practice … A small group of women exerting day after day a courage of this kind would be a spectacle so new, so significant, and charged with such obvious meaning, that it would strike the imagination more than any of Hitler’s conceptions have done.” [xv]

Charles de Gaulle thought her quite mad, and her plan of course went nowhere. But I always find myself inspired by “impossible” visions which refuse the seductions and delusions of force. When Hitler invaded Poland, W. H. Auden wrote a poem, “September 1, 1939,” calling upon the lovers of justice to “show an affirming flame” in the night of “negation and despair.” As we now weigh our best measures against the worst possibilities, Auden’s key line is more urgent than ever:

“We must love one another or die.” 

Käthe Kollwitz,”The Mothers,” from Seven Woodcuts on the War (1924)

[i] After Madrid was bombed in the Spanish Civil War, the Prado’s art treasures were moved to the League of Nations in Geneva in early 1939. The museum exhibition with the Goya etchings ended on August 31 of that year. The invasion of Poland began on September 1, 1939.

[ii] Simone Weil, in Simone Weil & Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), 54. Thanks to NYRB for publishing these essays together for the first time.

[iii] Ibid., 3.

[iv] Ibid., 3.

[v] Ibid., 21-22.

[vi] Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, ch. 8, quoted in War and the Iliad, p. xi.

[vii] The term is Bespaloff’s, referring to Hector’s recitation of everything the war is about to take from him: his city, his family, his comrades, his very life (War and the Iliad, 43).

[viii] War and the Iliad, 26.

[ix] Ibid., 20.

[x] Ibid., 50.

[xi] The Thin Red Line (1998), written and directed by Terence Malick, based on the novel by James Jones (1962). Released by Twentieth Century Fox. A beautiful blu-ray edition is available from The Criterion Collection. Jim Caviezel, whose other-worldliness rose above the warring world to intimations of the Transcendent, spoke the voice-over. He would eventually play the role of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004).

[xii] War and the Iliad, 21. The phrase is Weil’s.

[xiii] Ibid., 23.

[xiv] Ibid., 37.

[xv] Simone Weil, quoted in Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 155.

Inauguration Rainbow: “Good things to follow.”

Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow (1859).

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.

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860).

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.

May it ever be so.

“No longer at ease here”

“No longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.” — Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi (detail, 1481).

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.

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.

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.

This Land Is Our Land

President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris

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.

How Do We Pray for This President?

Angel and Church pray for the victims of a violent century (mural, c. 1940, Église du Saint-Esprit, Paris).

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

— Matthew 5:44

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

—Romans 12:19-21

In my last post, “Subjected thus”—The President Gets COVID,” I touched on the question of how to pray for the President. Of course we pray in general for all who have been infected by the coronavirus, but regarding specific petitions on the President’s behalf, I wrote: “I will pray that Trump’s time of trial may effect the healing of his soul. If he is going to suffer, may his illness be for him a birth of empathy, compassion, humility and goodness.”

With every passing day, that prayer becomes harder to offer with any conviction. As we witness Trump’s continuing disregard for the safety of others—both those around him and the country at large—we wonder whether he may be past saving. Instead of being humbled by his illness, he has only grown more malicious. The people around him are dropping like flies, and countless Americans will continue to die from his mismanagement. And now we fear that his relentless disparagement of life-saving protocols will kill even more. “Far less lethal!!!” than the flu, he tweets against all evidence. It’s as if he’s shouting to the world, “Hurry up and die!” 

What, then, is our prayer to be for such a man in such a time?

In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, prayers for the sick don’t ask that the ill simply be restored to their former state so they can resume their story exactly where they left off. While those prayers ask for relief from pain, protection from danger, freedom from fear, the banishment of weakness and the gift of healing, they also propose a life transformed by suffering: 

“… enable him to lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory.”

“… that, his health being renewed, he may bless your holy Name.”

“… restore to him your gifts of gladness and strength, and raise him up to a life of service to you.”

“… restored to usefulness in your world with a thankful heart.”

“… that he, daily increasing in bodily strength, and rejoicing in your goodness, may order his life and conduct that hemay always think and do those things that please you.” [i]

As for a President and all those in authority, the Prayer Book asks that they be guided by “the spirit of wisdom,” beseeching the “Lord our Governor” to “fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear.”[ii] Would that it were so! But the way things are going, the prayer “For our Enemies” seems more to the point: 

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[iii]

The “and us” is a critical part of this prayer, because we have all, symptomatic or not, been infected by the Trumpist pandemic of hate and cruelty. If we say we have not had a few hateful thoughts in the past four years, the truth is not in us. Resistance to evil and purity of heart are not soul mates or easygoing partners. They must work hard to stay coupled. 

Another timely prayer is the Collect for the Feast of Holy Innocents, when we remember the children of Bethlehem murdered by King Herod (Matthew 2:13-18). The prayer is not concerned with the state of Herod’s soul, but with the damage inflicted by his successors: 

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your 
great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the 
Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[iv]

We are all standing in the need of prayer these days. And even though we can never fully understand what prayer is and what prayer does, prayer “without ceasing” is an essential part of the healing of the world and the perfection of our souls. 

Prayer isn’t like online shopping—placing our order and expecting 2nd-day delivery. It’s not a mechanism for producing outcomes. It’s a relationship, a state of being-with and being-for. It is offering and entrusting ourselves to the One who is “always more ready to hear than we to pray,” who knows “our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking.”[v]

Knowing exactly what to pray for is impossible. We cannot see into the hearts of others, nor can we foresee the future. God only knows what is best. As for our own judgments, perspectives and desires, they can taint the purest prayer. In our essential state of imperfection and unknowing, perhaps the safest petitions are these: “Hold us in your mercy” and “Thy will be done.”

But with regard to more specific petitions for this President, I will be guided by the examples cited from the Book of Common Prayer. I will pray for his suffering to be brief but transformative. I will pray for his power to be guided by wisdom and truth. I will pray that his evil designs be frustrated, and that he (and we) be freed from the grip of hatred, cruelty and revenge. But I must confess that Donald Trump is not easy to pray for.

When I think of the monster who has tortured children in cages and caused countless COVID deaths, I struggle with my anger, my horror, and my disgust. But as I sat in the silence of a moonlit garden before this morning’s dawn, I was given the image of a little boy so damaged, so broken, so unloved, locked deep inside the dungeon of Trump’s psyche seventy years ago—guarded by dragons, hidden from the light, lost to the world. That tragic, wounded, forgotten child is someone I can pray for with my whole heart.


[i] The Book of Common Prayer, according to the use of The Episcopal Church USA (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 458-459.

[ii] BCP, 820.

[iii] BCP, 816.

[iv] BCP, 238.

[v] BCP, Proper 21 (p. 234) and Proper 11 (p. 231).

Should “God” Be Spoken at a Political Convention?

“I alone am God; there is no other.” (Phrygian Sybil, Vito de Marco, pavement of Siena cathedral, c. 1482)

I always cringe when political figures conclude their speeches with “God bless the United States of America.” In that context it is not a prayer; it is an assertion of privilege and dominance, invoking divine consent and protection for a sinful status quo. At best it is a formulaic trivialization of divine-human communication, lacking the humility, attentiveness and depth proper for addressing the Holy. At worst, in the mouths of scheming hypocrites and cruel tyrants, it’s blasphemy.

How many times, at this week’s Republican National Convention, did we hear the word ‘God’ on the lips of angry, hateful, lying partisans? I don’t know which is worse—the cynicism of unbelievers who speak the word only to dupe the gullible, or the bizarre piety of those who seem to believe that God blesses corruption, deception and violence.

One might debate degrees of difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding the promiscuous appropriation of “God” in their rhetoric. No one is without sin in the world of politics, and the abuse of rhetorical piety is a bipartisan failing. It’s hard to remain spotless when it comes to power struggles. But can we at least agree that anyone who has committed, condoned or enabled the torture of caged children should never dare to cry “God!” unless they are lying prostrate on the ground, weeping bitter tears, begging forgiveness in fear and trembling?

Time magazine cover, July 2, 2018.

When I was a young man studying theology with Robert McAfee Brown, he read us a passage from Martin Buber’s Eclipse of God. Fifty years later, I still remember the passionate wisdom of the Jewish theologian’s words. He was responding to a friend who thought “God” to be a word so defiled by centuries of misuse that its utterance should be suspended indefinitely, giving it time to recover its proper purity and depth. Buber replied:

“Yes,” I said, “it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. The generations have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. Human beings with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger marks and their blood.

“Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! If I took the purest, most sparkling concept from the inner treasure-chamber of the philosophers, I could only capture thereby an unbinding product of thought. I could not capture the presence of the One whom the generations have honoured and degraded with their awesome living and dying. I do indeed mean God whom the hell-tormented and heaven-storming generations mean. Certainly, they draw caricatures and write ‘God’ underneath; they murder one another and say ‘in God’s name.’ But when all madness and delusion fall to dust, when they stand over against Him in the loneliest darkness and no longer say, ‘He, He,’ but rather sigh ‘Thou,’ shout ‘Thou,’ all of them the one word, and when they then add ‘God,’ is it not the real God whom they all implore, the One Living God, the God of the human race? Is it not He who hears them?

“And just for this reason, is not the word ‘God’, the word of appeal, the word which has become a name, consecrated in all human tongues for all times? We must esteem those who interdict it because they rebel against the injustice and wrong which is so readily referred to ‘God’ for authorisation. But we may not give up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about ‘the last things’ for a time in order that the misused words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse the word ‘God’ and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.”

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

What Would Samson Do? — Finding Trump in the Bible

Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.

— Henry David Thoreau [i]

[T]his president and those in power—those who benefit from keeping things the way they are—they are counting on your cynicism … Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy. 

— Barack Obama [ii]

 

When the previous American president called out the most dangerous man in America at the Democratic Convention, he broke the presidential norm of speaking softly about your successor. “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” said Obama. “And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.” [iii]

Three years ago the press would have worried more about the broken norm than the words themselves. No longer. Democracy is on fire, and even some former White House officials are grabbing the nearest hose. In normal times, the Senate report detailing Trump’s extensive Russian collusion would bring an Administration’s swift collapse. But amid the ongoing maelstrom of misdeeds, it’s barely noticed. In normal times, a reporter would not be inviting a president to refute the conspiracy theory of his secret plan to save the world from a satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. And in normal times, the president would not respond by wondering “is that supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing?” [iv]

Coincidentally, in recent weeks the Episcopal Daily Office has been taking us through the Book of Judges, one of those disturbing texts that won’t let us mistake the Bible for a handbook on exemplary behavior. It’s a collection of ancient tales—legends with historical origins—from Israel’s history after the Exodus, when the refugees from Egyptian slavery were establishing themselves in a Promised Land. That land’s existing occupants were not so thrilled with the immigrants’ aspirations, and the narrative accounts are filled with appalling violence. It’s not a book I’d care to preach on.

When a later editor wove the stories into the Book of Judges, he sought to make a larger point about the Israelites losing their way as a people whose identity and survival was rooted in the divine Deliverer. Judges begins with stories of charismatic leaders who rise up as needed to guide their people through a formative time. But charisma proved an unreliable form of governance. Judges ends with several tales to demonstrate a need for a more stable political system, as the tribes devolve into civil war. The story of Samson is the turning point.

While Sunday school teachers have long cringed at the sex and violence of the Samson saga, children (and Hollywood producers) have been captivated by his superhero powers and comic-book adventures. Outnumbered by those Philistine bullies, he always gives them their comeuppance. BAM! POW! OOF! Not even a lion can beat him. And though tricked and weakened by a femme fatale, he still brings the house down on the bad guys in the end.

But to what purpose? He has no particular interest in the greater good of his people. All he cares about is himself. He is driven by impulse, not thought. Revenge and lust shape his choices. Although we are told “he led Israel … for twenty years,” he shows no leadership skills, and generates considerable hostility among his own people. However, he does excel at destruction—what Robert Alter calls his “anarchic impulse”—so cruelly exhibited when he ties torches to the tails of three hundred foxes to set Philistine fields and vineyards ablaze.

Finally captured and blinded by his enemies, he refuses to admit defeat. If he has to go down, he’s going to take everyone else down with him. In a famously spectacular finish, he pushes “powerfully” against the pillars of their temple, and the great structure collapses, killing three thousand men and women, including himself. The narrator ends with a chilling summation: “And the dead that he killed in his death were more than he had killed in his life” (Judges 16:30).

As Alter notes, the Book of Judges goes on to relate further episodes of “unbridled lust, implacable hostility, and mutual mayhem,” not to mention “dishonesty and deception … venality and the ruthless pursuit of personal and tribal self-interest.”[v] It’s a disheartening book, whose final sentence conveys the total disintegration of social bonds and the common good: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Sound familiar? Three years ago, few of us imagined how fragile and corruptible our own political institutions would prove to be. As Barack Obama warns us, we are on the verge of losing our democracy—and so much more. The current president’s small hands are pushing hard against the pillars of America. He’d rather kill us all than be the only “loser.”

It’s a stressful time to be an American, even without a pandemic. To paraphrase Thoreau, the “remembrance of my country” is spoiling my summer. Serenity is a rare commodity these days. And that is perhaps how it must be until we expel the demons from White House and Senate. Keep our eyes on the prize and hold on!

In Thoreau’s essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” his dark thoughts about America’s sins are succeeded by the memory of a walk when he chances upon a white waterlily. The flower becomes a redemptive epiphany:

“It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth … What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower!”

So many moments in this week’s Democratic Convention have provided a confirmation of my own hopes: the determined voices of those who transform personal suffering and pain into commitment to the common good; the joyful spirits whose ideals still burn bright; the splendor of so many diverse and shining faces; a passionate yearning for beloved community; and the uplifting video segments which burst “so fair upon the eye.”

 

[i] H. D. Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Collected Essays and Poems (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 346.

[ii] The 44th President’s speech at the Democratic Convention (August 19, 2020).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election/donald-trump-qanon-conspiracy-2020-election-a9678946.html

[v] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Volume 2: Prophets (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019),

Black Lives Matter Mural: More Than a Stunt?

When Washington D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser had BLACK LIVES MATTER painted in gigantic yellow letters on 16th Avenue near the White House, America’s racist-in-chief displayed his predictable rage. But the local chapter of the Black Lives Matter Global Network voiced their own objections to the street mural.

“This is a performative distraction from real policy changes,” they tweeted. “Bowser has consistently been on the wrong side of BLMDC history. This is to appease white liberals while ignoring our demands. Black Lives Matter means defund the police.”

I am not familiar with the relationship between the mayor and the activists, and as a white liberal I am hardly qualified to weigh in on the passion or the politics behind that tweet. I am aware that many D.C. residents, longing for concrete change, are calling the mural a meaningless stunt. But as a long-time liturgist, I would argue that symbolic “performance” need not be a substitute for or distraction from social change. Public art can produce transformative effects.

The problem with living within a particular “social imaginary” is that alternative ways of constructing our common life are not just utopian, they are literally inconceivable. Systemic racism, like so many other social ills, has long cast its spell of inevitability. But as events of the last week have shown, the spell can be broken. It may be only for a moment; America may yet resume its slumber. But an alternative future, by showing itself however briefly, can never again be unseen.

“Insurrectionary art” is not a distraction from prophetic vision, but a powerful means of making a new world visible. It does not inhibit concrete change; it anticipates it. The mass protests themselves are performance art, symbolically showing a new social order––where solidarity dances with diversity, and God’s new song breaks open the tombs of death and despair.

Four years ago, in the dark night of post-election depression, I wrote “Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance,” citing many creative examples of prophetic art designed to awaken and empower. And I argued that symbolic or ritualized enactments of the “not-yet” are not only useful, but essential:

“In dark times, we can, we must, still live as children of the light—the custodians of hope—enacting rituals and images, as well as daily practices of kindness, solidarity and justice, to express and anticipate the emergent world of divine favor and human flourishing. As for the powers, God laughs them to scorn, and God’s friends, thankfully, are in on the joke.”

This is why I believe that those three words painted on 16th Street––words of revolutionary power pointing like an arrow at the heart of the beast––may now be counted as one of our capital’s greatest monuments––not to past glories and aspirations, but to a better future, cresting like a wave that wants to crash on the shore of the Now.

Words are not just descriptions; they are events. Language and action have been inextricably bound together ever since God spoke the world into being. By speaking, we make the unsaid suddenly conceivable. We begin to “make it so.”

e.e. cummings imagined the world’s creation this way:

when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began

The dying world wants to rob us of that breath. It wants us to believe that we can’t breathe something better into existence. But the divine Breath animating all existence cannot be choked. It blows, blasts, breaks forth in words that shatter, contradict, imagine, make new.

And the Word becomes actual, and dwells among us. 

Related posts

Temporary Resurrection Zones

Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Beautiful Trouble: A How-To Book for Creative Resistance

Beyond Punch and Judy: The Art of Nonviolent Resistance

Mr. Schiff Goes to Washington

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) appeals to the Senate in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939).

Last night Adam Schiff delivered one of the most electrifying and critical speeches in American history. Standing before the United States Senate, he spoke the truth that can no longer be ignored: Donald Trump is not merely corrupt, ignorant, and malicious. He is dangerous.  

Schiff began by stating the obvious:

“Do we really have any doubt about the facts here? Does anybody really question whether the President is capable of what he’s charged with? No one is really making the argument, “Donald Trump would never do such a thing,” because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did. . . We all know what we’re dealing here with this President, but does he really need to be removed?”

Then, after outlining the present and future dangers of the President’s corrupt and reckless behavior, Schiff reminded the Senate, and every citizen, what is at stake––the survival of our country and the ideals on which it was founded. 

“Well, let me tell you something, if right doesn’t matter, . . . it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is. Doesn’t matter how well written the Oath of Impartiality is. If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost. If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.”

Watch the whole speech (the link is below). If our country survives this crisis, Schiff’s warning will be remembered as one of the monumental texts of American history, powerfully crafted and crucially significant. The United States began with the declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Whether Schiff’s declaration––“If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost”­­––proves to be our wake-up call, or our epitaph, remains to be seen. 

How I wish Frank Capra were directing the impeachment hearings as a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The idealist’s stirring rhetoric would bring the conflict to a decisive crisis point. The Boy Rangers would lead mass protests in the streets of America, crying “This is what democracy looks like!” And Moscow Mitch, taking the role of Claude Rains, would weep and wail his repentance on the Senate floor. 

I’ve been reading Tristan Gooley’s The Nature Instinct: Relearning Our Lost Intuition for the Inner Workings of the Natural World. It’s a guide for cultivating our “sixth sense” as we live and move in nature. When we are tuned in to the cues of our environment, we don’t need to slowly ponder and reflect about what’s going on around us. We can react instinctively and immediately. And when we are threatened by danger, a speedy reaction is essential for our survival.

“Sitting around a fire in the Amazon jungle, the sound of bird alarm calls in the trees sets a tribal group thinking slowly and consciously about its meaning. But the survivors of a jaguar attack didn’t ponder the meaning a second time; they got out of there.” (Gooley, 25)

The signals of alarm are all around us. Danger! Danger! Citizens, we can’t remain where we are. It’s time to move!

On the Brink of War: “Choose life.”

Matteo di Giovanni, The Slaughter of the Innocents (detail, floor panel, Siena cathedral, 1481)

A madman has brought us to the brink of war. No one can predict where we go from here. If we’re lucky, the U.S. and Iran will both back off and stand down. If we’re not, hello Armageddon. But the fact that a psychologically unstable and dangerously impulsive ignoramus is steering us toward disaster, while Congress and public seem powerless or unwilling to relieve him of his command, should both terrify and sicken us. The “shining city on a hill” has become a rogue state: cruel, murderous, and––if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a war with Iran––clearly insane. 

Politicians and pundits are debating the reasons and guessing the consequences, but who is talking about the madness of a president who commits murder during his golf vacation? Who is calling out the evil of a president who would invite apocalypse to evade impeachment? Pretending not to notice these things is a form of enabling, if not its own kind of madness. 

People say Soleimani deserved death for taking so many lives. Do we really want to go down that road? If the death toll from the administration’s dismantling of health care and environmental protections should produce more fatalities than those caused by the Iranian general, what then would Trump deserve? 

We must say no to murder, and no to war. State-sponsored assassination is both repugnant and counterproductive. And military violence has become virtually obsolete as an instrument of national policy, as we have seen over the last three decades of endless and fruitless conflict. Will we never learn?

Twenty-nine years ago this month, I preached against Desert Storm, four days after we began to assault Iraq with the terrifying technology of “shock and awe.” It was not a popular sermon––over 80% of Americans took the opposite view.

I cited a declaration of the Anglican conference of bishops in 1978: “War as a matter of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The use of modern technology of war is the most striking example of corporate sin and the prostitution of God’s gifts.” But in 1991 our country was in love with our sophisticated weapons, and people were intoxicated by the smell of victory. 

For those who watched Desert Storm on television, it seemed like a video game. The “enemy” were just blips on the screen, bloodless and abstract, vaporized by noisy explosions. In my sermon, I tried to humanize the conflict: 

In Baghdad’s art center, there is a painting of Jesus, gazing at the world around him with an expression of profound sadness and pain. He wears a Palestinian scarf around his neck and he is handcuffed.

If a Christian bomber pilot knew Christ was in Baghdad, would he deliver his payload? Of course, war is not run by the personally motivated decisions of soldiers. War is organized from above. Soldiers just play their assigned part. But they can only function as long as the enemy remains a mere target, rather than a brother or a sister. They must practice indifference to the stories of their victims. Don’t see. Don’t feel.

But you and I cannot let this war be a video game. Instead, let us see and know that it is Christ being crucified in every victim. Let us watch Christ’s hands being pierced; let us hear his cry of anguish. Let us witness the Madonna and Child blown to bits in the air raid. 

As I said, it was not my most popular sermon. 

We pray every day to be delivered from evil. May that be so in our present danger. But if war comes, may we have the courage and the faith to choose Christ over the “powers” of this world, and say no to the violence. As Martin Luther King reminded us, “Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” Ironically, Desert Storm began on Martin Luther King Day, seeming to mock the way of nonviolence. But faith takes the long view. Violence has no future. 

Today I give you the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life.

                         –– Deuteronomy 30:19 

Festo Kivengere, the Ugandan bishop whose people suffered greatly under the unspeakably barbaric rule of Idi Amin, was once asked: “If you were sitting in Idi Amin’s office with a gun in your hand, what would you do?”

“I would give him the gun, “Kivengere replied. “I would tell him, ‘This is your weapon. My weapon is love.’”