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.

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.

 

Related posts

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

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

American violence: Where do we go from here?

Contemplating Kehinde Wiley's "Morpheus" at the Seattle Museum of Art

Contemplating Kehinde Wiley’s “Morpheus” at the Seattle Museum of Art

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same … (Book of Common Prayer)

Every Sunday in the liturgical year has a Prayer for the Day, and this is the one recited in Episcopal churches annually on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, which in 2016 happened to be July 10. After a week filled with so much troubling violence in America, it was a prayer we badly needed. How in such times can we know and understand what we ought to do? Who will supply the grace and power to find a constructive way forward?

So many words have been written and spoken in recent days as thoughtful people try to grasp where we are, how we got here, and where we must go. It’s an important and necessary conversation, and I feel the imperative, as all responsible citizens must, to add my own voice to the dialogue. I should say something, but I don’t know exactly what. I can hear T. S. Eliot whispering in my ear: “Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”[i]

I have been on vacation, enjoying the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Oregon, staying in a house without television. I’ve heard and read some news, but have not been steeped in constant reportage. And I’ve not seen a single image of the violence. Although columnist Leonard Pitts interrupted his own vacation in Greece to write that “America has gone mad and there’s no place to hide,” I have maintained a certain religious distance from the immersive angst of endless news, since it is only at our peril that we compromise personal Sabbaths. So I am less informed than most about the events of recent days.

But I have read some commentary, and I was particularly struck by Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon article, “Death in Dallas and America’s existential crisis: Our new ‘civil war’ over the nature of reality.”[ii] He describes an America “divided not just by race, culture and ideology, but between competing versions of reality.” While political conflict, culture wars and violent acts have always been with us, today’s “mutual incomprehension” and a “near-total inability to communicate” have not. Competing sides live in alternative universes where mutually acknowledged facts are hard to come by.

At a recent confrontation between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, a reporter stood in the street between them, taking notes on the slogans and epithets being shouted from opposite sidewalks. A policeman told her she couldn’t stay in the middle of the street. “You have to stand on one side or the other,” he said.

But is there really no place to stand between irreconcilable polarities, no place where we can honor one another with the gift of listening? O’Hehir puts the question in vivid terms:

“Which would be more useful: For me to confront the fact that large numbers of my fellow citizens really believe that black radicals are waging a race war against white America and the police, and that Obama and Hillary Clinton hope to flood the country with Muslims and Mexicans while building socialism? And then try to figure out what the hell happened, and whether I can do anything to bridge the gap between that reality and mine? Or for me to carry on ridiculing others for their paranoid and superstitious beliefs, and congratulating myself for being a product of my class and educational background?”

Can we explore ways to listen to one another? To learn each other’s names, to hear each other’s stories, to understand one another’s language? To risk being stretched and challenged by alternate perspectives?

Such conversation ought to be be curated in churches, schools, homes and civic spaces. But what about the overheated environment of a protest situation? Even there? What would happen if there were a designated “argument-free” listening space at every demonstration, where people could speak without being judged, and the real pain and anxiety beneath the reactive and polarizing rhetorics could be received and acknowledged with respect and compassion?

Impossible? Then let the artists and saints show us how. Dostoevsky, for example, envisioned an improbable example of compassionate listening in The Brothers Karamazov. The brothers and their father are meeting with the saintly Father Zossima at his monastery in the hope of resolving a bitter family dispute. It doesn’t take long for the elder Karamazov and his son Dimitri to disgrace themselves before the holy monk as they bicker and shout and wish each other dead. But instead of intervening with words, Zossima suddenly kneels before Dimitri to kiss his feet. No one knows what to make of this unseemly action, but the monk later explains that when he realized the depth of Dimitri’s inner pain, and foresaw how much suffering it would bring him, he was impelled to make an extreme gesture of compassion. Instead of being sucked into the specific content of the argument, Father Zossima had perceived the pain and suffering behind it, and responded with unconditional love.

And so must we all. As Bobby Kennedy told a shocked and grieving black audience the night Martin Luther King was shot:

“What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”[iii]

Related posts

Beyond Punch and Judy: The Art of Nonviolent Resistance

After Paris and Beirut, What Kind of Story Shall We Tell?

[i] “East Coker” in Four Quartets

[ii] http://www.salon.com/2016/07/09/death_in_dallas_and_americas_existential_crisis_our_new_civil_war_over_the_nature_of_reality/

[iii] Speech in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Statement-on-the-Assassination-of-Martin-Luther-King.aspx

But now I see

Window in Hereford Cathedral for Anglican visionary Thomas Traherne (Tom Denny, 2007)

Window in Hereford Cathedral for Anglican visionary Thomas Traherne (Tom Denny, 2007)

President Obama began his eloquent and moving eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney with a New Testament reference: “The Bible calls us to hope. To persevere, and have faith in things not seen … We are here to remember a man of God who lived by faith. A man who believed in things not seen.”[i]

According to physicists, 95% of the known universe is hidden from human observation. In reviewing a recent book on the subject of invisibility, Kathryn Schulz writes that the “whole realm of the visible is governed by the invisible … we can see a fragment of the what of things, but nothing at all of the why. Gravity, electricity, magnetism, economic forces, the processes that sustain life as well as those that eventually end it – all this is invisible. We cannot even see the most important parts of our own selves: our thoughts, feelings, personalities, psyches, morals, minds, souls.” Her conclusion sounds a note of causality which Aquinas would have admired: “Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion, and held together by what we cannot see.”[ii]

Most of that invisibility is an inherent property of the unseen, but to that imperceptibility we human beings contribute our own forms of blindness. Some of that blindness is benign and adaptive, as we protect ourselves from sensory overload by only seeing what is necessary or unusual. But we also suffer moral blindness, closing our eyes to things we would rather not see, many of which the President boldly named in his oration.

“For too long,” he said, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.” Blind about poverty, blind about racism, blind about our criminal justice system, blind about the unconscious impulse “to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.” As the congregation took up the cry – for too long! – he added, “For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed — the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.”

But it wasn’t just evil which became visible in Charleston. We also saw an answering goodness. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead insisted, “The kingdom of heaven is not the isolation of good from evil. It is the overcoming of evil by good.” When evil occurs, it is “met with a novel consequent as to issue in the restoration of goodness.”[iii] This novel consequent has taken many forms in recent days, most dramatically in the costly expressions of forgiveness by those so cruelly bereaved. It was not what the world expected to see.

“Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” the President reminded us. “God has different ideas … Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.”[iv]

Inspiring words, received by an inspired congregation. If we ever wonder whether church is worth the bother, do we need more evidence than Charleston? The radical forgiveness and faith we have witnessed there are not accidental. They have been uniquely forged and nurtured over time within a community of biblical witness, shared practice and common language. Church is where God’s friends do the collective work, generation after generation, to preserve and evolve the repertoire of faith in our stories, our praises and our actions.

Without church, we wouldn’t know how to name – or sing – “amazing grace.” We would lack the eyes – and the language – for “things unseen.” Without church, the President could never deploy Scripture with such resonance, or begin to sing a beloved hymn in the assurance that he would not have to finish it alone.

[i] Hebrews 11:1

[ii] Kathryn Schulz, “Sight Unseen: The Hows and Whys of Invisibility,” The New Yorker, April 13, 2015, 75-79

[iii] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Fordham Press, 1996), 155

[iv] The full text of President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney on June 26, 2015, is widely available on the Internet.