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