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.

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