Fourth of July 2020: Last Rites for a Dying America?

The burning of Washington, 1814.

“The country is on fire. It is in flames. We cannot stomp it out.
And the rest of the world is looking on in horror.”

— Chris Hayes [i]

 

I was born between D-Day and the liberation of Paris, and for the first time in my life, the Fourth of July will not be a celebration. Even when our country had gone astray in Vietnam or Iraq, even in the shameful eras of segregation or government-sanctioned torture, it still seemed possible to make ritual remembrance of America’s ideals and renew our collective hope in the better angels of our nature. Not this year.

For 1260 miserable days, we have endured a relentless assault on Constitutional principles and democratic norms by an authoritarian president, with a Congress and political structure either too paralyzed or too corrupt to resist. An unending stream of atrocities has made us so numb that even Trump’s despicable (and treasonous?) betrayal of American soldiers in Afghanistan is not sufficient to force his resignation. But as it turns out, the erosion (and potential demise) of our democracy will be of no concern for hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of U. S. citizens. By the next Fourth of July, they will be dead.

It’s not entirely Trump’s fault. Our healthcare delivery system is not well-suited to the conditions of pandemic. Neither is an economy which forces many workers into close proximity. And then there are those lockdown rebels, defiant to the end: “Give me liberty AND give me death.”

But there’s no denying the conclusion that Trump’s well-documented incompetence, unpreparedness, and criminal neglect have already caused, by some estimates, 60% of the U.S. deaths from COVID-19. As of today, we count 78,000 Americans whose lives were lost because the White House was incapable of a timely and well-managed response.[ii] And it is only getting worse. As we surpassed 50,000 new cases per day on July 1, Trump was still preaching magical thinking: Pretend there’s no problem and it will soon go away.

“How long can we live with this President?” is no longer a figure of speech. For the most vulnerable among us, it has become existential. Is it hyperbole to call Trump a mass murderer? Do the math. Sixteen 9/11s in a single day. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, that could soon double. Thank you, Mr. President.

In a sobering Atlantic article, “The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything,” James Fallows compares the United States to an airplane being flown into a mountain. “At least in an airplane cockpit, the first officer can grab the controls from a captain who is steering the aircraft toward doom.” But our politics don’t work that way. A veteran intelligence official quoted in the article sums up the problem exactly: “Our system has a single point-of-failure: an irrational president.” [iii]

In his classic study, The American Adam [iv], R. W. B. Lewis examines fresh starts and new possibilities as the dominant tropes of American myth-making: a new Eden, the land of the free. This has required the repression of certain facts. North America was not an uninhabited space for the taking. “All men are created equal” was written by a slaveholder. The degree to which these tragic ironies have been balanced by substantial instances of liberation, justice and human flourishing continues to be contested.

But in any case, America identity—e pluribus unum—is a construction of fact and myth, (selective) memory and metaphor, aspiration and ideal. As one scholar puts it, “America has to be thought in order to be lived, but for both to happen, it had to be written.… America was invented, not discovered.”[v] We trace our nation’s birth to a rhetorical scripture, “for the truth of which,” as Thomas Jefferson put it, “we pledge a faith as yet unsullied by falsehood.” [vi]

Independence Day celebrates a radical break from the past, a casting off of the old order for the new. In “Earth’s Holocaust,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fable of revolution written in 1844, a great crowd gathers on a vast prairie to make a bonfire of everything humanity needs to renounce: the trappings and symbols of repressive institutions and economic inequality—all the “outworn trumpery” (!) of the world. The unprecedented scale and duration of the Black Lives Matter protests is a vivid enactment of this trope, evoking America’s most radical premise: We are not bound to our past; we can reinvent the social order.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing institutions, communities, and individuals to reimagine how we live and move and have our being. When the pandemic passes, will we resume the old ways, or insist on something better? In another of his stories, Hawthorne proposed a state of perpetual renewal:

I doubt whether even our public edifices—our capitols, statehouses, courthouses, city-halls and churches—ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin once every twenty years or thereabouts, as a hint to people to examine and reform the institutions which they symbolize.[vii]

Whether collective and personal transformation will come through purifying fire or the gentler urgings of wisdom and spirit, it will unmask our illusions and disturb our slumber. As David R. Williams reminds us, the sin of “profound unknowing” cannot endure:

We imagine we are awake and aware of what we are doing, but in fact we are walking in our sleep. We live in a constructed illusion of sounds we call words, and ideas we think we believe, and sights that at least seem to have reality. Most of the time, the illusion holds. But, as Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards warned …, “we walk over the pit of hell as on a rotten covering, and there are places in that covering so rotten that they will not bear our weight, and these places are unseen.” [viii]

So no, not a normal Fourth of July this year. In the worst case scenario, it could be our last, if our democracy continues to implode. As a member of what Emerson called the Party of Hope [ix], I do not foresee that happening. But I do worry that my country is ill-prepared—emotionally or spiritually—for apocalypse of any kind. Even should the sun go out and the moon turn to blood, some will still be shouting, “Fake news!”

In 1957, a ten-year-old Stephen King was watching a movie matinee of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a sci-fi film about alien invaders from outer space.

“[J]ust when it was reaching the good part, with Washington in flames and the final, cataclysmic interstellar battle about to be joined—the screen suddenly went dead. Well, kids started to clap and hoot, thinking the projectionist made a mistake or the reel had broken, but then, all of a sudden, the theater lights went on at full strength … then the theater manager came striding down the center aisle, looking pale, and he mounted the stage and said, in a trembling voice, ‘I want to tell you that the Russians have put a space satellite into orbit around Earth. They call it Sputnik. … ’ There was a long hushed pause as this crowd of fifties kids in cuffed jeans, with crewcuts or ducktails or ponytails, struggled to absorb all that; and then, suddenly, one voice, near tears but also charged with terrible anger, shrilled through the stunned silence: ‘Oh, go show the movie, you liar!” [x]

 

Related posts:

Fourth of July

July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

“Your celebration is a sham” — Independence Day in an Age of Cruelty

 

[i] Chris Hayes, from his MSNBC program, All In with Chris Hayes, July 2, 2020.

[ii] https://trumpdeathclock.com

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/06/how-white-house-coronavirus-response-went-wrong/613591/?fbclid=IwAR34gDXbfiSeHF-WEnBx5mR-g-sJBkkgskC29rSIY2NH_UdZBBuwgf9RYC0

[iv] R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955)

[v] Geoff Ward, The Writing of America: Literature and Cultural Identity from the Puritans to the Present (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2002), 17.

[vi] This line from Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence would be deleted by committee, but it expresses the document’s Edenic spirit (“as yet unsullied by falsehood”). Cited in Ward, 28.

[vii] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1850), cited in Lewis, 19.

[viii] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 204.

[ix] Ralph Waldo Emerson described a duality in American culture as a schism between the Party of Memory (tradition, or reverence for a “sacred” past or origin) and the Party of Hope (dedicated to rebirth and new possibilities). These are not, of course, to be confused with specific political parties, and most of us belong to both (except, perhaps, for members of a third party, the Party of Irony). See the discussion in Lewis, 7.

[x] Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (eds), Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King (New York: New English Library, 1990), p. 22, cited in Ward, 119.

“Here, right matters.”

Riding upward on Fortune’s wheel (Paolo Manucci, pavement of Siena cathedral, 1504-1506)

“. . . their motives escape us like rites of an unknown religion.”

––– Gilles Deleuze [1]

 

At the end of the eighteenth century, the President of the United States, supported by the religious right and a wealthy elite, began to round up dissidents and throw journalists in jail. He garnered support for this assault upon civil liberties by stirring up fears about war and foreign enemies while dividing the country along the fault lines of self-interest and resentment.

The Vice President, deeply disturbed by this mockery of America’s founding ideals of liberty and the common good, tried to summon hope.

“A little patience,” he said, “and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. … If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.” [2]

So wrote Thomas Jefferson to a friend in 1798.

After watching this week’s Congressional impeachment hearings, I am trying hard to “have patience till luck turns,” but whether our nation can ever truly recover “the principles we have lost” remains an undecided question. The lawlessness of crimes, corruption and coverup appears to be more than a match for constitutional processes, at least so far.

“This is America,” insists Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. “Here, right matters”[3]  But the President and his allies are doing their worst to prove him wrong. It’s become so difficult to stay ethically focused in the blizzard of bad acts that is the Trump administration, with its distracting whack-a-mole of endless evils.[4] Words and actions which would have scandalized prior generations have been normalized into the banality of daily, sometimes hourly, experience. But during the past week, the House Intelligence Committee has extracted one particular crime out of the ceaseless flow, enabling millions of Americans to examine it in depth.

In the face of a mountain of damning evidence, Congressional Republicans cover their ears and shut their eyes. Their posturing at the hearings has been shamelessly mendacious and painfully childish. Whether their behavior is driven by fear, ambition, or blindness, they act under a malignant spell which not even a clear and present danger to Constitution and country can dissolve. Their motives escape us like rites of an unknown religion. They sleepwalk toward the abyss, dragging America with them.

“We are better than that!” cried Elijah Cummings earlier this year. And Adam Schiff, the chair of this week’s hearings, chose his late colleague’s passionate plea to be the final words of yesterday’s concluding session. So now we must ask: Are we? Are we better than that?

A foundational American myth has been the story of rebirth and renewal. Unburdened by the weight of the past, perpetually empowered to reinvent ourselves, we want to believe in our own agency, the chance to start afresh in every moment. No Old World fatalism shall deter our capacity to act. If there’s a problem, we’ll solve it. If there’s an obstacle, we’ll overcome it. “I know if we come together, there’s nothing we can’t do,” says presidential candidate Joe Biden, expressing a mandatory trope of American rhetoric.

Writing about American cinema, Gilles Deleuze says that it “constantly shoots and reshoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization.”[5] And in that sense our politics are like our movies. We watch in order to rediscover America. But, as Deleuze cautions,

 “. . . we do not perceive the thing or the image in its entirety, we always perceive less of it, we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving, or rather what it is in our interest to perceive, by virtue of our economic interests, ideological beliefs and psychological demands. We therefore normally perceive only clichés.[6]

Epistemology––the study of what we know and how we know it––is not just the domain of philosophical reflection. When 30-40% of Americans now perceive the world as a place where monstrous and murderous acts are somehow acceptable, epistemology is a political problem. Trump will be gone, sooner or later, but the toxicity of unknowing will take decades to dispel, assuming we manage to survive this perilous time with our democracy intact.

In yesterday’s impeachment testimony, foreign affairs specialist Fiona Hill warned Americans about the Russian strategy to destabilize western democracies:

“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.”

Hill went on to say, “Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”[7]

In other words, if America lives by the lie, it will die by the lie. If a deluded public loses the ability to distinguish what is imaginary from what is real, we are lost. The false narratives of others will be substituted for our own freedom of thought. Who, then, will rescue us from this “body of death?”[8]

This week, in addition to missing three days of rare and precious Northwest November sunshine while staying inside to watch the hearings, I curated a conversation about St. Paul at the Episcopal church of St. Barnabas on Bainbridge Island, Washington. We began with a pivotal passage from his letter to the church at Philippi:

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5)

These words were inscribed in large letters on the wall of the assembly hall in my boyhood school, and for six formative years, from seventh through twelfth grade, they were before my eyes at every morning assembly. Ever since, Paul’s invitation to a radically new kind of perception has continued to challenge my ethical complacency and disturb my spiritual sleep.

To have the mind of Christ, I believe, isn’t asking us to do a little better, but to be radically different, to make our center not the ego or all the assumptions and biases implanted by nature and culture, but something transcending our limited (and limiting) personal standpoint.

As Episcopal theologian Mark McIntosh puts it, faith becomes “a new cognitive framework . . . restructuring the mind and prying it open to the infinite, deathless reality of God.”[9] With the mind of Christ, we see with the eyes of the Compassionate One, the Merciful One, not only desiring what God desires, but becoming the very means of actualizing divine desire in the mending of the world.

In the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor said that “to have the mind of Christ is, in my opinion, to think in his wayand of him in all situations.”[10] In other words, when we “put on Christ” (to use another Pauline image), the question of “what would Jesus do?” becomes existential: What would we do? What will we do? It’s not simply a way of thinking. It is a way of acting and being.

St. Paul was an itinerant pastor to some pretty wayward and quarrelsome congregations, who, he worried, only “bite and devour one another” (Gal. 5:15). He repeatedly exhorted them to renounce partisan rancor and fearful self-indulgence, to let Christ’s mind be in them, manifesting itself in the way they live with each other, and in the way they exist to invite everyone else into Love’s dance.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If is it possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:9-18).

The gap between Paul’s exalted vision of communal life and the present reality of America’s broken public could not be greater. You don’t have to be a Christian, or conflate church and country, to see the wisdom of Paul’s words for our common life as citizens and neighbors. Our refusal to love cannot stand. Paul’s warning to his congregations is aimed at America as well:

Take care, lest you be consumed by one another. (Gal. 5:15).

 

 

I recently photographed the 16th-century pavement image of Fortune’s wheel in the cathedral of Siena in Italy. There are 4 figures riding the wheel; one at the top, one at the bottom, one going down, and one riding upward. I chose the latter for this post as sign of hope.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 94. Deleuze was describing the wealthy characters in the films of Luchino Visconti, but it seems an apt image for the inexplicable behavior of Trump’s political allies.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Taylor, June 4, 1798.

[3] Testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Nov. 20, 2019.

[4] This does not seem hyperbole to me. My post before the 2016 election, Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now, has proved all too accurate as far as it goes, but who then could have predicted children in cages, the pardoning of war criminals, the betrayal of Kurdish allies, etc. etc.? Just today I read that almost 10,000 premature deaths per year can be attributed to Trump’s gutting of EPA rules. As I said, endless evils.

[5] Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 148.

[6] Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 21.

[7] Fiona Hill, testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Nov. 21, 2019.

[8] “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

[9] Mark McIntosh, “Faith, Reason, and the Mind of Christ,” in Paul J. Griffiths & Richard Hutter, eds., Reason and the Reasons of Faith (New York/London: T&T Clark, 2005), 141.

[10] Maximus the Confessor (580-662), Chapters on Knowledge, II, 83, cited in McIntosh, 121.

When Love is the Way

Magnus Zeller, The Orator, Germany c. 1920 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The Episcopal “Daily Office” provides prayers and Scripture for various times of day. Derived from medieval monastic liturgies, the practice of hallowing the beginning, middle and end of our days with both corporate and private prayer can offer refuge and refreshment, lifting us out of the relentless rush of time to remember what it’s all about and deepen our connection with the holy One, who is our Source, our Companion, and our End.

This venerable prayer practice is not an escape from the world, but a way of attending to it with clearer vision. Thus the Daily Office offers challenge as well as comfort. The God of history will not let us ingore the calamity and suffering wrought by what the original Book of Common Prayer called “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Sometimes the biblical readings seem ripped from the headlines, like this week’s Wednesday reading from Proverbs:

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.[i]

I have to confess that in the midst of my prayer time I succumbed to uncharitable amusement when I read these words. They describe the American president––and his corrupt and cruel minions––so perfectly! But neither righteous outrage nor satirical jesting––and certainly not any presumption of our own goodness––will deliver us from the menace of these times.

Of course we must take sides against the malicious designs of evil tyrants in order to defend the vulnerable and preserve the common good. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded my generation of theology students, trying to keep one’s own hands clean in a dirty conflict can be a form of capitulation. Sometimes our innocence must be sacrificed in the historical struggle for a better world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this when he joined the plot against Hitler.

But engaging the powers of darkness solely on their own terms is toxic, perhaps fatal, in the long run. If our goal is community and communion, we cannot make division and opposition our primary weapons. On the day following the assassination of Martin Luther King (and two months before his own violent end), Bobby Kennedy made this point boldly to an audience afflicted by passions of grief, fear and rage.

“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. . . . violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[ii]

The United States has weathered dark and dangerous times before. But with the exception of the Civil War, has there been another time when our nation’s very survival has been in such doubt? Institutional and legal norms are under daily assault by the White House and Congress; Republicans turn a blind eye to corruption and the clear threat to democracy; racism, hatred and fear are fostered and encouraged by “the most powerful man on earth,” and a third of this country lives in a fact-free bubble, impervious to reason and morality. A recent headline called us “The Banana States of America.”[iii]

Bells of warning should ring out Danger! in every city and town. Prophets should shout The end is near! on every street. Pundits may worry, dissenters object, and activists resist, but where is the widespread public cry of peril and alarm? Imagine such passivity after Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Are most of us still taking for granted our national stability? Do we simply assume everything will return to normal after the next two elections?

In a recent Washington Post column, “Watch What Happens in Rome,” Anne Applebaum examines current Italian politics as a disturbing cautionary tale for the United States. After finally ousting a corrupt authoritarian leader, Italy failed to revert to a more benign and centrist public order.

“Reeling from the flood of broken promises, electorates did not turn back to honest realists who told them hard truths or laid out the hard choices. On the contrary: In Italy, as in so many Latin American countries in the past, the failure of populism has led to greater dislike of “elites,” both real and imaginary; a greater demand for radical and impossible change; and a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before.”

Applebaum then wonders what we all should be wondering:

“In President Trump’s wake, we too are not necessarily going to return to the status quo ante, to a tame trade-off between centrist conservatives and centrist liberals, all of whom respect the Constitution, believe in the old definitions of patriotism and get elected based on their experience and political views. It is just as likely that national politics becomes a patchwork of competing, incompatible single-issue groups and causes; that otherwise disparate groups meet one another online and form temporary alliances. It is just as likely that irresponsibility and irrationality become something that people vote for, not something that they reject. Watch what happens in Rome, because it could be America’s future.”[iv]

Whether this or some other equally destabilizing scenario should come to pass, what are the friends of God called to do? Sadly, many of my Christian brothers and sisters are only making things worse. As another columnist, Leonard Pitts, lamented last week:

“Having seen putative Christians excuse the liar, rationalize the alleged pedophile, justify the sexual assaulter and cheer as walls are raised against the most vulnerable, it’s obvious that many of those who claim that name embody a niggardly, cowardly, selfish and situational “faith” that has little to do with Jesus.”[v]

In encouraging contrast to such shameless apostasy, an ecumenical group of Christian leaders has issued a timely manifesto, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” Click the link to read the whole text, and share widely. It’s a good theoretical foundation for a gospel-based resistance.

The Confession is structured in six sections, pairing what we believe as disciples of Jesus and what we reject. Yes to imago Dei, no to racism; yes to compassion and kindness, no to neglect or abuse of the vulnerable; yes to servanthood, no to domination; yes to communion, no to division and oppression; yes to truth, no to lies; yes to global community, no to “America first.”

The last of these may be the most challenging for those who subscribe to the great American heresy of exalting nation over God. As Clarence Jordan observed many years ago, the biggest lie told in America is, “Jesus is Lord.” But “Reclaiming Jesus” aims higher: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. We in turn should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than to seek first narrow nationalistic purposes.”

Tonight the framers of this Confession are processing to the White House gates for a candlelight vigil. As they have written,

“We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.”[vi]

Among the many church leaders marching in that procession will be the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the Episcopal Presiding Bishop whose sermon on love’s redemptive power, at last week’s royal wedding, invited a global audience to imagine the world as God made it to be:

Imagine our homes and families when love is the way.
Imagine neighborhoods and communities when love is the way.
Imagine our governments and nations when love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce when love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.[vii]

Let all the people say: Amen!

 

 Related posts

7 Spiritual Practices: A To-do List for the Time of Trial

Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Proverbs 6:16-19.

[ii] Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968: https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Senator-Robert-F-Kennedy-to-the-Cleveland-City-Club-Cleveland-Ohio-April-5-1968.aspx

[iii] Patrick T. Fallon, “The Banana States of America,” Washington Post, May 22, 2018.

[iv] Anne Applebaum, “Watch what happens in Rome. It could be our post-Trump future,” Washington Post, May 18, 2018.

[v] Leonard Pitts, “Oregon school district forced LGBTQ students to read the Bible––how Christian,” Miami Herald, May 17, 2018 (http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article211384374.html).

[vi] “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” (http://www.reclaimingjesus.org)

[vii] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-currys-sermon-royal-wedding