Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lenten thoughts in a bitter season

The lesson of Ash Wednesday is straightforward in the liturgy:

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

I think for individuals who are fortunate enough to feel they have lived good lives (whatever they understand by that), that blunt statement of fact loses some of its terror as one ages; at least such has been the case for me.

What's harder to grasp -- and accept -- is that this true of everything. Everything. Everything that now is will one day return to the stardust from which it arose. Well, that's so far in the future it's not something to get much worked up about. A little (maybe a lot) closer in time, this Earth will cease to be habitable by its current flora and fauna; nowadays most of us are aware of that at least fitfully. We know this end could be hastened through the blunders of our species, perhaps brought on by nuclear war or runaway human-induced climate change. But all that seems just too big to dwell on, though perhaps we should.

Yet in this season of discontent, something else seems to be at risk of passing away, of dying. Political journalist Ronald Brownstein summarized how this looks in our 21st century oracles, opinion polls ...

Hope was the great lilting anthem of the Obama campaign, but for many people, hope now seems muffled, as if buried beneath snow. Indeed, in this season of discontent, alienation from the nation's public and private leadership appears to be hardening like the frozen winter ground.

The dream and promise of the United States as a democratic (small "d") "city on a hill" (Puritan pastor John Winthrop) or "last, best hope" (Abraham Lincoln) has been a perennial theme in our history, alongside and over against our mass extermination of those who lived here before us; the enslavement of many both as the literal property of others and by wage labor for others' profit amid grinding poverty; and the ongoing atrocities of empire. In 2008, we elected a President who traded in the hopeful aspects of the national myth, seeking to revive it in a contemporary idiom grounded in a more inclusive view of human and humane citizenship. This was very attractive after a decade of arrogant butch machismo and celebration of greed.

That President is still sounding those notes: this is from the recent State of the Union speech.

... when the Union was turned back at Bull Run, and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday, and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were the times that tested the courage of our convictions, and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements, our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, as one people.

...We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we're all created equal; that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it; if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else.

Heady stuff, though hard to sustain when no good policy can move in Washington because we are learning that this very Constitution has gifted us with structures that privilege corruption and obstruction. In the face of economic misery, even the most obvious responses -- job creating stimulus, health security, financial regulation -- seem to be impossible. Even in the aspects of governance where this oh-so-eloquent President acts with less impediment -- foreign affairs and the administration of justice -- it is hard to see much course correction. Is the U.S. myth on the way to the garbage bin of history?

The Lenten reminder that everything that belongs to the living will die comes to me this year in this context. Maybe the lesson of first year of the Obama presidency is that the inevitable death of our peculiar national polity, so grounded in optimism and expansive hope, has arrived. That death will come -- is this the time? And how bad will it be? How bad will it be for whom?

Meanwhile, I examine myself. For many years my work and vocation has been to draw people into democracy (small "d"). Usually people for whom the system has never worked are suspicious; electoral democracy and all that stuff is probably just another cruel hoax. Or they are cynical: if voting changed anything, "they" would outlaw it. I've sympathized -- people are not fools. But I ask, what's the alternative? Are we willing to cede any set of levers that might constrain the powerful and the greedy? Are we willing to forgo the extraordinary joy that is felt when working together with common purpose to advance the common good? No human experience that I've known feels more true to my very being. I like sharing that with folks.

This winter of discontent forces me to ask myself, have I been devoting myself to an idol? The U.S. theologian William Stringfellow would say so, I think. For him, all human structures are the hostile "Principalities and Powers" -- evil entities bent on our destruction. (This description of Stringfellow's thinking is from Jeff Dietrich of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community. PDF here.)

"Most Americans," says Stringfellow, "are naïve about the Fall, there is a discounting of how the reality of the Fall afflicts the whole of Creation, not human beings alone but also the "Principalities and Powers" as well…"

The "Principalities and Powers" are legion," says Stringfellow. "They include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols…beyond any prospect of full enumeration the "Principalities and Powers" are legion."

But it is the state that is the preeminent principality and power. "The state," says Stringfellow, "is regarded historically and empirically and biblically as the archetypal principality and possess a special status among the demonic powers."

And, in the midst of the Fall, their moral purpose and vocational imperative has been turned upside down. Thus, rather than serving life, they now serve death.

Perhaps Stringfellow is right: perhaps I've invested too much hope in structures that are hopelessly evil, that will pass away. Many of my more leftist or simply cynical colleagues might agree. But even that dire theologian thought we were called, while staring down death, to "live humanly in the midst of the Fall."

If the point of Lent is to remind us that everything dies, the purpose of the season is also to prepare despairing and easily distracted humans for that improbable other truth; the truth that Life Is, that Easter comes.

In addition to the Stringfellows of theology, there are writers who speak for more than rational but essential hope. One of the great ones of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr, is apparently a favorite of our hope-deflating and hope-inspiring President. Here's Niebuhr, naming what lives despite death:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

If anyone with a secular bent has followed this essay this far, they might like Chris Haye's very much aligned survey of the same ground without the religious overlay in The Nation. His conclusion is downright poetic.

... one thing the Obama campaign got right was its faith in America's history of continually and fruitfully tilling the soil of democracy, struggling against odds until, at certain moments of profound progressive change, a new treasure is improbably found.

... Always searching and never quite finding is grueling and often dispiriting work. But there is simply no alternative other than to give in and let the field turn hard and barren

Photo by way of Kildare & Leighlin Diocese Lenten Resources.


Darlene said...

This deserves more than a casual response. I need to read and re-read it to fully absorb all you wrote. It is deep and requires study.

I urge you to post this on TGB for your next post there.

On the surface, I would say there is hope and dark days have befallen us before. The promise of Easter is not to be forgotten.

Jane said...

Did you read James Fallows article in the recent (Jan.?) Atlantic?

Also relevant: the introduction (I read it last night) to the book "Crow Planet" by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

sfmike said...

Quite beautiful and well written and worthy of wider distribution. It also hit a nerve personally with me. Much love and a certain amount of hope.

janinsanfran said...

Thanks Darlene. Since my assignment at TGB is to be gay, I don't think this would suit, but I'm glad it struck a chord for you.

Jane: Hey -- great to see you here. The Fallows article you reference was on my mind when I wrote this; in general I find him a helpful, measured observer of our reality. The next Atlantic had another dire and important article: this by Don Peck is an extraordinarily clear, and dire, synthesis of what the numeric data about the national circumstances tell us.

Mike: I'm always moved when you approve .. hope you know that.

ellen said...

Thank you - I needed that reminder of "the big picture".

Darlene said...

I have just re-read your post, Jan. I can only say that there are days when I despair for our country and they are followed by days of hope.

I have to remind myself that, although everything dies in time, we must not let that keep us from hope and joy while we are here.

History tells us that all democracies die and ours will probably be no exception, but that should not keep us from fighting to keep out form of government as long as we can.

Neil said...

One of your finest posts, Jan. As is often the case, your reflections resonate deeply with me. Keep up with this vein of writing. Thank you.

Neil said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
janinsanfran said...

I removed Nell's second comment only because it was a duplicate.

All of you -- I really appreciate the feedback. I guess I must be more daring in my writing.

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