The lesson of Ash Wednesday is straightforward in the liturgy:
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 ...
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.
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.)
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:
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.
Photo by way of Kildare & Leighlin Diocese Lenten Resources.