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In this era of incivility, messianic nationalism strides to the fore

“The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (Letter of James)

America’s civil discourse is in a sorry state. Unless we learn another way to engage each other, it will only get uglier.

An inferno of anger is burning beneath the surface of America’s consciousness. It shows up in lava spewed by the shrieking voices of primary-election winners with no ideas and no solutions other than getting rid of taxes and government — candidates whom voters had rejected as irrational extremists in their previous runs for elected office. In extreme times the extremists get the votes. The fire that’s in us erupts in a volcano of anger over fear of something we’ve lost or about to lose.

We’re street brawling over what kind of America we will be, and “Can’t we all just get along?” — the plea of Rodney King as he witnessed the Los Angeles riots after the “innocent” verdict exonerating the police officers whose beatings of him had been aired repeatedly on national television — is long forgotten. Or perhaps it is regarded as the uninformed compromising view of those who want to compromise with evil — national traitors or religious heretics.

This is not new. This lava erupted in the trial of Anne Hutchinson (1637), banished by the court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a woman not fit for our society” who, when banished, co-founded the State of Rhode Island. It erupted in the execution of Mary Dwyer, a Quaker burned at the stake for heresy in 1670 for her unorthodox beliefs, and then in the Salem Witch Trial, the inspiration for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s unscrupulous search for hidden Communists.

Demagoguery rises
In those epochs of our history, demagoguery replaced politics as the art of compromise, as it often does now. One does not compromise with the enemy; one eliminates him. Rodney King’s plea to all get along is dismissed as the way of the ill-informed, cowards, heretics and Anti-Americans.

So I’m on my way to the post office — half a block away — and see a large booth set up on the street corner. The woman handing out literature is yelling at a man who’s crossing the street, and he’s yelling back. I can’t hear what they’re saying. When I draw closer, I hear him shout over his shoulder, “You’re not only anti-Semitic! You’re anti-American!”

As I near the booth, I see a 6-foot-tall photograph of the president of the United States. But this is no ordinary photograph. There’s a mustache imposed on President Barack Obama’s picture, the mustache of Adolf Hitler, and a call for his impeachment, “Dump Obama!”

I approach the booth. “Just another Jew,” says the woman.

“What’s happening?” I ask.

She slides a flier toward me across the counter. “Read it,” she says. I put my finger on the mustache.

“You don’t want to hear what we have to say. You’re a spy!” she says as she steps backward, tilts her head in the air, and bellows out “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesty, Above the fruited plain. America! America! God shed His grace on thee ….” But before she sings the last line of the stanza — “and crown thy good with brotherhood … she stops and orders, “Get off my corner.”

She was carrying the message of Lyndon LaRouche, a perpetual candidate for president whose only consistency over a long, checkered history of ideological swings on the political spectrum is the red-hot lava of volcanic righteous rage.

A bizarre example
The woman at the post office, like the Florida pastor whose threat to burn Qur’ans set the world on fire, is a bizarre representation of the general incivility of our time, an incivility that erupts from the belief system that lies hidden just beneath the surface of our consciousness.

The same core belief that banished Anne Hutchinson, hanged Mary Dyer for being a Quaker, and destroyed the reputations of Joe McCarthy’s unsubstantiated accusations is itself on trial. It’s the belief that America is the exception … and that America is only some of us. The unspoken conviction that we are the messianic people is an idea born, in reality, of the rape of messianic Christianity by an imperial nationalism.

In the unspoken, unexamined consciousness of our collective memory, “You are the light of the world” was a divine declaration of fact spoken to America, not the call to a small band of first-century disciples to persist in the hard politics of love and peace in a time of hate and religious-political violence. The ensuing lines from the Sermon on the Mount — “You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself,’ but I say to you, love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you” — are forgotten, ignored, torn out, blacked out or are burned on the altar of messianic nationalism.

Even more ironic is that those who attack others, including a sitting president, as “unpatriotic” — i.e. nonbelievers in the idea of America as the collective messiah — scream against government and taxes as enemies, socialist intrusions on their individual freedom to hoard what is theirs. It makes no sense, but neither does the civil war of competing ideas that have always been at play among us.

The hot lava of anger spewing onto America’s streets and voting booths is erupting from the unexamined messianic assumption of the woman on the post office corner that to sing “America the beautiful … God shed his grace on thee …” is not a statement of aspiration but of fact. And the prayer “God mend thine every flaw” — the flaws of selfishness and greed, our meanness to each other, our name calling and stereotyping of each other and our collective nationalist arrogance — become a distant memory of a censored sentiment.

In times like these when ugliness replaces beauty, “America the Beautiful” is, as it always has been, a courageous aspiration and prayer for sanity and wisdom.

The Rev. Gordon Stewart is pastor of the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn., home of First Tuesday Dialogues: Examining critical public issues locally and globally, and a frequent guest commentator on MPR’s “All Things Considered” and MPRNewsQ. His recent commentary on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,”The Space of God’s Inner Life,” appears in The Presbyterian Outlook.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/21/2010 - 06:25 am.

    The great and the exceptional do not waste time bragging; they are too busy doing great and exceptional things.

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 09/21/2010 - 07:52 am.

    Another way of looking at it Richard is as Sir Winston Churchill put it, “When eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber.”

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/21/2010 - 09:34 am.

    Rev. Stewart sure brings the message home, doesn’t he? The sweet, moderating voice of reason.

    Thank God that incivility and lunacy is strictly practised on the political right. If leftists ever forsake their gentile manners the chickens will finally have come home to roost; (W)right Rev. Stewart?

  4. Submitted by Jim Roth on 09/21/2010 - 11:39 am.

    Mr. Swift, sorry if you took it personally but I don’t think he was referring to only one side in the article.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/21/2010 - 12:11 pm.

    Of course T.S., after professing to “get it,” proves that he has done nothing of the kind.

    I fear that for more than a few of my friends and neighbors, the “God shed his grace on thee” line in America the Beautiful is seen, as Rev. Stewart said, not as prayer for God’s daily blessings – that God might, indeed, grant us our “daily bread,” but rather an already-accomplished fact.

    The trouble for so many of these folks is that their concept of “thee” excludes everyone who is not white, not of European descent, not Christian, and not heterosexual.

    In the good old days when America had a strong middle class, whose wages were the result of union contracts (or were kept high by management in an effort to keep at bay the temptation to vote unions into those work places) the vast majority of that middle class was indeed made up of (or presumed by its members to be made up of) white, straight men of European extraction. It is, therefore, those folks who have been most victimized by the war on the poor and middle class through which the rich have stripped those of lesser means of their assets over the past few decades.

    Since the days of Satanic Ronnie Raygun there has been a concerted, though stealthy class warfare worked by a minority of dysfunctional (and therefore, disaffected) wealthy folks who sought to enrich themselves by stripping the poor and middle class of their financial assets.

    There are far too many examples of how this has been accomplished for a comment section, but through all of it the right-wing noise machine has become the master of misdirection, identifying when public anxiety over their dropping incomes, standards of living, and prospects for a comfortable retirement (and now, a comfortable environment in which to spend it) was threatening to wake the public up and open its eyes to who was really making war on their lives, and allowed them, at every turn, to use the mainstream media, which they bought up, lock, stock and barrel, to provide exactly the right scapegoat.

    Thus have they driven those with the most fear and anxiety into feeling apoplectic, not at those actually threatening their lives, but at the provided scapegoats (black men, welfare queens, the government, women in the workplace, taxes, the government, illegal immigrants, taxes, the government, global competition, taxes, the government, sexual immorality in the White House, taxes, the government, a BLACK!!!! president, the government, etc.

    I fear that this era of angry discourse is not part of a natural historical/political cycle, but is being used by those few, dysfunctional wealthy folks whose wounded psyches leave them unable to ever feel satisfied that they have enough, to keep the public in a state of irrational and carefully misdirected anger lest the public figure out what’s really going on and take action to stop it.

    The anger will continue until those most dysfunctional (and currently most powerful) rich have either destroyed the country by so unbalancing the economy that it collapses under the weight of those at the top (which they will, of course, blame on everyone else), or until some other, more functional folks among the most wealthy, some new “traitors to their class” force them to stop it.

    I fear the majority of the population is too deeply enmeshed in playing the anger/misinformation cards in the game they’ve been driven to play and too invested in the bogus ideas and ideals they’ve been led to value and believe and would be too threatened by the “loss of face” they would suffer if they were to realize how deeply and how completely they’ve been “had” to break free of this very loud, angry, destructive game.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/21/2010 - 12:20 pm.

    “It shows up in lava spewed by the shrieking voices of primary-election winners with no ideas and no solutions other than getting rid of taxes and government..”

    “Even more ironic is that those who attack others, including a sitting president as unpatriotic…..”

    “…..scream against government and taxes as enemies, socialist intrusions on their individual freedom to hoard what is theirs.”

    Yeah, I dunno what I was thinking, Jim.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/21/2010 - 01:46 pm.

    One problem such parties tend to have is staffing issues: they can’t find enough solid candidates, and tend to wind up nominating a large proportion of flamboyant goofballs who flame out rather quickly.

    There is no political solution to most economic problems.

  8. Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 09/21/2010 - 03:36 pm.

    Thanks to each of you for sharing your views. I’m always up for a cup of coffee. You name the coffee shop and the time. I’ll do my best to be there.
    Gordon

  9. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/22/2010 - 01:07 pm.

    Politicians like to claim credit and assign blame, but as Richard (#7) correctly stated, “There is no political solution to most economic problems”.

    Perhaps, as a nation, if we set aside the notion that the government is going to show up and make it all better, we can free ourselves to work harder and make it better. The federal government economic stimuli only serve to drive us deeper into deficit and debt, further diminishing consumer confidence.

  10. Submitted by Christy Robinson on 09/27/2010 - 02:36 pm.

    May I respectfully and politely correct errors in the article above:

    Quote: “It erupted in the execution of Mary Dwyer, a Quaker burned at the stake for heresy in 1670 for her unorthodox beliefs…”

    1) Mary Barrett DYER;
    2) HANGED from a tree on Boston Common;
    3) in 1660 (not 1670);
    4) for CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, not for Quaker religious beliefs or denominational membership. She and her fellow martyrs actually sought death to publicize the cause of freedom of conscience and right to worship as they believed.

    Correction doesn’t change the message of the article above; however, correct information is important because genealogists and students do searches and find incorrect information, then replicate it all over the web.

    I run a Facebook page on Mary Barrett Dyer and her life and times. You are welcome to befriend her. http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/profile.php?id=100001424883095

  11. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 09/27/2010 - 03:57 pm.

    Thank you, Rev. Stewart, for this refreshing piece of thoughtful and timely assessment of the times we are living in. I am sorry I was not aboard as soon as you posted it, and apologize for the slight delay in my response. And maybe this is not a bad thing altogether. I think that maybe, for me, it is better that I don’t rush in to post my two-cent worth of comments (reactions.)

    Let me attempt to give the points you brought up the gravitas they deserve. I promise not be flippant, and not to show my colors (my party affiliation or political persuasion.) But, I will confess my heroes are Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell.

    So to begin …. Civility, that precious social virtue, seems to be a thing of the past in this country, unfortunately. The media have cynically opted for the low road, which apparently they have also found to be profitable. The big icons of the day are the shock jocks and the false prophets whose ravings and rantings are greedily and invisibly slurped up by many people. Shame is thrown out the window, and any sensible approach to problems or issues of the day are dismissed as naive, or high-brow elitism. For example, you mention the word “race”, and you are immediately and preemptively labeled a “racist” for even bringing it up.

    Another issue to which you have alluded and that I find does not get addressed enough is: Ignorance.

    And today, ignorance combined with anger has given birth to the latest developments in the political arena. I am not very sure about their lasting power or even if they would amount to anything huge. But of one thing I am sure: they appeal more to an individual’s selfish (almost greedy) instincts than to feelings for the community and the nation as a whole. To be sure, all kindly sentiments one may have for others would be labeled socialist, communist, or some such nonsense.

    To conclude, I will leave you with this thought. Where is our sense of humor? The other day, right here on MinnPost, I was joshing a regular commenter who happens to be present on this page. I was on another posting, and I was mocking myself using his favorite catch-phrases in a satirical fashion to get my point across. Lo and behold, another commenter took serious exception to that and started to get more than personal in his response. Very sad. So much anger, so much ignorance, and so little patience and understanding for our fellow citizens.

    Thank you again, Reverend. And maybe, sometime, I may take you up on that chat over a cup of coffee!

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