“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.
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.