Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?

thinking

I haven’t slept well since those days of August 11-12. As one who daily gives attention to the events and cycles of life in the world, glorying in the good news and bemoaning the bad, I have felt, verily, embodied in my belly the national anxiety stirred by the conflagration in Charlottesville fomented by torch-bearing, chant-shouting, anti-Semitism-and-racism-live-streaming demonstrators. The more I think and feel and pray about Charlottesville, the more I behold a microcosmic expression, indeed, a tragic realization of a distinctly American conversation that we, as a nation, are not engaging.

It is a conversation, yes, about race and religion, history and heritage, nationalism and immigration, yet bigger. It is a conversation, I think, I feel about our national identity. Who are we?

It’s the sort of question that arises for us as a nation founded on an ideal, indeed, an idea of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” at pressing historical moments, as, I believe, exist today, when it is clear that all of us are not reading from or reciting lines from the same proverbial page nor with a common understanding of the meaning of the words.

And here’s my fear. We won’t have the conversation.

For a number of reasons.

Chief among them, I do not believe that Donald Trump, as President of the United States, occupying that iconic position and, even more, symbol of national leadership and unity, has expressed a desire or exhibited the disposition to call the American people, all of the American people to the table of mutual and respectful dialogue.

An equally chief, no, perhaps the chiefest reason is what I consider our profoundly polarized national religious and political climate; the bitter fruit of seeds planted and nurtured long before President Trump took office. We live in a time of fleet retreat and determined retrenchment behind the impenetrable walls of our differing, often competing and, at times, conflicting perspectives. A time where the act of communal converse in which we intentionally seek out other points of view in the quest for truth has become an unpracticed, unpleasant, even unknown art.

In this, I believe that we, as a nation, have forgotten that whenever we, whether as individual persons or families, communities or congregations, regions or parties talk about what we believe, our core values, our fundamental truths, we, by necessity, must use words, which, at best, are symbols that point to what is inarticulable in its fullness. In a real sense, then, we always only point at what we believe, value, and hold true.

In this, there is an inherent epistemological (having to do with our ways of knowing) and existential (having to do with our way of living, being) danger. That we are tempted and oft blindly fall prey into the pit of temptation to invest too much power or authority in the words, even the actions or rituals that we design to point to our truths. The danger is in thinking, believing that the word, action, or ritual is the truth itself. That’s when we make difference dangerous. That’s when difference is no longer a lens through which we might behold a vision of greater truth, but only the stuff of which swords and spears are made. That’s when we won’t, can’t talk with one another.

And when that happens, indeed, I believe, as it hath happened, then our petitions and intercessions for America enshrined in one of our beloved national songs – praying God “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” and “crown thy good with brotherhood form sea to shining sea”[1] – won’t, can’t happen.

 

Footnote:

[1] Words by Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929)

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Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

“Bless your heart”

Living in the South for the past 2½ years, how often have I heard this phrase? Dwelling in the realm of time and space where much is measured numerically, though I cannot truthfully say “countless times”, truly I can say, “I’ve lost count!”

And hearing it daily, repeatedly in many a (every?) setting, I have learned that this über-utilitarian aphorism has manifold circumstantial uses and contextual meanings; the majority of which fall into two major categories…

As a pitying or insulting negative judgment of a person, whether behind the back or to the face. For example, “She/he/you had such good intentions, but her/his/your performance was sadly underwhelming, bless her/his/your heart.” When employed in this instance, usually the speaker arrives at that closing phrase with lowered tone and soft voice, having the effect of tempering the harshness of the critique and, at times, masking barely the passive-aggression of the criticism.

Blessedly, I have heard or overheard these three words used far more as an expression of earnest kindness. One does a good deed for another and the recipient of that grace says to the giver, “Thank you and bless your heart.” A loved one dies and one, seeking to offer a word of consolation, says, “Bless her/his and your heart.” In each case, the phrase oft is uttered with a breathy sincerity that infuses, inspirits the words, in the first instance, with genuine gratitude and, in the second, with sincerest sympathy. And in each case, the phrase oft is preceded by the sacred word, “God”.

I digress…

A word, as a symbol, points beyond itself to a reality (at times, in the instant moment of its utterance or script, unobservable), which the word, both for the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, brings into the view of the mind’s eye, thus, giving shape to and making sense of the reality. In this act of communication, usually, indeed, I think, always the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, each with her/his own experience and perception, do not, cannot mean the same thing. Hence, the necessity of their engaging in deepening interaction, frequently (always?) entailing the employ of more words to define the one word.

That said, here in the South, I discern a remarkable similitude in people’s use of the word “God” in reference to a reality, indeed, a Being, thus, not something, but rather Someone to whom is ascribed the agency of the power to create and sustain life. Moreover, in Christian circles of faith, I observe that folk speak and write of God in various ways, yet, again, with a notable likeness, as the principal actor on the stage of the universe and the primary protagonist of scripture’s sacred story as revealed through the life and mission of the people Israel, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and by the eternally illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit.

In this, I experience an inner, spiritual, nearly ineffable resonance; indeed, a kindred person-to-person blessing of hearts.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 24, Tuesday, March 28, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On words and prayer: O Lord, daily and day-long, I employ audible speech and written text to journey across the landscape that separates me from others; and they, too, with me that we might meet and communicate. So, also, in prayer, I set out to trek the terrain betwixt this earth and Your heaven, betwixt me and You with words spoken and scripted, as are these. (Yea, even when I seek You in the hushéd appeal of my heart, my call, my cry takes shape in human language.) Yet, surely, I need such not to address You Who dwells in the sheerest silence of the immenseness of eternity, You Who are the Silence of Everlasting Mystery. Yea, then, O Lord, in Your Love, teach me to speak in the tongues of angels.[1] Amen.

Footnote:

[1] My reference to 1 Corinthians 13.1a (my emphasis): If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels

tr(i)ump(hal)ism

Triumph (noun): achievement or attainment of an established aim, success or conquest as in a victory in a battle or contest.

Triumphalism (noun): an attitude or belief that an ideology or policy, principle or practice, system of discernment or action, whether personal and individual or communal, is superior to all others. Generally, the term bears a pejorative connation, for descriptions of triumphalist behaviors tend to fall in categories of schadenfreude (taking excessive delight in another’s error or failure) or xenophobia (considering one’s culture or society, people or nation greater, better than [up to and including deriding] all others).

Trumpism (noun): a statement made by one whose attitudinal self-perception is triumphalist, characterized by (1) a depreciated capability to connect one’s personal intent in word and deed and the perceptions of others, thus, being unable to appreciate and acknowledge the inherent variance between the two, (2) a diminished capacity to discern the ethical (moral impact) and political (communal effect) content and context of one’s words and deeds, and (3) an atrophied ability to admit to error or to confess a need or desire for forgiveness from persons or parties aggrieved by one’s words and deeds.

Yesterday

at a Wilmington, NC, assembly

(yep, he’s at it again!

would that he refrain!)

Donald Trump ignited a new controversy;

remarking, I perceive, ambiguously

tho’, too, presumably sincerely

(thus, not facetiously)

about the right to bear arms

that some interpreted as advocating harm.

To wit: “Hillary (Clinton) wants to abolish…essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Trump’s words (as all words, I aver, even when a speaker exercises greatest care in the service of definition and description) are equivocal. Did he mean to advocate violence against his chief rival for presidential office or to rally all staunch right to bear arms Second Amendment supporters to vote against Clinton? Trump’s response to the charge of the former: “Give me a break!”

Donald Trump’s repeated demonstrations of his lack of ability to acknowledge with generous honesty and gracious humility that his language, particularly his public-speak, can be perceived other than he intended and, when that happens (as it does for all of us) to admit his error and to ask for pardon, for me, make many (most?) his words tr(i)ump(hal)isms.