These (Obvious) American Times

American flag - broken

These are tumultuous times in America.

(Immediately, I am reminded of a series of television advertisements and the catch-phrase response to the main character who frequently exhibits an ability to declare, seemingly oblivious to how annoying it and he is, the most self-evident facts, “Thanks, Captain Obvious!”)

Now, it seems to me to be equally apparent that each and every past historical age had its share of turbulence. Nevertheless, one only can live in one’s own age. And, as I cast a wary and weary eye o’er the American landscape, again, I say, these are tumultuous times in which the fabric of the nation – political, social, racial – has and is unraveled.

Politically, if (or so I believe) a legitimate, that is, authorized government is, in part, required to have the support or consent of the governed, then how secure is that bequeathed authority when the governed, the people, are divided (and, so, too, the governors, that is, the elected officials) in their loyalties and driven by ever-competing and oft-conflicting aims?

In my view, it isn’t.

Socially, if (or so I believe) a nation, in part, can be characterized as a body of people sharing a geographical territory who engage in ongoing interaction, governed by a standardized set of laws and guided by commonly accepted norms of behavior, then how stable is our society when olden notions of dominant and subordinate groups and norms of societal stratification are being overturned by what has been termed “the browning of America”?

In my view, it isn’t.

Racially, if (or so I believe) comity, that is, common courtesy and consideration in regard to the observance of equal rights and the offering of uniform privileges, is a necessary element of political and social tranquility, then, throughout American history when and where such mutual recognition never has existed, how serene can the interactions be between and among the manifold cultural and ethnic groups that, from the beginning, in toto, have constituted the American people?

In my view, they can’t.

If (or so I believe) the political, social, and racial tumult of America is obvious, then the remedy is – and the resolutions are – not.

8 thoughts on “These (Obvious) American Times

  1. Dear Paul,

    I disagree with absolutely nothing you have written in this post. I would, however, like to offer a perspective that has more and more overtaken my thinking with regard to these tumultuous times.

    As I have learned more and more about the actual history of this continent’s “discovery” by European explorers, the consequent movement of Europeans from Europe to the “New World,” the development of settlements, the political and social development of what ultimately became the United States, the conquests, conflicts, genocide, and institution of chattel slavery as the economic foundation of a not insubstantial portion of the nation, the Civil War, the more recent struggle with equalization of the status of women and non-white racial and ethnic groups, and most recently the efforts to come to grips with the effect of human economic and social activity on climate and the future of the planet, it seems to me that as the country was born, was developed, and became a more or less successful society, at every turn, in addition to progress on some fronts, dangerous wounds were being inflicted on the corporate body and soul of the nation. These wounds were deep and complex; they were not wounds that would easily heal. They were wounds that demanded attention, care, wisdom and patience. Unfortunately, the wounds have never received the depth of attention they needed: diagnosis, proper treatment, careful monitoring, tender ministration – that was essential for the wounds to heal, for the body and soul of the nation to become whole, functioning, strong, and resistant to further injury. Instead, as can happen with a deep and serious wound in a human body that does not receive proper care, some healing did take place, but the healing has been superficial and incomplete. The skin has grown back and closed itself over the wound, but underneath the damage remains – tissues failed to join where they should have, deep scarring has occurred, severed nerves remain severed.

    Our view of the superficial healing of the nation’s wounds has led us to believe that we had made far more progress on some very important fronts than we have actually made. We have simply never dealt in an open, deep, and serious way with issues like how we came to be nation in a land that was already occupied by human beings living in a myriad of different civilizations, how we came to found our national economy on the idea that one person could own another person and extract labor from the “owned” person, how one whole gender of humans could be limited in opportunity and freedom and essentially be subservient to the other gender, how people who happen to be different in some particular ways could be regarded as “less than” others by decree of those who consider themselves “normal,” how those who have wealth, whether inherited or otherwise gained, simply have rights that are taken more seriously and protected more vigorously than those who do not possess wealth. There are many other issues and questions that I could suggest that we simply have never agreed to spend time and effort caring about, talking about, and working seriously to address.

    I think what we are seeing arise in these tumultuous times is the breaking open and breaking forth of the festering, crucial old injuries that have lain hidden under the superficial scars of the defining events that inflicted the injuries in the first place. It seems to me that most of the things that now are screaming headlines have as their source some deep wrong never really looked at, taken account of, and set right long, long ago. Slavery, white supremacy, and racism are probably the most evident of these, but I think in almost every case, we can go back and find the roots of whatever the current conflict is in a past never really visited for what it – and only it – can teach us.

    In short, I’m afraid that, given our history and the way we have regarded it – or simply chosen not to regard it – we have never been headed for a different present than the one we are living through. I think this time has been inevitable for a long time, and I think it remains inevitable until we agree to face – and own – some very difficult truths about our history and about ourselves as a nation, as a society, and as human beings who are destined to live – or to die – together.

    You are right; there are no remedies and resolutions in sight. I believe the one chance for survival we have as a society is to earnestly begin to care about where we have been, what we have done, and who we currently are as a people, and to come to grips with it honestly and courageously. If we do not, the choice of what happens to us as a nation will not be in our hands.

    Thank you, Paul, for, as always, making me think and for allowing me to speak the truth as I see it.

    Much love,

    Karen

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  2. Oh, my, my dearest and gracious sister Karen! As I read, and then re-read your words, I heard myself, at first, with the inward hearing of my mind, and then, more and more audibly, saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” For you, for me, have detailed forthrightly and formidably the historical underpinnings of our nation’s ills of which I described symptomatically.

    And, as I read and re-read, two thoughts occur.

    First, somewhere on the dark side of my brain (for I cannot recall precisely the origin or the fullest content) there is the idea that all civilizations eventually crumble and fall. And perhaps it is more true of the great civilizations, for, in their greatness, making them historically remarkable (that is, worthy of timeless comment), the observations of their collapse also was comment-worthy. In this, I have a vague recollection of 8 stages of a/any given civilization, beginning in bondage and running a course through development and abundance, eventually leading to apathy and back to bondage.

    Second, the verse of one of my favorite hymns, “All my hope on God is founded,” comes to mind:

    Human pride and earthly glory, sword and crown betray his trust;
    what with care and toil he buildeth, tower and temple, fall to dust.
    But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.

    In this, a third thought arises, and that of the Latin phrase: Sic transit gloria mundi, all glories of this world pass/fade. Thus, I believe, should we fail – as we have failed heretofore – to address the grave and great wounds inflicted in our national past and, as unhealed, continue to fester, the glory that we call “America” may…will come to its, our denouement. A most sobering thought.

    Love and peace, dearest and gracious sister, in these our times of turbulence,
    Paul

    P.S. You compel me, as you alway do, to think and to write more.

    Love again,
    Paul

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    1. Thank you, Paul. As I read your additional points, I can only affirm their truth. What comes to mind is that hubris (arising from lack of knowledge and depth of understanding of ourselves and how human civilizations work and lack of humility and gratitude before God) is the sin that has always been and remains the greatest danger to civilization in general and to the United States in particular. And our hubris (i.e., exemplified by our own vaunted exceptionalism) is the facade that blinds us to our weaknesses. Not seeing our history and our culture in the true light of day but in the manufactured light of our own national and nationalistic ego has resulted in the gross negligence – read: denial – of the wounds of which I wrote earlier. Thus they fester, refuse to heal, and give rise to new miseries as their poison continues to spread and infect new generations.

      And, so aptly, when we look at our current situation, what force is it that we see daily co-opting our normal institutions and processes, misdirecting our attentions and our energies from the daily ordinary running of our government and the great work of healing and creating that we should be about? It is perhaps the greatest show of individual human hubris most of us could ever have dreamed of encountering in one person. And thus I can’t help but believe that we came to this moment by uncanny perfect fortune or design: The ill that has always been the most treacherous and virulent in consuming us and threatening our doom has now emerged from our midst personified, unavoidable, and visible to all. The question is do we recognize it for what it is and for what it says not about the individual bearing it, but about us? Will we receive the message it can convey to us? That, I believe, is the great test of our time and of what this nation has learned since our founding.

      With thanks and much love,

      Karen

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  3. Oh, my dear Karen, I do so agree that we, in this case, the American people, have the leadership, as one once put it, that we deserve. In this, I take to solemn heart your penetrating query: “The question is do we recognize it for what it is and for what it says not about the individual bearing it, but about us?”

    One of the inherent difficulties in having us as a people respond to your question is that, obviously and, perhaps, unavoidably, given individual human perspectives and temperaments, we are not of one mind about our leadership. Today, whilst driving down the road to Laurens, I listened to a NPR telephone interview with a staunch Trump supporter and benefactor who, when asked about his opinion of some of the more virulent words uttered from the presidential bully pulpit, responded, “I don’t pay any attention to that. I like what the president is doing for American business.” As I listened, had I been the interviewer, I would have asked, “Do you see how someone else might take a different view of the president’s, say, descriptive references to other peoples?” My point in asking would not have been to put the interviewee on the spot, but rather to probe whether he – and, by extension, any of us – can perceive the world through different eyes and ears so to seek a wider understanding of the current state of our nation. For one of my greatest fears is that we, largely, I believe, driven by our various fears and anxieties, have hunkered down in our separate bunkers of belief; leaving us incapable – and, certainly, undesirous – of listening to an alternative perception or stance.

    The trouble that infests (talk about infestation!) our land and our hearts and souls is real. And, if I have a pray for myself (and I do!), it is that I remain open to all views and, still more, all persons.

    Love

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    1. I share your prayer, Paul. I think one of the reasons it is so important to think about the times we are living through as times we as a society have plowed the ground for and invited is to take some of the focus off of accusing and vilifying each other as individuals and demonizing the views held by other Americans. Looking at how the leadership we have reflects what we as a society – not as separate factions in the society – have valued and striven for seems to me to be a more rational, reasonable way to diagnose where we are and how we got here than simply accusing others of bad judgment, bad motives, or outright corruption, which I think is the ubiquitous fallback today.

      That said, I think it is also nearly impossible not to own our own thoughts about what is happening. While I hope I am open to hearing other views dispassionately and respectfully and engaging in dialogue to try and understand how others came to the views they hold, I have great difficulty putting my own thoughts and judgments out of public view or suppressing them, at least in my own mind. I see a difference between working to heal the bitter open divisions and pretending I have no views of my own. I do think we have the responsibility to use our voices to express our concerns and to try to encourage different choices and actions if we believe what is happening is wrong and damaging to the society. I think those who have opposing views to my own have that same responsibility. I think much can be said for being very circumspect in language, tone, and volume in expressing our views. There are rude and insulting ways to speak, and there are respectful and reasonable ways to speak. I’m afraid much of what we hear falls short of respectful and reasonable, even from the leaders in both political camps.

      It’s a very tricky balance, isn’t it? And it demands good will on all sides. If we survive these times, we will have learned a great deal about how democratic self-government should work and what can endanger and destroy it. And we will have a much better idea about who we are as a people and what values we want our country to reflect.

      Thanks for hanging in there with me!

      Love,

      Karen

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  4. Karen, you write: “I see a difference between working to heal the bitter open divisions and pretending I have no views of my own.” I, too, behold the same difference. For I am a person of no mean opinions. I have thoughts and feelings, perceptions and perspectives.

    Still, I believe where I’ve come…

    I digress. I consider my view analogous to driving, particularly in light of that olden word of counsel, “Watch out for the other driver.” In this regard, I am reminded of what Pontheolla says to me each Sunday as I head to and from Laurens, a 45 minute drive, a little less than half of which is over 2-lane country blacktop, “Drive carefully.” I always answer, “I’ll do my level best and watch out for the other drivers.” Moreover, I recall a question asked of me, now, many years ago whilst on sabbatical. I was presenting a working paper on religious tolerance at the weekly “Theological Café”, an ecumenical gathering of students and faculty (Christians and Muslims) of the Religion Department of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus. During the Q&A, one of the students asked, “Given your openness to engage in dialogue, is there anyone with whom you wouldn’t speak?” My answer, “Yes, anyone who chooses not to speak with me.”

    This remains my position. I will speak with anyone at any time, irrespective of my views. For I have come to believe that I cannot possess all truth and, perhaps, especially when you hold a view contrary to mine, there is an element of truth that you maintain that I have yet to behold. Hence, I must listen to you, whilst, at the same time, not throwing over and out all I believe to be true. Indeed, as you write, “a tricky balance.” In this, back to my driving metaphor, I’ll listen to you and talk with you unless and until you choose not to listen to and to talk with me (or, in other words, seek to run me off the road!).

    And, my dearest sister, as for hanging in there with you, that’s easy. You are one of the wisest, most thoughtful, highly honest, deeply vulnerable, and broadly compassionate people that God in this life has granted me the privilege to know!

    Love you,
    Paul

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    1. Once again, Paul. I disagree with nothing you say, and I do so admire your deep conviction about sustaining relationship and communication with anyone of any view as long as they remain willing to engage with you. I can hope that my own willingness is as broad and firm as yours, but knowing myself, I doubt it. The wobbliness of the word “open” may be a troublemaker here, I think. To be open to engaging and listening and trying to discern the elements of truth that another grasps that I don’t yet comprehend is, I believe, necessary to workable human relationship, as terribly difficult as it may be to remain open in that way. But to be open in such an encounter to relinquishing the elements of truth that I believe I have striven to discern and to accede to a view that my intellect and my conscience have rejected as wrong or loathsome is, to me, an openness too far.

      To be clear, that is not what I hear you saying or recommending, for I know how firmly you hold the opinions you hold, and I think your steadfastness (not to say stubbornness – : ) in that regard is every bit the equivalent of my own! Perhaps the issue is when and to what degree we should share our opinions with someone with whom we are trying to remain open. If I tell someone that in my opinion our president (and at least parts of the party that supports him) suffers from a pathological level of hubris and that in many ways it reflects the dangerous hubris that has infected our country since its earliest beginnings, is that not also openness? Or am I, by simply stating the belief, shutting down the conversation and increasing division? Even if I am genuinely open to listening to reasons offered for why I am wrong? This is the point at which I think the sincere desire to heal division may get in the way of the openness that might actually lead to a working out of some of the old wounds from which our current painful situation inevitably arose.

      I have a pretty clear picture of what it means for me to be open to listening and even changing my opinions; I have a far murkier sense of what it means for me to be open in sharing my own opinions if I am truly interested in healing division rather than aggravating it. I have the suspicion that some of us struggling with this want to believe that listening is enough, that if I listen long enough, something will happen that will address the underlying issues without my having to state my own views and the reasons I have arrived at them. I don’t know if that works; I don’t know if listening alone has that power, but I know you probably have thoughts in that regard.

      And thank you so much for your incredibly generous affirmation, Paul. Coming from you, it means a great deal to me.

      Much love,

      Karen

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  5. My dearest Karen, you, as always, ask penetrating questions and raise the most serious concerns.

    To wit…

    In the face of (even the potential for) disagreement, when does one speak and when does one remain silent? And how does one discern which to do when healing a division rises to the fore – for whatever reason(s); perhaps, when the obvious alternative is aggravating a disagreement, and then, too, a relationship – as the more important concern?

    Believe me, I have no ready or readily applicable answer, for I don’t believe there is one. What I do think is that each circumstance – depending on the persons involved and the issues of concern/interest and the degree of heat (as opposed to light) of expression and, in these considerations, both involved the other person and myself (for I have known myself, given my convictions, not to be ready to engage with civility!) is different. This said, in my experience of myself, when I am in my best mind and heart, that is, with conscious yielding to God’s Spirit to do and to be the love and justice I am called to do and to be, then I have found myself able to listen attentively and with clarity (seeking to hear and to understand what another is sharing with me irrespective of my disagreement), and then to speak, sharing my truth, with the charity of civility (this is especially important to me if…when I am saying a potentially inflammatory word)…

    Moreover, when I am in this frame of mind and heart, soul and spirit (that is, of conscious yielding to God’s Spirit to do and to be the love and justice I am called to do and to be) then my agenda (such that I have one) is to gain mutual understanding. Thus, my intention is not to convert another to my way of thinking or to be converted to another’s way of thinking, but only mutual comprehension…

    Furthermore, when I am in this – what I consider – sacred space of my being, then even if (when) I, between the two of us, am the one who understands, for the other does not or will not, I can let it be and depart in peace.

    Love

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