Revelation: Carnage, Complicity and Community
Democracy in the United States of America came to the edge of survival on January 6th, 2021. We watched in horror as our nation moved perilously close to a chasm, a coup d’etat. In fact, there are concerns that widespread anarchy may be exhibited in coming days. I pray not. A mob of insurrectionists, egged on by a psychologically disturbed and morally bankrupt president, invaded and occupied the capitol building for several hours. Others will investigate the “whys” and “wherefores” of this totalitarian-near-miss. It is time to hold the invaders accountable. For all citizens this is the time to consider the “thenceforth.” What now? Where next? How might we gain our bearings? How shall we, as citizens of this remarkable republic, proceed?
With no small irony, January 6th is also the day we Christians annually celebrate the Feast of Epiphany. It is a season of light, of discovery, of realization, of seeing new things, in new ways. In 2021 Epiphany became a day of treachery and tragedy. Insurrectionists sought to destroy our democracy. While some may seek revolution, let us understand that Epiphany is better employed as a time of revelation.
Over the next few postings, let’s think together about what has been and might be revealed. We will do this under three categories: Carnage, Complicity and Community.
“American Carnage” is the way Donald Trump chose to describe our nation and its institutions in his inaugural address on January 20, 2017. Former President George W. Bush was heard to comment afterward, “That was some strange sh*t.” Trump was elected as the champion of grievance and revenge. He has built a governing philosophy based on lies, division and self promotion. Even listening to him at the inauguration in 2017, I found myself thinking of the axiom from sociologists W. I. and Dorothy S. Thomas: “What we perceive to be real becomes real in its consequences.” What was perceived then as carnage has ricocheted in genuine death and tragedy from Charlottesville to Seattle to Minneapolis and finally landing at the Capitol building on Epiphany 2021.
Social philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich was asked by journalist David Cayley “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich responded, “Neither. The best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.“**
Illich, was an iconoclast, a Christian visionary, a prolific writer — widely read in the last decades of the Twentieth Century. His brilliant critiques of our counterproductive institutional practices, still provide a clear-eyed challenge. He offered valuable wisdom, about our easy customs, traditions and ideologies. Schools, hospitals, courts, governments and churches were all subjects of his sharp analysis.
Illich was a truth-teller. He saw the failures of our schools, our broken economies, our media and strategies that continued to ignore and crush the underprivileged, our distortions of faith traditions, our inability to see. He understood the conditions of despair that became the source of Trump’s appeal… he understood the power of fear and misplaced anger.
Illich’s call was not to anarchy, nor was it an invitation to some set of “fixes,” or an elaborate new strategy whereby those in power can better serve their “clients.” He was about something much more basic — as basic as the streets where we walk and the tables we share (or don’t share). His call was to reinvest in the original “revelation,” the motivating principles behind our “helping” and “governing” institutions and the essential importance of neighborliness (see Tools for Conviviality).
Illich was silenced for years by the Catholic Church, prohibited from teaching through official church media. He writes of a church that has lost its highest calling in The Corruption of the Church.
Donald Trump’s claim that he “alone” is was the chosen one to end the Carnage in our nation found a home in the narrative of the Religious Right. Donald and his religious enablers turned Christianity away from narratives of grace and mercy into a faith that was rooted in individual salvation alone, into a struggle for a “religious freedom” to discriminate and faith as a tool of retaliation and censure against those who differed. It became a way to promote, even baptize, exclusion, racism and greed. Religious leaders like Eric Metexas and Franklin Graham were so bold as to suggest that anyone, Christian or not, anyone who didn’t follow Donald Trump was demon possessed (The Atlantic, “To Trump’s Evangelical’s Everyone Else is a Sinner,” November 25, 2019).
Metexas, who like Senator Josh Hawley, is Ivy League educated and can be an attractive, engaging spokesperson for a narrow and corrupted narrative. It is a narrative that cocoons the message of Jesus of Nazareth inside a political ideology. In the process it transforms the Gospel message into something distorted and limited. Folks like Metexas, make the parable of the Good Samaritan into a tale about how fortunate it was that the Samaritan was wealthy so he could assist the one found beaten on the road! The parable becomes a story in praise of wealth and tax cuts for those in power.
Here is a good test question for us all about our core narratives and Epiphany. Does your ideology capture your faith, limiting and containing it? Or is your ideology continually challenged and transformed by your faith? Compare the way Eric Metexas and Ivan Illich understand the Good Samaritan story. For Illich, this is an ever opening revelation. It is about “an untrammeled freedom to act” turning all strangers into a neighbor where “no category, whether of law or custom, language or culture, can define in advance who the neighbor might be.” (Caley, David, “Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich,” p.30).
In the summer of 2018 I walked along the Capitol Mall on a number of occasions. I had joined a group of colleagues to work on a revision of The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. In random conversations with strangers on the Mall and in the hotel lounge, it was apparent something troubling was already taking place — an attempt to reshape the nation’s story into one of Donald Trump’s (and his enablers) making. The American Carnage motif had taken root. Persons were out to remake the nation. As one proudly told me, “There is a new sheriff in town.” When I spoke about the offices of the Board of Church and Society, where we were meeting, being the only denominational presence on The Hill, I was told that, “Sorry, that is no longer true, we are on the inside.” Inside and outside language was strange to me as I still carried some notion of the separation of church and state. The “We” had to do with a certain brand of Evangelicalism busy making Faustian bargains with Donald Trump.
At the time I didn’t foresee the tragedy coming on Epiphany Day 2021. However, I sensed then there was a dangerous change underway. Some were seeking to challenge our national self understandings into ones shaped by a small, restrictive vision for our nation and for the faith.
Father Richard Rohr speaks of the import of story, of revelation, on January 10, 2021. He writes of an alternative journey defined by a “Christ map” that can shape who we can be as a people when he writes: We might not really believe it or surrender to it, yet if we could, we would be much happier people because the Christ map holds deep and unconscious integrating power for us as individuals and for society as a whole. A Great Story connects our little lives to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and uses the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts of our lives and others’ lives (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. Like good art, a cosmic myth—like the Gospel—gives us a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, a personal participation in it. (Rohr, Richard, “Stories are Essential,” Center for Action and Contemplation, 1/10/21)
**A fuller expression of the idea by Illich is “Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”