“Every nation gets the government it deserves.” ~ Joseph de Maistre
In order to assume “the separate and equal station” afforded to man by “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” on July 4, 1776, the architects behind the greatest expression of freedom to date issued a Declaration of Independence dissolving their political ties with the crown of England. Although the idea of America embodies the promise of freedom, her history has been a struggle to grow into the fullness of that promise. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” Dr. Martin Luther King said, “they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” The history of our great nation—from the Revolutionary War to the present day—has been a struggle, riddled with both successes and failures, to make good on that promise.
A functioning democracy relies on an informed and responsible citizenry. A dysfunctional democracy, like the one from which we suffer today, is the result of a dysfunctional citizenry. Therefore, we cannot rely, as we too often do, upon the political process to restore order. “We cannot,” as Albert Einstein famously remarked, “solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” If we enter a voting booth with hatred in our heart, then we will elect the candidates that appeal to that hatred. This leads only to more confusion and dysfunction.
In a democracy, social unrest is not caused by the elected officials; it is caused by the citizens who elected them. The political system may be dysfunctional (and those in power, corrupt), but grapes are not picked from thorn bushes and figs do not grow on thistles. In a republic, the government is but a fruit growing out of its people. If the fruit is rotten, it is the people who must look within themselves for the seeds of corruption.
“Where there is envy and selfish ambition,” the apostle James writes, “there you find disorder and every injustice.” We tend to see the world through a self-profiting lens, a filter which works to censor our environment. It chisels the vastness of creation—which may be revealed through the simplicity of a flower or the complexity of another person—down to only those attributes that are “trending” in our self-centered stream of consciousness. In order to isolate threats and exploit opportunities, the self-centered mind reduces the richness of the present moment down to a few possibilities: those that excite our fears and those that arouse our expectations. We see only the people who move us to either anger or laughter, leaving the rest as nameless faces. This is the seed of injustice.
A self-centered mind is a mind organized around self-interest. It determines the value and worth of everyone and everything in the environment by measuring it against its own insecurities and ambitions. It shaves off the humanity of other people and ignores the sentience of the environment, transforming both into a commodity to be exploited for personal comfort. This behavior is the great anemia of Western culture, known more commonly as materialism. Through the eyes of self-interest, we do not see another person endowed with equal meaning and purpose. We see only how they affect us. When they make us feel good, we see a friend. But when they threaten our way of life, we see an enemy—an asshole, a nigger, a spic, a rag-head, white trash, a faggot, demo-craps, and tea-baggers.
Late one night, just before the 2012 election, I was talking to my neighbor. “Just you wait and see,” he said, “we’re going to take this country back.” I never saw Mitt Romney as an electable candidate, and after much debate, I asked, “What happens if Romney doesn’t win? What if Obama is re-elected?” He stood up, and in a rage, shot back, “If that socialist nigger wins, we get our guns and take to the streets!”
This is a serious time in American history. It is, as the priest and prophet Thomas Merton said, “…a moment of unparalleled seriousness in American history, indeed in the history of the world. The word ‘revolution’ is getting around.” Of course, it is primarily your middle-class, white, Protestant male—those tightly wound by conservative radio and Fox news—kicking the idea around. But my neighbor never grabbed his gun and, to my knowledge, never took to the streets. His ‘revolution’ has been confined to the stoop, break room, and water cooler. His revolution is no revolution at all.
Revolution brings light into the darkness of the world. Martin Luther King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Yes, there have been protests, but no revolution. There have been signs and bumper stickers and plenty of rants, but no real change. Deep in the psyche of the white southerner lives the demon of shame. When this button is pushed, we can either name him or bite off the finger that pressed the button. The media gives us every opportunity, every needed justification to do the latter. But this leads only to blame and aggression; true revolution is guided by insight and patience.
Driven by self interest, rather than the struggle for freedom, my neighbor’s revolution gets co-opted by fear and aggression. And, like a bottle rocket, it starts out loud and fast, only to fizzle out quickly and unceremoniously. He swears to have the answer, but he cannot stand in the light while his heart is full of hate. “The deep elemental stirrings that lead to social change, begin within the hearts of men whose thoughts have hitherto not been articulate or have never gained a hearing, and whose needs are therefore ignored, suppressed, and treated as if they did not exist,” writes Merton. He continues:
There is no revolution without a voice. The passion of the oppressed must first of all make itself heard among themselves, in spite of the insistence of the privileged oppressor that such needs cannot be real, just, or urgent. The more the cry of the oppressed is ignored, the more it strengthens itself with a mysterious power that is to be gained from myth, symbol, and prophesy.
King was a prophet, not because he was a great orator or remarkably intelligent—both of which he was—but because he led a nation of people out of exile. The March on Washington and the protests in Birmingham were but symbols of an inner pilgrimage. He guided the African-American community through the desert where they had to face the temptations of fear, resentment, and aggression. Yes, they demanded change, but not before they removed the log from their eye. After hundreds of years of slavery, social and economic injustice, surely resentment and animosity were brewing in the minds and hearts of many African-Americans, but King offered them a path of redemption. King wrote, in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” This is the essence of an informed and responsible citizenry: a belief in the redemptive power of love, which can only be found, as St. Paul intimates in Philippians, through “self-purification” or kenosis. We must return to our basic human form, emptying ourselves of who we think we are—masters—so that we may assume the role of a servant. King taught a nation how to practice Jesus’ teaching, not by preaching, but by embodying the principle of love and showing us how to love our enemy. He was a prophet because his actions preached for him.
A large number of those on the political right have bought into the illusion of “justified” anger, turning away from the message of the Gospels. The teachings of Jesus have been replaced with propaganda, fear-mongering, and racism. When encouraged to love their enemy, as Jesus commands, they often say something like, “Well that is all fine and well in theory, but I am not the Son of God… God will have to love him, because I can’t do that.”
To this, Jesus’ response is straightforward: “God loves him through you and I. Not only can you do the works I have done, but even greater things you can do, if you will only trust me.”
They, in turn, answer: “Yeah, I hear you, but that doesn’t work in the real world. These are bad people. They are going to destroy our way of life,” as if Jesus was unclear about the meaning of “enemy.”
Jesus makes another appeal: “They are no different than you or I, for whatever you do for the least amongst them, you do unto me.”
At this point, frustrated and confused, they shrug their shoulders and say: “We’ll just have to agree to disagree. I love you, but I can’t do that.”
As a last resort, Jesus throws down the gauntlet: “No one can serve two masters. You will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and self-interest.”
“Thank God it is by my faith, and not my good works that I am saved” they exclaim.
As they just turn and walk away, Jesus is left asking: “What good is faith that is not substantiated by action? Is it not a dead faith? If you love those who love you, what are you doing more than others? This is not religion; it is hypocrisy!”
It does no good to pretend that we are God-fearing Christians, full of love for our fellow man, when we are racists full of fear and hatred. If we are to profess our love for God, we must look within ourselves and dig out the seeds of hatred that sprout as racist indignation. This is not my opinion, it is the Bible—the red parts: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother,” Jesus says, “he is a liar.”
There is one loophole: We can turn away from our fellow man and say, “He is not my brother.” And therein lies the problem.
Here is the disconnect: We are all on the same page about how we should treat our brother, but there seems to be some debate about who our brother actually is. We do not see black people, or for that matter most people—Arabs, non Christians, homosexuals—as human. We see only what we stand to lose or gain from them.
Like a mighty tree growing by water, the promise of freedom planted some two hundred and thirty-seven years ago continues to extend its canopy. It sends its roots out by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its promise remains green through the struggle. The tree of life is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit and its yield is plentiful. Many have come to eat of its fruit and its harvest has brought about a revolution.
This revolution is what many on the right fear today, particularly in the South. I do not mean to say that the left is right and right is wrong. I mean that many on the right have become so “right” that their position is non-negotiable. They have removed themselves from the debate (and the marketplace of ideas) to protect their imagined sovereignty. This is no longer exclusively white America. The fruits—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—are the inheritance of all mankind. As women, African-Americans, Native-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, and Homosexuals exercise their freedom, white America falls down to the Earth it once ruled. The oppressed can no longer be appeased with liberal concessions that recognize the dignity of their human spirit only in theory. The poor and disenfranchised are no longer satisfied with parodies of justice.
They want to participate, and their participation is the revolution.
American politics is no longer about making white society more welcoming or politically correct. There is a new center. The marginalized are moving out of the political periphery and into the middle of the debate. White America’s claim as the exclusive reference point to the American vision has dissolved, with a diversity of equally valid points of reference emerging in its stead.
As power and control begins to slip away, there is panic. They are right to suspect socialism. However, it is not economic socialism, which is just a ridiculous evasion echoing forth from the Cold War era. The tremor we feel today is an aftershock of the declaration issued in 1776 when liberty was socialized. It is universal freedom, not healthcare, that has brought about change in America’s political landscape. And although Barack Obama did not initiate this revolution, he is the face of its fulfillment. As the social lines of demarcation shift more from race to class, the levees that hold the various minorities in their place begin to breach and the voices of the oppressed begin to pour into one another, like water into water. The election of the first African-American president symbolizes the autonomy of the American minorities as a collective majority as well as their ability to move forward without the consent of the “old guard”: white, protestant males.
We tend to see the world through a self-profiting lens. This is the seed of injustice. From this point of view, we see Jew, gentile, infidels, niggers, terrorists, faggots, bums, and moochers. We do not see people, and we most definitely do not see our brothers and sisters. But in the Kingdom of God there is no justifiable anger. If you are angry with your brother or sister, you and only you suffer that anger. There is no distinction made between protestant and Catholic, Jew or Gentile, Muslim or Christian. We are all born out of the same womb and draw from the same richness, the same breath of freedom. The waters of life fall on black and white, rich and poor alike. The sun rises for gay and lesbian couples, just as it does for a man and woman. In fact, there is no longer man and woman, as both, in truth, are revealed to be the image of God—children of God, heirs according to the promise of freedom.
Freedom is a universal principle—it is “inalienable.” Its canopy shelters both the just and unjust . Freedom is not for the oppressed alone. True freedom is equally concerned with the salvation of the oppressor. For no matter how free and patriotic he may think he is, the oppressor cannot be truly free until he is free of the fear that drives his oppressive behavior. The oppressor is a slave to self-interest. We must search our hearts for this fear and when we find the buttons that trigger our shame we must embrace them as our path.
King once wrote, “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” Many Southerners have been reformed, but their minds have not been renewed, so the South’s attitude remains essentially unchanged.
The South never willingly consented to the winds of change. We lost first on the battlefield in 1865. Then, we lost in Congress in 1964, 1965 and 1968. Finally, we lost in the voting booth in 2008 and 2012. The South never actually surrendered. Therefore, the causes and conditions that first authored the institution of slavery were never addressed. Policy changed, but the oppressive mentality did not. One hundred and sixty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are more African-Americans on probation, parole, or in prison than there were slaves in 1850. No one, except the new slave trade—the judicial branch and the private prison industry—benefit from this mentality. It is a spiritual, moral, and economic burden on the whole nation.
We cannot look for freedom on the battlefield or in Washington. People may “get their guns and take to the streets,” but it will be nothing more than a violent exercise in futility—a riot, not a revolution. It will be just another date on the timeline of defeat. Perhaps the great misunderstanding in American thinking is the mistaken notion that politics are about extending, in an imperialistic fashion, the reach of power, rather than preserving the dominion of individual freedom that enables each person, in his own creative way, to consent to the Power that directs the course of human events. We can no longer afford to incubate the shame and patterns of self-interest that are masked by the nostalgia and false pride of southern heritage. Freedom and salvation are for the poor in spirit. We can no longer postpone our inner pilgrimage. We cannot wait for God to intervene; God is waiting for us to intervene. The path of soul-searching and self-reflection, the leveling of our pride, and the confession of our shortcomings may not lead to global domination, but it is the only road to salvation. We must put an end to our arrogance and lay low the tyrants within.
Trust is the only antidote to fear. We must empty ourselves. We as a society—as a whole society—must learn to trust the slow and steady rhythm of change —not the political fads and talking points that crowd the surface on both sides of the debate, but “the deep elemental stirrings” within our hearts. We must not cling to “our world”—an image born out of our insecurities and personal ambitions—but be transformed by the renewing our minds, through trust—which is a new way of seeing—so that we may discern what is good and acceptable and perfect. We must, as Thomas Jefferson so passionately proclaimed, “fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Jefferson said, “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision. Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” In an honest or upright mind, no point of view is off limits. Your religion, your politics, your heritage, everything is called into question, and the voice that suggests otherwise is the very demon being called out of the darkness and into the light. To maintain decency and honor, we must enter every judgment into the marketplace of ideas and trust our own conscience, first and foremost, in matters of self-knowledge.
* all links refer back to the Biblical quotation.