Turning and turning in the widening gyre— WB Yeats, The Second Coming
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
What happened yesterday at the US Capitol Building was a national tragedy. To be sure, in the first case it was partly the tragically vile result of President Donald Trump’s continued insistence on fanning the ire of his more aggressive supporters, fueling their troubled doubts about the election, and ramping them up to resist. The seizure of the Capitol was undemocratic, shameful, and deeply disturbing. But, in the second case, it was not an entirely novel event; rather, it was part of a tragically destructive trajectory.
This is because the events yesterday were a culmination of trends that have long spasmed through our nation and that led both to the deluge of support that pushed Trump to the presidency and to the resistance that followed his inauguration. The worst of the former can be found in the vile supremacists who hear a dog whistle in Trump’s rhetorical perversions. The worst of the latter is found in the unrelenting, indiscriminate resistance to Trump that has been overcredulous in its animus from day one.
That the left’s adversarial stance is best termed resistance is an important distinctive. As University of Chicago political scientist Charles Lipson puts it:
That pernicious term, now in common use, undermines our democracy. For the past four years, Democratic activists have framed their opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency as ‘resistance’. They have tried repeatedly to remove him from the office to which he was duly elected.
Paralleling much of the Boss’ sage reflection yesterday, Lipson laments that America has lost hold of the appropriate terms of political competition within a democracy. We have abandoned those skills and character necessary to support a deliberative society: persuasion, reason, mutuality, grace, patience, justice, courage, and charity. He writes:
For months now, we have witnessed a degradation of public order — mobs roaming city streets, unpunished; an effort to take over and firebomb a federal courthouse in Portland, unpunished; delegates attacked on the streets of Washington after the Republican convention, unpunished.
Law and order, traditional constitutional procedures, and self-restraint were on life support long before yesterday. Yesterday felt like a watershed moment because of the deep symbolism that the US Capitol represents, and the perversion of seeing the people’s business halted by ravaging thugs who trashed the place and sat and stood in places they are unworthy to occupy. But I don’t see how yesterday’s mob was any more of a threat to the fabric of this nation than those mobs that burned out private businesses and dreams, destroyed neighborhoods, and terrorized neighbors across our great cities. It only revealed that an even wider array of Americans is complicit in that threat.
The political divides in this nation have festered to such a temperament that there seems to be little reason for anyone to believe that those on the other side mean them well, that one or the other side wouldn’t try and steal—or deny—an election, or that they have any kind of common good and shared interests in mind. Nobody seems to believe we’re in this together anymore. Fixing this won’t mean that we’ll all suddenly get along and hold common beliefs. It does mean we might take the time to do the hard work that alone can result in genuine disagreement: one has first to listen while the other speaks. Then the other listens while the first speaks. The cycle repeats until both have understood the other’s complaints, commitments, and aims. Ideally, something like empathy follows, even perhaps a willingness to compromise and find at least roughly satisfactory solutions to shared concerns. The adversarial relationship might remain, but it will be, crucially, a relationship. As Lipson insists, “we need to replace ‘resistance’ with ‘loyal opposition’.” We don’t have to like each other, but we have to love each other or perish.
Lipson’s essay is excellent and should be read in full. One thing I most admire about it is his willingness to accept complexity. He recognizes that one can directly and without reservation condemn those who attacked the US Capitol and look forward to their apprehension and just punishment while at the same time noting the amalgamation of factors across the political spectrum that have heaped together like kindling and contributed to this conflagration. It’s okay to acknowledge that more than one kind of person helped strike the match. We have to stop being content with easy answers. We have to embrace the complex when the only available alternative is the simplistic. A full accounting matters.
Some, on all sides, will refuse to do this. We should be ready for this and take note. Many on the Christian right continue—rightly—to defend the virtues and practical wisdom of liberalism, even against the excesses of that liberalism. This is noble, and important for a pluralistic society, but it also plays to the foolish trend among conservative Christians to behave as if everybody is willing to abide by liberalism’s normative principles. In the political sphere, the result is too often that conservative Christians continue to play something like touch football while many of their progressive opponents behave as if it’s a cage fight. This, too, is important to note.
Sadly, while there have always been fanatics on both sides, it has, by and large, been my experience until recently that when conservative Christians lose at the ballot box or when social policies are enacted that go against our deeply held moral beliefs, we weather such defeats well. Sure, we might briefly lament over what we’re momentarily certain is the end of the universe, but, fairly quickly, we’ve tended to come to our senses. We continue to focus on the essential basics: investing in localism; caring for and, when appropriate, arguing with and trying to persuade our neighbors to our convictions; making strong families that make time for each other; building those civil institutions that stand between individuals and their government and that best help families morally form and shape the character of the people; and, in the main, establishing those little villages that, together, shape our national character and, thereby, our behavior and commitments to the wider world.
As with Lipson, this is to suggest that Christians ought to embrace complexity, even to the point of embracing seeming paradox. Within these pages, we’ve consistently argued that supporting the robust defense of the nation is compatible with Christian discipleship. Indeed, more than being merely compatible I’ve insisted that the Hebraic tradition invests the national sovereign—that ruler over whom there is no one greater charged with the duty to care for the common good of the nation—with the moral duty to use force in the last resort when nothing else will sufficiently protect the order, justice, and, thereby, the peace of the political community. This is because within the Hebraic tradition, for a variety of reasons, nations matter. And so, it is silly to assert that we have to choose between devotion to Christ or devotion to our nation. For certain, when forced to choose between the two the decision for Christ is clear. But, happily, for most Americans this choice has never had to be made.
Therefore, all this being true, we know that while nations matter, they do not matter absolutely. We know that while victories in the political sphere matter, sometimes desperately, they also do not matter absolutely. It follows then that while Christians ought to be heavily engaged in the political discussions—and even contests—of the times, we need not follow our—too many—fellow Americans who, increasingly from across the political spectrum, behave as if holding political power is absolutely essential to human flourishing. Many conservative Christians have of late abandoned this recognition of the penultimate value—the limited good—of our political structures. Christians must neither destroy nor venerate penultimate things. When we do we have no good news to share with a desperate world. That so many Christians have endorsed even some of the most extreme excesses of Trumpism leaves them, in appetitive spirit, indistinguishable from the worst of progressive statists. Pimping all your hopes on political solutions leaves you with strange bedfellows. Shame on us.
Make no mistake: I fear what I am afraid will be the legislative and policy excesses and abominations of a unified progressive government. This is one of those moments where I recognize that Augustine was right when he cautioned that having children leads to heartache—I fear deeply for the kind of world I am afraid my children will soon be forced to live in. I am afraid that the trends will continue, that the progressive agenda will do nothing to relieve those disaffected people, on both the left and the right, suffering from real or imagined—or both—injustices. I fear that the desperate will continue to cast about for someone to fault; that they will continue establishing targets, including the innocent, for their blame; that the angry people will again become angry mobs falling into that familiar cycle of increasing conflict that eventually boils over into the kind of violence we saw on display yesterday and in the months past. Worse still, as such cycles of violence continue, they will steadily diminish in their purgative value and the angry will seek even great doses of violent release. If a spanner is not thrown in the works, it will only get worse.
At the same time, I know, at least ultimately, how the story ends. All will be well—every kind of thing will be well. This knowledge tempers the fear. It does not temper neither the need to be a responsible citizen nor to be an active member of the loyal opposition. While it remains true that political power is not “absolutely essential to human flourishing,” the qualifier “absolutely” is doing a lot of work. History teaches plainly that governments can go bad enough that they make hells on earth. However little they may be able to touch our soul, they can still break our bodies.
As the epigraph suggests, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats understood that the further we get from our Creator—both as individuals but also as a nation—the increasingly more difficult it becomes to hear his voice—whether spoken through revealed scripture or natural law. Deracinated, we fall out of the orbit of the Divine and lose His influence. The anarchy that has been loosed across too much of our nation for too much of this past year tells the consequent tale. We must not allow the worst of us to lead us. We must re-ground our convictions in better soil than blue or red. We must neither ignore nor destroy nor venerate the penultimate even as we reembrace the Ultimate.
It’s time to make the good great again.