Gordon C. Stewart (copyright)
I’m sitting calmly in my office when the phone rings. It’s a parishioner who lives near the downtown post office. “I don’t know what’s happening,” she says, “but there’s some kind of ruckus on the corner. There’s some kind of booth on the corner.”
I drive to the Post Office. I park the car half a block away and see a large booth on the street corner. The woman handing out literature is yelling at a man who’s crossing the street, and he’s yelling back. I can’t hear what they’re saying until I draw closer. A man crossing the street to get away from the booth is shouting over his shoulder. “You’re not only anti-Semitic! You’re anti-American!”
The booth features an eight-foot tall photograph of the President of the United States. But this is no ordinary photograph. There’s a mustache imposed on President Obama’s picture, the mustache of Adolf Hitler and a call for his impeachment, “Du mp Obama!”
I approach the booth. “Just another Jew,” says the woman.
“What’s happening?” I ask.
She slides a flyer toward me across the counter. “Read it,” she says. I put my finger on the mustache. “You don’t want to hear what we have to say. You’re a spy!” she says as she steps backward, tilts her head in the air, and bellows out “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesty, Above the fruited plain. America! America! God shed His grace on thee….” But before she sings the last line of the stanza – “and crown thy good with brotherhood… – she stops and orders me off her corner. “Get off my corner!”
She is carrying the message of Lyndon LaRouche, a perpetual candidate for President whose only consistency over a long checkered history of ideological swings on the political spectrum is the red-hot lava of righteous rage.
The behavior of the woman at the Post Office, like that of the Florida pastor whose threat to burn Qur’ans nearly set the world on fire several years ago, is bizarre. But the rage she expresses is not unique to her. Because it is so outrageous, it shines a light into the darkness of the widespread incivility of our time, an incivility that erupts from a core conviction hidden below the surface of our consciousness.
We’re street brawling over what kind of America we will be, and “Can’t we all just get along”- the plea of Rodney King as he witnessed the Los Angeles riots following the “innocent” verdict exonerating the police officers whose beatings of him had been aired repeatedly on national television– is long forgotten. We’re dividing ourselves into true believers and heretics, patriots and traitors, suspicious of each other all the way to the White House.
This is not new. This volcano of anger erupted in the trial of Anne Hutchinson (1637), banished by the court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a woman not fit for our society” who, when banished, went on to co-found the State of Rhode Island. It erupted in the execution of Mary Dyer, a Quaker hanged for heresy in 1670, and in the Salem Witch Trials. The horrors of powerful religious dogmatism led the Founders of the new American republic to write into the constitution that there would be no established religion. The American republic would a secular republic with freedom of religious expression. It would not be a theocracy.
As the new nation was being conceived, demagoguery often replaced politics, i.e. the art of compromise, as it often does now. One does not compromise with the enemy. One eliminates him. Rodney King’s plea is regarded as the way of the ill-informed, cowards, heretics, and Anti-Americans.
The lava of anger originates from a hidden, unexamined conviction that the United States is the chosen people, the messianic people whose job is to eliminate evil within and without in the war of good against evil. It is an idea born of the rape of the Judeo-Christian tradition by nationalism which installs America as the exception to history, the nation divinely ordained to banish Anne Hutchinson in 1637, hang Mary Dyer in 1670, and destroy the reputations of decent people as un-American in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purge of secret communists in the early 1950s. It’s the belief that America is the exception…and that the real America is only some of us, the righteous believers.
In the unspoken consciousness of our collective memory, “You are the light of the world” becomes the declaration of fact spoken about America, not an itinerant preacher’s call to a small band of first-century disciples to persist in the hard politics of love and peace in a time of hate and violence. The ensuing lines from the primary text, The Sermon on the Mount – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself,’ but I say to you, love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you” – are forgotten, ignored, torn out, blacked out or burned on the altar of messianic nationalism.
Even more ironic is that those who attack others, including a sitting president, as un-American – i.e. heretics who do not bow to the idea of America as the collective messiah of history– scream against government and taxes as enemies, socialist intrusions on their individual freedom to hoard what is theirs. The biblical city is no longer a community of sharing of the wealth and care for the least; it becomes a sandbox of greed and competition where the highest value is my freedom to get and keep what is mine.
The irony is that in the minds and hearts of those who have been raped, “America the beautiful…God shed his grace on thee…” is not a statement of aspiration but of fact. And the prayer “God mend thine every flaw” – the flaws of selfishness and greed, our meanness to each other, our name calling and stereotyping, our entrenched partisanship, our collective global nationalist arrogance – become a distant memory of a censored sentiment. In times like these when ugliness replaces beauty, America
the Beautiful is, as it always has been, a courageous aspiration and prayer for sanity and the ancient wisdom of the Letter of James that calls us all to engage each other and the world of nations differently: “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”