I have not written anything here for two months. Without going into detail, it is enough to say that my melancholy self has been afflicted on nearly every side by travail: my mother’s cancer, added stresses at work, financial strain, growing alienation. The bright spots in all this have been the Divine Liturgy, my bride and my children. If it were not for the harbor of worship, love, and family I would be overcome.
And I have been devoting what spare time I have to iconography. After a long dry spell I have a backlog of commissions, enough to keep me busy for a good while.
But there is another reason I have not written: the world is increasingly filling me with dismay. Actually, “dismay” is too weak a word. “Horror” and “disgust” are more accurate.
While I have long argued for a new populism, what has emerged is not at all what I had in mind. I’m glad I am not a conservative, for I would be absolutely appalled that the Dumb Ugly Right has come to dominate the yelling match that passes for discourse in this country. From the crowds who consider it a great victory to shout down speakers in town hall meetings- you know, the sort of behavior they denounced when the Left did it- to marchers carrying signs calling Mr Obama a Hitler, a Mao, or a Stalin, I perceive that the level of fear and hatred has reached a new level. I saw a piece of political junk mail the other day which read, on the outside of the envelope, “Obama preparing a jihad through IRS audits”. And my sister reports receiving emails “proving” that Obama is the Antichrist (!). Oh, I know, as the culprits never fail to remind us, that the Left called Bush a Hitler and were hardly free of inflammatory rhetoric during his presidency. I even remember a “Bush is the Antichrist” website, but the tone was clearly tongue-in-cheek.
But there are a couple of distinctions to be made. First, objectively, the Bush administration, in reaction to the horror of 9/11, did act to erode the traditional rights and decencies that have marked our history: warrantless wiretaps, holding suspects for years without charges, torturing our enemies, and the rest of it. And secondly, the more extreme language was to be found only on the fringes, even when Bush’s poll numbers dropped dramatically. It was not bellowing from the radio and shouted out in the streets (and halls of Congress).
I am not great fan of the President’s, but I am concerned about where this is heading. Violence is beginning to emerge, and it seems only a matter of time before some unbalanced person reasons that if Obama really is a Marxist Nazi Islamic terrorist bent on turning the nation into a totalitarian state, if the country really has been “hijacked by a Marxist gang from Chicago”, as I heard a talk show host say last week, then it would be a patriotic act to assassinate him. The consequences of that are too horrific to contemplate.
The hyperbolic rhetoric would be comical, were it not so potentially tragic. I mean Mr Obama is a communist? Why? Because he has given billions of dollars to bankers and industrialists? What in the world would they call him if he had given all that money to the poor and middle class (where it might actually have stimulated the economy)?
The claims about the rather modest proposals to reform health care are equally silly. That these folks don’t think there is a problem in a nation where the majority of bankruptcies are from medical debt, which is in fact the only developed country where people go bankrupt because of such debt, and where people die because they lack medical insurance boggles the mind. Again, demagogues raise the specter of Communism, as if by enacting some sort of national health service we would be transformed into a totalitarian state. Like England or Australia, perhaps? Or the rest of our Western, democratic allies?
I only hope that those who are so hostile to state programs are willing to voluntarily relinquish any claims to Social Security, Medicare and VA benefits, just to show the rest of us they are sincere and consistent.
But far more than the content of the shouted accusations it is the tone that worries me. There is in the air pure hatred. The winds of fear are blowing hard.
I think of the aforementioned radio talk show. It is called “Quinn and Rose: the War Room”, which I sometimes listen to on the way to work. The program combines the civility of Michael Savage with the intellectual rigor of Sean Hannity, if you get my drift. Jim Quinn is an apparently lapsed Irish Catholic, sixty something, and a former rock dj. The woman who goes by the single name of Rose is fiftiesh and looks Italian, but is a fervent Protestant of the American evangelical persuasion. She combines hate speech with insufferable piety, at one moment saying of Obama “Can I hate him, Jimmy? Why can’t I hate him?”, or telling us that she coats her bullets with lard to prepare for the day when she shoots Muslims, and at the next talking about God’s holy will, answered prayers, or her devotion to the Bible.
It probably is not good for me to listen to them, especially as over the years I have become pretty sick of right wing American Protestants. Don’t worry, I am sick of right wing American Catholics as well. If they were so many and vocal I’m sure I’d be sick of left wing Christians, too.
Which is why the other day I experienced a singular providential meeting, a moment of grace. I was in Michigan, visiting my ailing mother. My sister, Monica, was there, and her friend Kim stopped by to go out to lunch with us. I met Kim a couple of times over the years in passing, had never talked much with her. She looks Mediterranean (Monica says she is of French ancestry) and is vivacious and talkative.
My mom had chemotherapy the day before, and I had to run her up to the clinic for a follow-up injection. When we got back Monica and Kim were downstairs. Some paperwork on the kitchen table caught my eye. It was a copy of a report from the Arizona Department of Corrections with a photo of an inmate. I wondered at this but said nothing.
At lunch Kim did most of the talking and was animated and entertaining. She made several devout-sounding comments in the conventional American evangelical mode, which surprised me, as Monica had never mentioned that Kim was religious. I asked my sister, in a lull in the conversation, about the prison report on Mom’s table. Kim said it was a man she had hired to do some repair work at come rental properties she owned. And she told the story: she had met a homeless man with a drug and alcohol problem and a prison record who was looking for work. She had just heard a sermon at church on Matthew 25- “Whatsoever you do to the least of these you do unto me”- so she took pity on him and let him stay in an empty apartment and put him to work. He was a good worker, is kicking his habits, and is very grateful for the opportunity Kim has extended to him. Of course, there is a good chance that his good intentions will not endure, but the last I heard the demand for mercy was not based on the odds of success.
I was tremendously moved by this story and by Kim’s simplicity in responding to the Gospel. And it got me reflecting. While Kim is not political- we only touched on the topic and she expressed the same sympathy for Mr Obama that she had for the homeless man- I realized that in writing off whole categories of people I was guilty of the very thing that appalled me in others. Hearing Kim’s story was a much-needed antidote to the negative perceptions of American evangelicals that had grown in me over the years.
It had not always been like that. I spent a couple of years with a more or less evangelical worldview before returning to the Church, and for a long time I had felt great affinity with those Christians. But that had eventually been eroded by a lot of things, and by the middle of the Bush years I had had enough. The true religion of most Americans, Protestant and Catholic, is America. They embrace the message of Christ only insofar as it does not contradict this One True Faith.
But I had allowed that to blind me to the undoubtable goodness of many evangelicals, no matter their blind spots. And when I thought about it I remembered that most of the right wing Catholics I knew were very generous in the face of human need, however deplorable I find their politics. Perhaps the problem is that while people will respond charitably to the needs of people they know or who are standing in front of them, other people- Palestinians, Iraqis, uninsured Americans, “the enemy”- exist as abstractions, as statistics. They simply don’t seem real and are rendered invisible by fear.
It gives me no comfort to realize that mine is the opposite vice: I have always found it easy to sympathize with the outcast and the underdog and the lost soul, but I love “the average American”, the regular person, my neighbor, hardly at all. Not good, when the only commandment Our Lord gave us was to love one another.And He didn’t qualify that at all.
I am tempted to political quietism; after all there is no place at all for me in the current shouting match. I do pray for this country. And I pray that my own heart will be more tender, kinder, more cognizant of the goodness of my fellow pilgrims, that seeking mercy I will be merciful.
Kyrie Eleison. Hospodi Pomiliu. Lord have Mercy