By Mark Clavier
I have been watching events in America from afar with profound sadness, not least coming as they do on the heels of protests about COVID-19 restrictions. While in much of the world, the pandemic has produced a renewal of community-spirit, in America it seems to have fueled divisions.
Until you move abroad – I am in Wales – I don’t think you really can measure fully the extent of American political, social, and cultural polarization and how close to the surface violence and anger are. Americans by and large are trained, mainly through the media, to take a deeply antagonistic approach to social issues and events, arriving at the scene (as it were) spoiling for a fight. Thus, almost anything sparks a fire. Mix in systematic racism and a baiting president and you have the makings for a real conflagration. By now, we shouldn’t be at all surprised by this.
Though some have evaluated it differently, I found Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church both offensive and, indeed, blasphemous. The aggressive means he used for an inflammatory photo-op outside a church, without the courtesy to inform the rector or bishop he was going to do so, should offend our sensibilities. If a basically non-religious, patently immoral man brandishing a Bible amidst his own combative tweets and after gassing citizens (including members of the congregation) to achieve a symbolic photo isn’t offensive to the Almighty, then I don’t what is. God doesn’t strike me as particularly patient with hubris.
And while I certainly don’t condone the rioting and violence, I’m not shocked by it. It is ever thus. The mob exists, the Simpsons taught us that. The smallest things can incite people (with a whole range of motivations) to violence and mayhem. Like pandemics, the mob shakes the comfortable, affluent reality we’ve erected around ourselves, reminding us perhaps that behind our thin veneer of security lurks a world as wild and dangerous as ever.
Mob violence, by definition, spins out of anyone’s control, upsets the powerful, and often tarnishes righteous causes with its violent anger. Our nation began with the mob violence of the Boston Tea Party and local authorities firing upon unruly citizens that soon turned into a revolution most never expected, and many didn’t want.
At the same time, we know the script for all this don’t we? If all this hasn’t largely been forgotten in two or three weeks, I’ll be amazed. This is a more extreme version of our social media-fueled public sphere, the next in an unending line of social crises, the apocalypse du jour, and the object of yet another violent (and global) virtual mob. We’ll rage, debate, fulminate, cry, rant, and wail about the world and the sinister other for a few weeks, take a breather, and then move onto the next thing. One is like another, differing only in intensity. In the end, little will be achieved except for a period of distraction and even entertainment masked as moral outrage and social engagement. We now wallow in mutual enmity, finding the thrill of the fight preferable to living peaceably with our neighbors.
Nor do we really want to address the roots of systematic racism, since the whole modern project and a great deal of the social, medical, and technological goods we enjoy have depended on it. Without slavery, colonialism, European imperialism, and a colossal amount of violence, we’d probably still be not far removed from sixteenth-century society. Without exploited wealth and access to conquered lands, there would be no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution, not even an America to be divided. Injustice is woven inextricably into our social DNA, infecting each and every one of us. But we learned long ago that technology allows us to exert our will on the defenseless and feeble, and so we became comfortable with their systematic maltreatment for the sake of a phone, a TV, and a manicured home separated by expanses of pavement from those we insist on going without. When your buried garbage starts leeching to the surface, don’t be shocked that it stinks.
I’ve no solution to offer the world at large. But to those of us who are Christians, the answer is obvious: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5.44) and “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12.18) for starters. It’s beyond time we Christians stepped forward, bearing the fruits of the Spirit, while acknowledging our complicity in the injustices of the world, to demonstrate the reality of God’s love. And if we accept that the benefits that we’ve gained from our injustices are great, then we know also that the cost of such love will be dear. So be it. For our Savior promised us nothing less.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon, or priest in residence, of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.