THE PRESENT CRISIS VII
We have identified the CRISIS of our generation as the threat to democratic government; an imminent threat promoted by and enabled by the Christian Right. We are calling on ordinary Christians along with non-Christian allies to stand up and stand together against this impending peril.
In this addition we hear from a Canadian pastor/ theologian, my friend Andrew Fullerton. I asked Andrew for a short biographical statement. His was so good that I decided to print it unabridged.
“Andrew Fullerton tries his best to be the Minister of Elmwood Avenue Presbyterian Church in London, Ontario, Canada. Earlier in his life, he served congregations in Ontario and Quebec. He lectured for many years in philosophy and ethics at Knox College, Toronto. He was also active in the Boarding Homes Ministry in Toronto, an inner city work of the Presbyterian Church that fosters friendship between members of Christian Churches and people living isolated and impoverished lives on the margins of society. He’s a graduate of the University of Toronto and Cambridge University in England. None of his modest attainments earned him the acclaim his mother thought he should have.”
Andrew’s Canadian take on the CRISIS is especially germane in light of the “Freedom Convoy” presently taking place in Ottawa and in Windsor, Ontario. These protests against Canadian government vaccination mandates and travel restrictions are being endorsed, promoted and financed by prominent American Republicans. Mr. Trump himself has described the Canadian Prime Minister as a “left-wing lunatic.” So, any doubts about whether or not Canadians have the right to be involved in this struggle have been dissolved.
In Andrew’s words:
There comes a point in the course of a disease when vague malaise erupts into stark symptoms. A prolonged loss of appetite suddenly becomes acute nausea, let’s say; or chronic discomfort turns into stabbing pain. We go for medical tests. They return with a report of ‘stage three’ cancer. The crisis has come at last.
“At least we know what we’re up against now,” says the physician. “This may be terminal, but there are treatments we can try. I also want to suggest some changes in the way you’re living your life. They could improve your chances. But make no mistake. Your condition is dire.”
A Latter Day Herod
The present crisis in America’s body politic has erupted from an illness with a long gestation period. The condition is dire now. But the crisis affects more than America.
Pierre Trudeau compared Canada’s relationship with the United States to a mouse sleeping with an elephant. “No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt,” he said.
But he said this in 1969 as Prime Minister of Canada. The world is smaller now and more tightly packed. Every nation, not just Canada, is in bed with the American elephant (also a Chinese Dragon). What’s more, the elephant is not so even-tempered anymore. It’s thrashing about, feverish with symptoms of fascism, tyranny, and violence.
The outrageous rampage — or was it a rampaging outrage? — that desecrated the Capitol in Washington last year just happened to happen on the sixth day of January. On the Christian calendar, that’s the Feast of the Epiphany. Was this a coincidence? Perhaps. Even so, it’s suggestive.
Epiphany marks the revelation of Jesus Christ to all the nations of the earth, beginning with those foreigners, ‘The Wise Men from the East’. They couldn’t know about the promise embedded in Israel’s covenant with God, but they could read divine meaning in the night sky. It signalled something majestic happening on the earth below. They wanted to see it. They wanted to honour it. They headed west.
After such a long journey, though, they misread the local signage. They wound up in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem. They knocked on the door of the Capitol. Herod the Horrible opened that door. He shouted over his shoulder to his Cabinet Secretaries.
“I’ve got some illegal immigrants from a shit hole country here. (Note to self: get that Wall built). They’re asking about some new kind of King being born. Anybody know anything about that?”
“Herod was frightened,” says St Matthew, “and all Jerusalem with him.” Why? Because the panicky moods of a mendacious narcissist are as contagious as the Covid virus.
“My people tell me you should try Bethlehem, about ten kilometres south as the crow flies,” he told them. “Fire off a tweet when you find this so-called ‘New King’ so I can, you know, begin the peaceful transition of power. (Note to self: kill all infants under two years old.)”
It’s a trademark of tyrants like Herod to manifest their inner fear in acts of outer terror, and then to mask those deeds with putrid but obvious lies.
On Epiphany Day 2021, as his successor’s election was about to be confirmed in the Capitol, the U.S. President followed a tyrant’s playbook. “This election was stolen from me! I’m supposed to be King. You’ll never take back our country with weakness! You have to show strength!” he shouted to thousands of sycophants. They roared their manic approval. They swore fealty to this Father of Lies.
“Stop the steal!” he shouted. This election was a hoax!” he lied. “It’s a disgrace and everybody knows it,” he lied again. “Let’s march to the Capitol. I’m coming with you!”
But that was a big lie too; a lie just as vile as Herod’s false promise to go and pay homage to the very Christ child he meant to murder. The President didn’t lead his rioters to the Capitol. Having whipped them into a furious frenzy, he released them to do his bidding. Like a spineless coward, he never showed up. He retreated instead to his Führerbunker to watch the made-in-America insurrection he’d just unleashed on TV.
The world watched it too. The crisis had appeared at last. This eruption of stark symptoms was an epiphany of the chronic illness infecting America’s body politic.
And maybe not just America’s.
Monarchy or Republic?
Let me recall an earlier, happier moment in American history. On 17 September 1787, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin as he descended the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He’d just added his signature to a new Constitution.
“Well, Doctor Franklin, what have we got?” she asked. “A Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic,” he replied.
Did she receive this Good News as a new kind of Gospel? After all, a new regime was at hand. ‘We the People’ needed only to turn, believe, and make a decision for democracy. The door to their manifest destiny, which had been too long locked, was about to swing wide open. They’d fought for this. Monarchy had come to mean ‘tyranny’ in the American mind. The new Republic would remedy that.
The Constitution’s opening words, ‘We the People’, signalled the symbolic seizure of sovereignty. Hereditary Monarchs would no longer be the chosen ones, exercising a divine right to rule. No more aristocracy, either. Instead, the rulers of America would be those ordinary Americans who so often display an extraordinary character. They’d be chosen — ‘elected’ — by fellow Americans, on American soil, through the casting and counting of votes.
If Presidents and Legislators wanted to serve high office, they’d have to demonstrate their competence, competitively, in regular elections. They’d come and go from those offices according to the people’s will. No single person or party would ever again enjoy a perpetual right to govern The United Colonies — or rather, The United States of America. Sovereignty resided in ‘We the People’ now.
So, no more tyranny. Problem solved. The Constitution said so, didn’t it?
And yet, monarchy doesn’t have to mean ‘tyranny’, does it? Neither are Republics immune to despotism.
One of my ancestors fled New York for Nova Scotia soon after the American Revolution. Loyal to King George, thousands of refugees wanted no part in the new Republic. They settled in the frigid-but-still-British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada. (Of course, free land awaited them too; but it’s possible to have more than one motive for moving, isn’t it?) They came to be known as ‘United Empire Loyalists’. These transplanted Americans added greatly to the development of Canada.
To this day, Canada is (more or less) a non-tyrannical monarchy. That’s because it’s also a democracy — a parliamentary democracy, mind you. Technically and symbolically, the ‘Crown’ is sovereign in Canada, not ‘We the People’. But the Crown must heed Parliament, that’s the point. Laws enacted in the Queen’s name may, technically speaking, express her ‘will’, but Parliament gets to tell the Queen what her will is. That matters.
When I lived in England, I was invited to vote in general elections. Though I was a citizen of Canada, not the United Kingdom, I was just as much a subject of Queen Elizabeth as my English friends were, though still ‘inferior’ in their eyes, of course. Even so, this meant that, in Her Majesty’s eyes, I should be allowed to exercise a loyal subject’s right to vote for a Member of Parliament in London, rather than Her Parliament in Ottawa. I did.
Australians could vote too. So could New Zealanders. But not the Americans. I made a point of letting them know this.
A rudimentary right to vote in honest elections is the common feature of every viable democracy. It’s the humble thread that stitches the democratic fabric together. In that sense, we’re ‘cut from the same cloth’, both subjects loyal to a Crown and citizens devoted to a Republic.
“…if you can keep it”
Let me return to the unnamed woman who approached Benjamin Franklin on that sun-bathed day in 1787. She’d wanted to know if America would be a Monarchy or a Republic.
“A Republic,” he’d said. But then he added these words: “…if you can keep it.”
It’s as though he could already see clouds gathering on the horizon. Did Franklin fear that America would sooner or later revert to tyranny? The ink had not yet dried on the new Constitution. They had a fledgling Republic. Good for them! But did they have the desire and discipline to keep it? Forces from without might bring this democracy down. And what about forces from within?
Democratic societies in the western world are prone to complacency in this regard. Because they seem so stable and successful to those who live within them, they also seem inevitable, and therefore unassailable. To those who bask in its benefits, democracy sells itself, doesn’t it? Who would knowingly choose tyranny? That’s just madness, isn’t it?
So, it’s no wonder that ‘we’, the self-styled ‘enlightened ones’, have a nervous need to disparage them, the idiots who fall for demagogues. “We hold this truth to be self-evident: that democracy is the best possible system. Only fools would believe otherwise, and only tyrants would act on that belief. They deserve derision. That will show them!”
But not all tyrants are fools. Foolish tyrants can’t hold on to power. Clever ones can. They’re dangerous. What’s more, political truths are rarely ‘self-evident’. They’re just the truths we take for granted, and that’s not the same thing. But if we take our political truths for granted, believing they must be obvious to everyone, we’ll feel no need to argue for them, improve them, or actively uphold them. Isn’t that just as dangerous?
Franklin’s prescient warning — “if you can keep it” — suggests that democracy is not inevitable, unassailable, or self-evident after all. Democracy is an achievement, a work that is always in progress. It needs ‘keeping’ in the same way a shepherd ‘keeps’ the sheep.
Perhaps Franklin meant something like this. To choose democracy is also to acknowledge that the burden of caring for the health of the whole body politic must shift. It should not rest upon hereditary Monarchs and Dictators-for-Life, nor lie with Elites and Mainstream Media. The onus lies squarely on ‘We the people’. Because democracy shares its franchise with the whole body politic, tending to its health is a shared task too.
Have we neglected that task? Have we precipitated the crisis?
When the centre cannot hold
I dare to believe that the Christian Church can aid an ailing democracy in the task of restoring its health.
Of course, the Church dare not do this without first lamenting and repenting of its own complicity in unjust politics. “Physician, heal thyself!” The Church must reform the heretical warping of its own faith, too, as when bad theology pays court to thinly veiled racism, for example. The Church must starve its appetite for tyranny within its own styles of governance and root out its propensity to make an idol of itself. And from without, the Church must repent of the sinful role it has played as fascism’s useful idiot and communism’s latter-day lackey.
But having confessed its sins, sought forgiveness, and reformed itself — (skills that democracy, too, needs training in) — then, perhaps, the Church may clear its throat, speak its truth, and offer its wisdom for the ‘healing of the nations’. Why shouldn’t it?
Still, democracy, as such, doesn’t need the Church to be what it is. That’s the point. Neither does the Church need democracy to live its communal life or reform itself.
The Church was born into a pagan Empire that persecuted it. There was no democracy back then. When it converted the Emperor to Christianity, the Church turned the Empire into an undemocratic ‘Christendom’. When Christendom disintegrated in the West, the Church nationalised itself here and there, tethering its fortunes to an array of societies with a variety of political forms. The Church was, in some ways, democracy’s midwife back then, but sometimes its enemy too.
Since then, the Church has outlived dictatorships bent on stamping it out. It has survived oligarchies eager to bribe or subvert it. The Church may even, but barely, weather the soft scorn it receives from liberal democracies like ours, whose religion is the free market. With God, nothing is impossible.
So, the Christian Church doesn’t need the benefits of democracy to be itself. It can make its own way in many kinds of realms by being in, yet not entirely of, those realms. And yet, although, for its part, democracy doesn’t need the Christian Church, wouldn’t a sickly democracy in the throes of its own tyrannical illness benefit from the Church’s therapeutic presence and aid?
My agnostic friends would say, “What kind of question is that? Church and State divorced each other for a reason, you know. You can’t be serious.”
Yes, I am serious. And had this question arisen in Germany in 1934, the theologians who gathered to make the Barmen Declaration wouldn’t have given it a passing thought. The times were too urgent, the crisis was too perilous to waste their time on that. Strident secularism looks timid and weak in such moments. Lacking the depth and transcendence available to real religion, it also lacks ‘spine’.
In exile, Einstein acknowledged this. He noted that the German press, the Universities, the legal professions, artists, trade unions, and political parties had all capitulated. “Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration,” he said (quoted in A.C. Cochrane, The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, p. 40).
German civilisation had degenerated into the vilest kind of fascism. The “blood-dimmed tide” was already flowing. The centre could not hold. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as Yeats said of an earlier and different crisis. The Christians who gathered at Barmen felt that the burden of healing the body politic had fallen heavily upon them in that hour. So, they just got on with it.
Are we not on the cusp of a similar kind of crisis?
When things fall apart, when the centre cannot contain the chaos of tyranny, what other remedy could there be but a return to the centre, to the beating heart of all reality? This is what Barmen got right, even though its wordy confession of faith may have done little, in practical terms, to hinder the Nazi juggernaut.
The central conviction of the Barmen Declaration, the one the others orbit around, is contained in a sentence that has the hand of Karl Barth all over it. It’s this: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear, and which we have to trust and obey, in life and in death.”
A distinct way of life corresponds to this conviction. This way of life is the Church. The aim of Barth’s sentence was to summon faith in Jesus Christ, “in life and in death”, rather in the way that the new Constitution, signed by Benjamin Franklin that day, called forth a faith in democracy, eliciting the conviction that this faith really could be lived.
Of course, just writing ‘We the people’ in ink on parchment could never, on its own, have given birth to the new Republic. The words had to be ‘kept’ and believed in, collectively, not as a set of bald assertions to be shouted in the public square, but as a way of life to be lived.
Now, a certain set of virtues, rituals, and skills sustain the Christian way of life,not just privately and personally, but socially and politically too. They give ‘flesh’ to ‘conviction’. But if they detach themselves from their living, breathing centre in Jesus Christ, the Church falls ill, the illness spreads, and the body dies.
So it is with democracy. Even more than written constitutions and laws, democracy requires ‘convictions’, a way of life that corresponds to these convictions, and a set of virtues that can sustain this way of life. Democracy needs a ‘church’, in other words.
Imagine two circles, one labelled ‘Christian Life’, the other labelled ‘Democracy’. Within the first one, all the virtues, rituals, and practices needed to sustain the Christian life are set forth. The second circle contains the ones that sustain ‘Democracy’.
If we were to place the second circle over the first to make a Venn diagram, we’d see a large area of overlap. These are the common virtues that sustain communities. And this explains why the presence of the Christian Church may benefit an ailing democracy. The Church can ‘underwrite’ democracy’s wounded convictions, even as those convictions are undermined in the body politic.
In the so-called Dark Ages, the lamp of learning retreated to the monasteries. Monasteries held in trust society’s still-nascent traditions of hospitality to strangers, forgiveness for enemies, charity for the poor, just laws for the oppressed, and all the courteous rules of joyful, communal living. They also held on to its stories, its sacred and philosophical books, and the disciplines of literacy and learning. They held on to them against the day when people would be ready to receive them again.
In a similar way, the virtues that are vital to communal living, and so desperately needed by a wounded democracy, still faintly flicker, like candlelight, in the faith and practice of the one true Church, real and non-heretical, however rare it is, and however sparsely scattered.
The Big Lie was repeated ad nauseam by the Big Buffoon who was elected to be America’s forty-fifth President. At the very next election, ‘We the People’ fired him. But he claimed it was all a Big Lie. This provoked the present crisis. Millions and millions of Americans egged him on. His lies to them and their love for him are now in a dangerous feedback loop.
And yet, for all his buffoonery, he’s not a fool. He’s a clever tyrant, and therefore dangerous. Many politicians, intoxicated by his contagious narcissism, are busy right now copying from his playbook. That’s dangerous too. American democracy is in peril.
We might insist, then, that the Big Lie’s opposite, truth-telling, is the virtue America’s wounded democracy needs most of all right now.
Truth-telling in politics is the obstinate willingness to say what we sincerely believe to be the case, not just in the field of facts, but in the realm of values too. It means telling the truth as we perceive it to be, as honestly as we can, in the cut-and-thrust of debate and policy-formation, in electioneering and canvassing, in interviews, inquiries, and stump speeches, in Parliaments, Congresses, committees, courts, and of course on ‘social media’, even when it’s not to our political advantage. That’s truth-telling.
This virtue is simple to understand, yet difficult to live. It rests upon the conviction that the open acknowledgement of truth and the humble admission of error (also a form of truth-telling) matter much more than the pure possession of power. The Buffoon doesn’t believe this. Neither do his imitators. Neither does his political party. Neither do millions of fanatical followers.
Democracy needs ‘the truth-telling virtue’ the way our lungs need oxygen. It suffocates in the stale air of chronic lying and fake news. Yet the virtuous words of a noble Constitution, all on their own, could not stop the ‘Big Lie’ from poisoning American politics. However high-minded they sound ‘on paper’, the words that begin with ‘We the People’ are only as morally sturdy as the cast of characters who’ve been granted the task “to preserve, protect, and defend” them.
Bald-faced lies, boldly repeated, soon acquire a false patina of truth, the way a bald man’s comb-over, pasted down with crazy glue, gives the comically false impression of a full head of hair. We want to ask, “Who are you kidding?”, until, eventually, we no longer want to ask anymore. We give up. We accept this man’s ‘look’ just as it is.
So, although I can think of no virtue that’s higher or better than truth-telling in a democracy, I also think there’s another virtue that is, if not higher, then deeper. And it’s needed even more right now because it combats what the Big Lie has always been about. It’s the virtue of losing well.
What do I mean?
Elections can only matter when ‘integrity of character’ matters more. And in politics, the epiphany of someone’s integrity happens, not just when they speak the truth — especially when they speak it to their own disadvantage — but when they lose gracefully. Democracy needs beautiful losers.
‘Losing’ is just as inherent to the logic of voting as ‘winning’ is. So, a readiness to lose the vote is just as necessary to a vibrant democracy as the ambition to win. For the casting and counting of votes, remember, is the humble thread that stitches democracies together, keeping its cloth whole and sound.
Losers must therefore be made to accept their loss at the ballot box. In a healthy democracy, that’s simply not negotiable. But when political parties and their candidates refuse to accept a loss at the ballot box, or if they corruptly contrive a false ‘win’, the fabric frays. Democracy unravels. Things fall apart. The cloth cannot hold.
That’s the naked truth of America right now. Millions of Americans no longer ‘believe in’ democracy because they’ve completely rejected the virtue of losing. They refuse to practice this way of life. If they lose at the ballot box, they won’t concede their loss. But to live this way is death to democracy and a decision for despotism. It kicks open the door to tyranny.
Democracy needs good losers. And the winners must never humiliate them. They’ve lost, yes, but they’re not ‘pathetic losers’, if you know what I mean. Some of the noblest political speeches I’ve heard have been the words of concession that losers have offered to winners. I hope the winners heard them. For every winner will one day be a loser.
There’s dignity in this kind of humility, this willingness to play hard and to lose graciously. Acceptance of loss hushes the loser’s noisy ego. They tried their best, they spoke their truth, but there’s no shame in this loss and there’s nothing about it to fear. Acceptance of loss gives them access, somehow, to the generous voice of a deeper truth that has always been there. Democracy thrives when it heeds this voice, for it generates the very conviction that democracy requires.
America seems to have forgotten all about this. And not just America. But the Church, at its rare best — and I admit it’s very rare — cultivates the desire and discipline to hear that voice, to cherish the conviction it generates, and then to give it ‘flesh’, to live by it.
The first Epiphany revealed Jesus Christ to the nations, “the one Word of God which we have to hear, and which we have to trust and obey, in life and in death.” He manifested an astonishing strength in his seeming weakness — a seeming weakness because that’s how it seemed to Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, and to every fear-driven politician since then: weakness.
But the Church’s crucified Lord is not weak. His strength is his obstinate willingness to lose gracefully and beautifully. His only armour is the Big Truth whose logic is love, ‘losing one’s life to save it’, and his only weapon is the courage to speak and live by this truth. It’s the way that leads to life. This was always so.
Societies are stronger and better when they’re underwritten by divine truth and love. This happens to be a religious conviction, one that secularism has effaced and disparaged. It’s also an epiphany the Church holds on to, in trust, against the day when societies may be ready to receive it again, to learn how to desire it, and then dare to live by it.
4 February 2022