Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), made the following remark as part of a longer statement about the violence in the United States Capitol: “I join people of good will in condemning the violence today at the United States Capitol. This is not who we are as Americans.”
With all due respect: who are we, really, as Americans?
Are we the Americans who demonstrate peacefully against injustices, real or perceived? Or the Americans who riot and vandalize cities such as Portland, Oregon—just 90 minutes up the road from where I live—for weeks and months on end?
Are we the Americans who tire of technocrats and experts issuing constant decrees about “pauses” and “freezes”? Or the Americans who shame and attack those who think such measures (and the virtue-signaling religion of perpetual mask wearers) should be questioned with facts and reason?
Are we the Americans who think Donald J. Trump is the savior of America, the last great hope for Christianity and freedom? Or are we the Americans who think Trump is the new Hitler and a racist demon whose tweets and hair should be condemned to everlasting (but clean-burning) fires?
Or are we the Americans who think both sides are short-circuiting zombies who cannot see the forest of reality for the trees of ideology?
Are we the Americans who think every white person is a racist who must atone until death for sins committed by the very non-action of not publicly baring their bigoted hearts? Or are we the Americans who insist racism is completely dead and gone, and that anyone who thinks racism exists in some form or fashion is a Marxist tool?
Or are we Americans who think that humans, being what they are, will always struggle with the sin of racism, not to mention every other sin and human ill that has been been around since The Garden?
I will not try to speculate here or try to make clear sense of the many (and often contradictory) reports coming out of the nation’s capital city. I will simply repeat what I wrote earlier today on Twitter:
The only consistent, principled stance is to denounce all riots and condemn all violent protests, regardless of ideological origins and goals. Period. I’ve written against the riots/protests of the past year and I stand against the current lawlessness and violence in DC.
Back in June, when the riots and conflicts in Seattle began to escalate rapidly, I told a good friend that I could see it spreading quickly to other cities. I put forward the opinion that Portland could well become the worst of the lot. He wasn’t sure, but never having lived in the Northwest admitted that he wasn’t a good judge of the situation. I didn’t want to be right, but I was, even though I’ve been rather surprised by what has transpired in Portland and how much Stygian gloom has been revealed in the process.
On the other hand, Seattle and Portland have long sought to be seen as free-wheeling, progressive, and cutting-edge cities that thrive on giving the middle finger to order, goodness, and the permanent things. The politics involved, as notable as they are, are mostly symptoms of a nihilistic culture enthralled with shaping an identity divorced from commonsense, natural law, and traditional beliefs about, well, nearly everything.
People here take pride in being open-minded. But, as Chesterton famously wrote, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Upon what, exactly, is this sort of culture founded? What roots nourish it? From what soil does it spring? And to what end? To pick up Chesterton’s metaphor: “Where’s the beef”? (And, no, tofu isn’t going to cut it.)
The same questions extend to the entire country. 2020 demonstrated that certainties are few and far between, even while the rigid nature of ideological arrogance has become a most certain part of everyone’s life. 2021 will likely see much more of the same, if only because 2020 was not a change from pre-2020 years, but a year-long ripping off of the scab underneath of which was a festering and feverish illness that could no longer be covered by pop culture clichés, political promises, and streaming bread-and-circuses.
In a June 4, 2020 essay titled “America in the Aftermath of George Floyd: Between Paganism and Christianity”, the political philosopher Joshua Mitchell wrote:
If Christianity is receding, then we will likely see the return to the pagan understanding that peoples are the proper objects of cathartic rage. That is a sobering truth, which defenders of secularism deny. The real alternatives might not be Christianity or secularism, but rather revelation or paganism. Should we return to paganism, one people will seek to cleanse themselves of stain by venting their cathartic rage on another people. The war between the gods of the nations would resume in full.
One of Mitchell’s main points, which he fleshes out in provocative and often brilliant fashion in American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (Encounter Books, 2020) is that we “are living in the midst of an American Awakening, without God and without forgiveness.” Politics is no longer about arguments over policies and prudence, but about transgressors and the anointed righteous who must render judgment against such irredeemable sinners.
Put another way, in broad terms, the current crisis in America is deeply spiritual and essentially theological. A robustly Christian nation would understand that we each, as individuals, will eventually have to answer to God, Creator and righteous Judge of all—and would seek to act accordingly. But a neo-pagan world is intent on judging and destroying whole groups of people, cleansing the whole polis of those who cannot and must not be heard, understood, or accepted in any way. As Mitchell sums up:
Americans today are torn between these two distinctly different understandings of what justice entails: pagan blood payment between peoples, which treats persons as mere proxies; or liberal justice, whose foundation is, finally, the Christian understanding of persons.
So, again: who are we, really, as Americans?
(Note: I originally identified Dr. Joshua Mitchell as Catholic. That is not correct; he is Protestant.)
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