In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I was tempted to begin today with Psalm 47.5: “God is gone up with a merry noise : and the Lord with the sound of the trump.”
I won’t. Instead consider what Jesus says in today’s Gospel:
“As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign when this is about to take place?” And he said, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, `I am he!’ and, `The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.”
The apocalyptic register of today’s Gospel lesson seems appropriate given the political situation in our country. The great Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, famously said that war was politics by other means. Riffing on that sentiment of Clausewitz, the late great Rene Girard observed that it also works the other way around: politics is war by other means.
People on every side of every divide in American life – and the divides in American life seem to be proliferating – but people on every side of every divide can agree that this election cycle was remarkable. And most agree – and certainly the self-described and self- appointed “experts agree – that the RESULTS of the election were remarkable. I have certainly never experienced anything like it in my lifetime, and I am struck by the fact that those much older than I am seem to have felt much the same. There has never been anything quite like it.
Most remarkable to me has been the hysterical reaction of some on the left who felt most alienated by the outcome. The famous pop starlet, Miley Cyrus, treated America to a bout of sobbing on Twitter as she attempted to wrap her mind around what had taken place. There have been protests in Dallas and Fort Worth and Austin, and there have been riots in the streets of a several other American cities. The house of my society in New Haven was defaced with leftist graffiti. Trump has been burned or hanged in effigy in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. A number of my friends have announced on social media that they cried themselves to sleep out of fear after the election. It was even reported that the immigration website of Canada had crashed due to a post-election surge in traffic.
The apocalypticism felt by many in light of Trump’s victory is frankly ridiculous. The sun rose on Wednesday morning of last week, as it has done every morning since, and as it will no doubt continue to rise each morning for some time. That is not to say that ideas don’t have consequences, as Richard Weaver famously put it, nor is it to suggest that elections don’t have consequences. But our attitude, as Christians, towards any potential consequences, and towards secular politics itself, must be tempered by an appropriate apocalyptic, as well as a recognition that, as Wendell Berry said several decades ago, “our country is not being destroyed by bad politics; it is being destroyed by a bad way of life. Bad politics is merely another result.”
Empires rise and fall. Indeed our sacred texts, under one aspect, are largely a record of the rise and fall of various empires. The Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, etc. etc. Right down to the Americans. One of the things I have most appreciated about the presidency of Barack Obama is his critique of what has come to be called “American exceptionalism.” Surely our country IS exceptional, in any number of ways. Yet so were the Egyptians. So were the Romans. But where is Pharaoh today? Where is Caesar? There is a political reality that is destined in God’s providence to come “down from heaven, as a bride adorned for her husband.” But the name of that political reality is not the United States of America. It is rather the heavenly city, new Jerusalem, and its boundaries within this world are coextensive with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Jesus said in today’s Gospel: “As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And Peter goes even further, in his second epistle (3.10): the elements of the material universe will themselves be burned up, together, he says, with the earth and all the works that are upon it, and the heavens themselves, he says, will pass away with a loud noise. That ought to temper the excitement of political conservatives about what their candidate might accomplish. Likewise it ought to temper the disappointment of political liberals about what opportunities may have been lost, or about what kind of “progress” might have been forestalled.
It was controversial, in the context of the Roman empire, for the first Christians to call Jesus “the Lord” – kyrios, in Greek. That was a title that belonged to Caesar. It was fine for local people to worship their gods, but the worship of their gods had to be under the auspices of Roman hegemony. It had to recognize “Caesar, kyrios.” It was on account of this demand that so many Christians in the first centuries of the Church’s existence lost their lives to Roman justice, being fed to lions, beheaded, crucified, burned to death. But our brethren in those years held fast to their confession: there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. And the blood of those early martyrs, as Tertullian said, became the seed of the ascendant Church.
We American Christians in 2016 are tempted with the same form of idolatry – of thinking that our faith (and any particular faith for that matter) can only be practiced legitimately under the hegemony of the regnant order. That our faith is one thing among many possible things that we are free to choose or not to choose. But that’s not how “lordship” works. Perfect freedom is in the service of Jesus the Lord, in the service of what is true. It is not, in the final analysis, something that can be chosen, nor is it something that can be given or taken away by the constitution of the United States.
The slightly-adapted words of Psalm 146, which I quoted in a recent newsletter, before the election, remain apt now, in the election’s wake: “O put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man : for there is no help in them. For when the breath of [Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton] goeth forth [they] shall turn again to [their] earth : and then all [their] thoughts perish. Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help : and whose hope is in the Lord his God; Who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is : who keepeth his promise for ever.”
In the wake of the election, one political philosopher at Notre Dame wrote the following, and for what its worth, I concur absolutely:
“We have made politics our God, and many will be tempted to regard this election either as an apocalypse or [as] redemption. It is neither. My fondest hope would be that we would invest far fewer of our hopes and fears in the government, [and] more in our families, communities, churches and [in] local democracy. Some good and some ill will come from the new administration. I am committed to calling out the latter as much as hoping for the former. But I am most committed to building a culture of faith, hope and charity, one that might hope to make politics far less important in our lives, and see people in their wholeness, not merely as partisans…”
“As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down…”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.