Lost in ironic detachment

When Barack Obama last month came out of his brief retirement, he gave a speech expanding on his famous stump maxim, “Don’t boo. Vote.” His new list of don’ts leading up to “vote” includes “Don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment.” Yet such a loss is one way to understand the Christian gospel. Without it, I wouldn’t vote.

Irony is not cynicism, its lazy first cousin. In the public realm, irony is the essence of justice. The Psalms, the prophets, and the Sermon on the Mount all speak of justice in ironic terms. When Samuel is born, the formerly barren Hannah proclaims that “The bow of the mighty is shattered, but those-who-stumble are girded with strength” (1 Sam. 2:4 Fox). Jesus’ birth leads to similar strains in Mary’s song: “He has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places” (Luke 1:52 NAB). Isaac, which means “laughter,” is named when his old, barren mother laughs at the suggestion that she would conceive him. And God himself laughs: “He who is throned in heaven laughs,” we are told, at princes who conspire against him (Psalms 2:1-4 NAB). Reinholt Niebuhr, quoting this verse in The Irony of American History, hears in God’s ironic laughter the possibility of earthly justice.

All of these birth stories – those of Isaac, Moses, Samuel, Jesus, and others – involve ironic justice precisely because every man and woman is a living irony, or as Hannah Arendt puts it, “man is a beginning and a beginner.” The miracle of each person’s birth, Arendt says, challenges the “automatic processes [that] can only spell ruin to human life.”1 Pharaoh, Eli’s sons, and Herod all seek to swallow the future into the present by monopolizing the public world – as it were, by supressing the vote.

Private man wishes only that a state apparatus not impede the private sector, and he asks the state to impartially adjudicate among private concerns like his own. But this utilitarian understanding of justice could – and did – operate in such realms as the Third Reich, which eliminate the public.

Irony is the first step back to a true public square. Its justice doesn’t merely decide between private, atomized disputants. Instead, it recognizes the claims of entire communities (Rowan Williams’s “trade unions, ethnic and cultural groups, co-operative societies, professional guilds . . . and, of course, churches and faith groups”2; Tocqueville’s “political associations”3) to a public life. A state apparatus alive to irony becomes, in Williams’s words, “a reliable and creative ‘broker’ of the concerns of the communities that make it up.”4 This “ironic detachment” leads me to members of groups I don’t belong to that are neglected or misused by cruel and automatic processes.

Irony is the midwife of the gospel’s second birth. I am David, whose righteous indignation against a rich thief leads the prophet Nathan to charge, “You are that man.” I am the Roman Christian warned by Paul: “You that judge do the same thing.” The second birth discovers my sense of justice contorted and privatized. Christ’s invitation echoes the psalmist’s and Hannah’s ironic justice: “He who seeks only himself brings himself to ruin, whereas he who brings himself to nought for me discovers who he is” (Matthew 10:39 NAB). My discovery of myself is only possible by living for another – for Christ both in God and in others. Biblical conversion, therefore, insists on a public world. Or as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “our discernment of God is at the breaking points in human community.”5

The irony is, had I not left home, the Democrats would control Virginia’s lower legislative chamber today. My parents’ district last year was decided by a coin toss following a tie vote, and the toss gave the Republicans their one-seat majority. To round out my claim to abdicated power: I keep up with my home town’s politics, I always vote, and I was inclined to support the Democrat.

Yet the prevalence of such anecdotes does nothing to increase voter participation. Why? People stay home on election day not because their vote won’t decide an election. They stay home because of “automatic processes.” They stay home because their home is their only world.

  1. Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, at 166 – 169.
  2. Williams, Rowan, Faith in the Public Square, at 49.
  3. Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, Norton ed. at 154-160.
  4. Williams, Rowan, supra, at 80.
  5. Brueggemann, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination, at 16.