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.

Political religion & the prophetic

Buried in today’s local section, a Washington Post article reports that “a rare parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence” has been unearthed. John Quincy Adams’s State Department had ordered two hundred copies printed, and this exhumed copy was one of two from Adams’s edition given to former president James Madison. This copy was first hidden and then forgotten – hidden during the Civil War by those who knew its value and forgotten since then by those who didn’t.

Its rediscovery – and past reports of rediscoveries of several other copies – remind me of the discovery of the Mosaic covenant while the Bible’s King Josiah was having God’s temple repaired.1 Today we’re missing the covenant’s public reading and the subsequent repentance, though, that would complete my analogy. Maybe in the future, the rediscovery of a rare copy of the Declaration might cause the kind of self-examination and action that good King Josiah models.

This is not impossible. In his 1854 Peoria address, Lincoln called for a Josiah-like rediscovery of the Declaration:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. . . .  If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

Lincoln’s initial notion of what he called “political religion,” as he had articulated it fourteen years earlier in his Lyceum address, had involved merely a call to obey law and to exercise reason. By 1854, though, Lincoln’s concept had grown to incorporate a biblical understanding of covenant.

American civil religion is based on covenants, such as the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration, and it has its prophets, such as Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, and others. These prophets don’t predict things – or, if they do, they’re not functioning in their prophetic capacity, strictly speaking. Instead, prophets unearth covenants, which terrorize the powerful like the stalking corpses exhumed by Jesus’s crucifixion. Civil prophets practice what Walter Brueggemann calls “a historical imagination”:

The practice of imagination is a subversive activity not because it yields concrete acts of defiance (which it may), but because it keeps the present provisional and refuses to absolutize it. The practice of a historical imagination maintains the possibility of a future that is not continuous from the present. 2

Covenants give the phrase “historical imagination” – otherwise, a political oxymoron – its sense. America’s civil religion allows us to understand the past through covenants in order to imagine together a common future.

This relation of past and future confounds most political thinking today. A desired future is not a wholesale rejection of the past, as some progressives envision it, nor is a desired future a replica of a golden past, as some reactionaries envision it. A desired future is especially not the fixed continuation of the present, as authoritarians would have it.

A covenantal future, instead, is promising: it can be the result of actions taken consistent with commitments to one another. After all, a covenant by definition involves two or more people and nourishes their relationships in the future. A covenant acknowledges a society, it creates responsibility, and it offers a realistic future of both promise and contingency among its members. Above all, covenants allow us to participate in the freedom of God since the future is unknowable to all but him. Covenants in which God participates thereby give us the confidence to act as if actions matter.

The best American covenants are both normative with respect to the present and aspirational with respect to the future.  The most easily recognized American covenant is the Constitution, which in its primarily normative capacity serves as a legal yardstick. The Declaration, by contrast, is a covenant with a more primal and spiritual normative function. With it we can take a more essential measure of our candidates, our leaders, and their policies, as I did in an exercise involving candidate Trump over a year ago.

The most aspirational aspect of either of these two covenants is the Declaration’s Equality Clause. Compared to this clause, Lincoln said with a certain irony, the rest of the Declaration is “merely revolutionary.” “All men are created equal,” Lincoln asserted, was “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” though it certainly wasn’t in practice when he spoke those words about it in 1859. The Equality Clause is both a yardstick and an aspiration.

How do civil prophets move from a normative assessment of the present to an aspirational view of the future? (As I understand it, timing means a lot in prophetic speech and action.) My question may be part of a larger one: once the powerful succeed in making the future into a frozen present, how can the future – and with it the present – be thawed? How can political time resume?

This prophetic movement from the normative to the aspirational – using Brueggemann’s terms, the movement from “gestures of resistance” to “acts of deep hope”3 – mirrors a covenantal view of American history. In this view, Americans make a compact, fall away from it, and return to its spirit to either renew the old compact or to cut a new one. The prophetic voice during the slow slide from a covenant is normative – it is resistance arising from lamentation. As Brueggemann says, “the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve.”4

While our present politics are not at the stage in which “acts of deep hope” would serve anything more than what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness” or “the false consciousness,” the time for such acts will come. But whether our actions stem from legitimate grief or legitimate hope, they create political space that has never existed before.

In politics, to move from the claustrophobic present to a desired future takes what Hannah Arendt calls “the work of faith.”5 Against such works are arrayed “historical processes” that “can only spell ruin to human life.” Because human action, over time, always devolves into this future-denying “automatism,” Arendt sees no event that can ever, “once and for all, deliver and save a man, or a nation, or mankind.”6 In this sense, the need for political acts of faith is more obvious in some times and places than in others. History, to Arendt, amounts to long “processes of stagnation” interrupted by “human initiative.” 7  This human initiative creates “freedom,” a word that Arendt, like Brueggemann, associates with deliberate action that creates public space.

This post is an outline of my still-early understanding of the prophetic in civil religion. My view of today’s news about the recently discovered Declaration copy is itself perhaps a small prophetic exercise, one that finds the spiritual side of American covenant peeking through our consciousness as something like what the New Testament calls a “shadow.” A “shadow” is something concrete serving as an analogy for something more abstract, and it is something from the past serving as an analogy for something in the present or future. (Examples of Biblical “shadows” are in Hebrews chapters 8 and 10.) Some friends and I have broadened our concept of “shadows” to include things in the cultural sphere that serve as analogies for something current in the political or spiritual spheres.

There is one further detail from today’s “shadow” that I should explore, the one that I started with: the Post buried today’s story by putting it in its local news section. I speak facetiously, however, since I am beginning to understand the local’s importance to national concerns. I agree with both Brueggemann and Arendt that an effective response to an ignored covenant must start with recreating the local. Brueggemann speaks of the necessity and difficulty of creating a “subcommunity,” which he defines as “a community of peculiar discourse with practices of memory, hope, and pain that keep healthy human life available in the face of all the ‘virtual reality’ now on offer in dominant culture.”8 One of Arendt’s major theses in her 1963 book On Revolution is that the American Founders erred in not structuring local political participation into the Constitution. Action, she believes, is the essence of politics, and my watching the news and voting each year isn’t sufficient action to create the public space necessary for a healthy democracy over the long term. Instead, smaller local communities must be created or re-purposed to involve us socially and politically.

Social media, which economic and now political powers have begun to control and use for their own aims, is no substitute for public space.9 If you use social media, you may find it expedient not to look at it as a substitute for public space. The Pilgrims entered into a compact face to face on a small ship heading to America. Communities like that came together two centuries later in Philadelphia to, in Lockean terms, move from a state of nature into a national community. To realize the Equality Clause, we may have to do the kind of hard, face-to-face work that preceded the Founders’ covenant on July 4, 1776.

  1. 2 Kings 22
  2. Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Kindle loc. 2503.
  3. Brueggemann, loc. 178
  4. I have seen an example of this capacity to grieve at an exhibit by Teju Cole in Chelsea last summer entitled “Black Paper.” The exhibit featured a black wall covered with small photographs suggesting the process of grief Cole undertook following the 2016 elections in the United States.
  5. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, 166.
  6. Id. at 167.
  7. Id. at 169.
  8. Brueggemann, loc. 178.
  9. As Timothy Snyder says, “Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen.” On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 83.