Saturday, February 7, 2015

Being Blind to History

The shoutfest about the President's recent comments at a prayer breakfast have me genuinely confused.  In condemning ISIS/IS brutality, he noted, briefly, the dark stain of violence that has colored the past of many faiths, his own included.  He called for people of every faith and tradition to resist violence, and to seek the best in their faith.

For which, of course, he was attacked, through the thoughtful medium of the twitterverse.  What better way to capture subtlety than in a single 140 character blort of blind, thoughtless outrage?

He was critiqued for mentioning the Crusades, and of the use of twisted scriptural interpretation to justify racism.  These things happened, of course.  They were real, historical, actual events.

And honestly, things go deeper still.  Crusades?  Racism?  Pish posh.  Those are just the familiar ones, the easy ones.  We've done plenty more.

There was the Thirty Years war, of course, a sustained period of violence and bloodletting in Europe back during the 17th century.  That involved witch hunts, heretic torturings, and all manner of creative horror putatively in the name of Jesus.  Torture chambers, lined with bible verses?   They were there, and that's taking Sunday school to a whole 'nutha level.  It was right there.

Or the subsequent Marian persecutions in England during the reign of "Bloody" Mary, who publicly burned and drew and quartered Protestants by the score in the 16th century.  Oooh, except for that one guy, who was midway through being burned when someone decided to hurry things along by bashing in his skull.  That'd have made a hell of a Youtube.

Or the unpleasantness of Oliver Cromwell's Protestant roundheads, who executed Catholics, including one whose execution was so badly botched that the victim got up from the chopping block after several tentative strokes and demanded that the headsman just do his **** job already.   Back and forth, bloody and brutish, a horror almost beyond our capacity to grasp.  All Christian, or putatively so.

Even we Presbyterians have pitched in on occasion.  I've read and studied John Calvin, the founder of my wing of the reformed tradition, and I totally appreciate some of the aspects of his theology.  Some.  Others, not so much.  But I also know that he was a significant part of the process that ended when Michael Servetus, a "heretic," was burned alive.  For what?  For being a Baptist and a scientist, basically.  For not believing correctly.  That was it.

Had Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin lived in Geneva at the time and believed what they believed, I'm reasonably sure Calvin would have killed them too.

And that's perhaps most insane about the knee-jerk anti-Obama response on the part of the far right.  It is not that they're riled that he mentioned some of the mess of our past.  It's that their response is also fundamentally not conservative.   Neither is it American, not if the history and purpose of America as a republic has any meaning.  They're so eager to score points that they're happy to score own-goals.  They are so blinded by outrage that they don't see how much they betray the very principles they claim to defend.

I don't buy the hagiographic golden-city vision of America's past, because I'm not an idiot, but neither will I reflexively attack everything about this country.  There were seeds of enlightened goodness there.

One of those seeds of goodness was the flight from religious oppression, from a place where nominally Christian religious violence raged to a place where religious oppression was fundamentally against the law of the land.  We've struggled at times to live into that, but it's right there in our founding.  Where we've failed, acknowledging that failure is the best and only way to ever improve.  Acknowledging you have a problem is step one, eh?  You can't repent and change if you don't recognize your sin, to put it another way.

So here, a president evokes America at her still-striving best, the best hope, the goal towards which we yearn.  He acknowledges where we've been, and affirms our hope as a nation to transcend that blight of violence and oppression.  And he gets flack for it.