Our Great and Fiery Tribulation

Apr. 8, 2017

Deflection. Deception. Disinformation. Disavowal. Duplicity.

Sadly, these appear to be the new normal in the highest offices of the honored government of my country, the United States. And there is little on the horizon to indicate anything but more of the same for a considerable period. The dominant approach, morally bankrupt as it is, appears to involve dismantling vast swathes of the federal government at home and upending international relations abroad, all in the name of serving the masses of "real Americans." That misleading rhetoric puts me in mind of a passage by the great conservationist John Muir, written over a century ago. The immediate context was whether Congress would let stand western forest reserves created by Executive Order, but the principle still seems to hold up in this moment of faux populism:


Much is said on questions of this kind about "the greatest good for the greatest number," but the greatest number is too often found to be number one. It is never the greatest number in the common meaning of the term that make the greatest noise and stir on questions mixed with money. . . . Complaints are made in the name of poor settlers and miners, while the wealthy corporations are kept carefully hidden in the background.


The day before yesterday, exactly a century after the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered World War I, it attacked a military site in Syria, a country created in the aftermath of that war. My meditations are grim. To be clear, chemical weapons are horrific. Like tens of thousands of other soldiers and civilians from around the world, my grandfather's older brother, a farm boy from South Carolina, was gassed during World War I and died of his injuries shortly after he returned home. The use of chemical weapons during that conflict was so shocking that an international treaty banned their use in 1925.


But I am neither more nor less disgusted by the recent deployment of chemical weapons in Syria than I was at similar instances in 2013, when the U.S. Congress refused to authorize airstrikes at least in part for partisan reasons. And I am neither more nor less disgusted by the use of chemical weapons than I am by the use of barrel bombs or any of the other brutal technologies of death by which Syrian civilians have been so efficiently butchered and the country's cities reduced to rubble for the past six years, by their own government and its cynical backers. One barrage of Tomahawks does not a strategy make, and we will see what the consequences--intended and unintended--of this military action will be. For the time being, I am unimpressed and unconvinced.


The larger questions--and not just about Syria--remain unaddressed. A hundred years after Woodrow Wilson called the American people to support a "war to end all wars," the anarchy inherent in a world system that still accords primacy to national sovereignty seems far from having run its course. Moreover, the same toxic spirit of partisanship that kept the U.S. from joining the League of Nations (after all, it wasn't just principle that led Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to oppose the brainchild of a southern Democratic President) is unfortunately alive and well, compromising the ability of government and people alike to think and act clearly in our relations with other countries, or even to make sense of social and economic policy at home.


The consequences of this course in the short run, both inside and outside the U.S., will surely be disastrous. Perhaps they may approach the size and scope of the disasters that followed the U.S. rejection of the League. I sincerely hope not. At any rate, more suffering, both physical and psychological, for countless millions at home and abroad seems at this rate to be virtually inescapable.


But my prayer, my resolve, is that out of the crucible should come a fuller measure of our country's--indeed, the world's--political maturity.


Whether manifested in domestic politics or foreign affairs, all of the outmoded beliefs that enable one portion of humanity to demonize, take advantage of, or ignore another will sooner or later bear the last of their bitter fruits, and we will have no choice but to adopt attitudes and behaviors that befit this inescapable reality: that this planet and every one of its inhabitants constitute one interdependent whole. Only then will our country be ready to exercise the kind of global moral leadership that seems so conspicuously lacking at the moment and for which, despite our many failures in the past, people the world over have consistently depended on us.


In 1954, with the Cold War intensifying abroad and the struggle for racial justice at home gaining momentum, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith and surely the most under-appreciated global leader of the twentieth century, addressed the underlying challenges facing the United States in language that seems all too relevant today:


The American nation . . . stands, indeed, from whichever angle one observes its immediate fortunes, in grave peril. The woes and tribulations which threaten it are partly avoidable, but mostly inevitable and God-sent, for by reason of them a government and people clinging tenaciously to the obsolescent doctrine of absolute sovereignty and upholding a political system, manifestly at variance with the needs of a world already contracted into a neighborhood and crying out for unity, will find itself purged of its anachronistic conceptions, and prepared to play a preponderating role . . . in the unification of mankind, and in the establishment of a world federal government on this planet. These same fiery tribulations will not only firmly weld the American nation to its sister nations in both hemispheres, but will through their cleansing effect, purge it thoroughly of the accumulated dross which ingrained racial prejudice, rampant materialism, widespread ungodliness and moral laxity have combined, in the course of successive generations, to produce, and which have prevented her thus far from assuming the role of world spiritual leadership forecast by 'Abdu'l-Baha's unerring pen--a role which she is bound to fulfill through travail and sorrow.


America has to grow up fast, and it's not going to be easy. People of all walks of life are becoming more desperate for real solutions, for models of community and of governance that bind us together in common purpose and shared identity instead of tearing us apart.


Good ideas are already starting to rise to the top. A few months ago I came across this speech by Valarie Kaur, a Sikh filmmaker and civil rights activist from California. She delivered it in a church in North Carolina for an interfaith Watch Night service, the traditional African American commemoration of the coming of the Emancipation Proclamation, hosted by Rev. William Barber of the non-partisan Poor People's Campaign. In this remarkable speech, Kaur eloquently captures my sentiments with an analogy that also happens to appear in the sacred writings of my faith: What if this night into which we have descended isn't the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?


Let's get to work. In the difficult days to come, our country is going to need a lot more midwives.

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