Sunday, June 12, 2016

The imprisoned lightning

America in the twenty-first century is turning out to be a very dangerous place to live. I grew up in the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, my childhood straddling the divide between innocent and cunning America on either side of President Kennedy’s assassination, just as my lifetime straddles the divide between millenniums. Born in 1951, I may live to see 2051. Well, maybe that’s a bit too optimistic.

In spite of the sense of impending doom which crops up when horrific acts are reported in the media, myself, I remain optimistic. Can it be because none of these acts have happened near me, or to me? Every day I thank the Lord for sparing me, and giving me one more day of life, literally. My optimism rests on two things: my trust in God, and my belief that most people really want what is good.

Notice, I didn’t say, my belief is that most people are good, just that they want what is good. That’s a big difference. I don’t believe in ‘original sin’ or that people are born sinful, that is, disposed to evil. I do believe, based on my experience, that people are born needy, and that in the pursuit of what they need they sometimes, at worst often, do things they know are wrong, and the effects are cumulative.

Yes, I believe in a real right and wrong. So when people are born as innocents into the world, they find themselves in a place with a heritage of bad choices resulting in an environment of bad conditions, and they are automatically infected. They still want what is good, but their conditioning distorts what is good, so that goodness comes to be attributed to things that are, in fact, not good. But enough philosophy.

America is turning out to be a very dangerous place. When I was a child, my world was still protected by three or more centuries of evolved social conscience, which prevented individuals and society at large from doing or permitting certain things. Gambling was illegal, for example, and so were what is today called ‘drugs.’ These were things that society in general believed were addictive, and led to disaster. They do.

I was born too late to have experienced Prohibition, which was an issue that loomed so large, that it had to be written into the United States Constitution as an amendment. A century of struggle against the use of alcohol had finally won, and the whole country went dry for thirteen years, but in the end it was too much. Prohibition was rescinded. The very next year the Gold Surrender order got even with us.

Since we were again going to be allowed to drink beer, wine, and hard liquor, at least we would have to surrender to the Treasury all gold coins and gold banknotes in our possession. One form of control over people was exchanged for another. Society’s conscience was hacked in the process, and that was the beginning of the devolution, the unraveling of the three centuries or more of advancing civilization.

That civilization was driven by the momentum of Christianity. Although the fire of the gospel had been maintained only as embers after the breakup of the Christian state in Europe, after the wars of religion, the ethics of the gospel began gradually to revive side by side with varieties of piety and religious revival. America was the first and possibly greatest experiment in Christian statehood without religious control.

That was the original meaning of ‘separation of Church and State.’ We are still living in that experiment, but there were interests that wanted the experiment to fail, and they have gotten us very close to failing. They have done that by severing the connexion between citizens and civilization, by interjecting themselves between the man on the street, and the source of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’

That’s how they did it, they interjected themselves, eclipsing the source, convincing people that they were the source, and therefore could legislate anything they desired, they could engineer the kind of society that would be least likely to revolt against their control. Removing a little at a time our real ‘safety net’ and substituting their own, they have created the dangerous environment we now inhabit.

Removing the real, and replacing it with toys, they have corrupted all sense of value. We notice this not only when shopping for food which no longer nourishes but fattens and decays us, but when we go to buy a house and find it consumes half our income, and even if and when we have paid off our loans and credit cards, we find we have spent ourselves in the pursuit, not of happiness, but of nothing.

These things are the real dangers of living in America in the twenty-first century, but we are diverted from attending to them by the more horrific dangers, the massacres of innocent people by shoot-em-ups of every description, home-made criminals the by-products of the decay of our national knowledge of right and wrong. This week it was a gunner with an Islamic name, last week a deranged white boy.

The atheist probing the causes behind this decay often blames religion, and hurls insults at the God he doesn’t believe in, ‘If there is a god, and he’s so merciful, why doesn’t he step in and prevent hate crimes and other disasters?’ Himself another by-product of the crash landing of the social conscience, he couldn’t ask such a question, if he had the slightest notion of how the universe, and God, really work.

What we once had that made America a safe place to live in, that made it possible to know our neighbors and to trust strangers, what enabled us to have freedom of speech, and the right to bear arms, and all the other rights that we were once taught are inalienable, was a single, corporate, national conscience. That conscience was as close to what scripture calls ‘the mind of Christ’ as we could come.

It wasn’t perfect, because it wasn’t finished. That conscience was evolving. It was more than three hundred years old, beginning in the British Isles, in the Netherlands, in France. It was still living and growing here, even when at times, it was being stamped out in other places, even in the lands of its birth. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t finished, and it isn’t finished. It’s still alive, though weakened, dulled.

The imprisoned lightning, that is what this social conscience in all humankind is called in the inscription engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: ‘Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.’ There is something greater than mere idealism here, Someone greater.

‘Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ‘with backward mutters of dissevering power’—or else not,’ wrote C.S. Lewis in his short allegory, The Great Divorce. It is not too late for us, but what took centuries to build and decades to pull down is not, even in this age of immediate gratification, going to be rebuilt in the blink of an eye.

America in the twenty-first century can return to being a very safe place to live. Night doesn’t have to be inhabited by terrors. Strangers needn’t be approached as potential enemies. Neighbors can talk to each other, can collaborate on making the neighborhoods communities again instead of prison colonies. This can be a country where the imprisoned lightning in each person can be let free, but we must pick up the torch.

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