Sunday, July 05, 2020

Our Own Vines and Our Own Fig Trees: a Post-Independence Day, Post-Hamilton-Watching Sermon

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Like plenty of other Americans (and, given likely demographics, probably in particular like plenty of readers of this blog), my family and I watched the musical Hamilton over the July 4th weekend. Our second-oldest daughter, who was home to join us yesterday, had actually seen the show in 2016 on Broadway; for the rest of us, as familiar as we were with the music, watching the show was a new experience--and it was a lovely one, a wonderfully funny and dramatic, visually and aurally compelling, and historically challenging (in more ways than one), piece of filmed theater. It was three hours very well spent.

Most of all for me, I enjoyed spending time in the virtual company of Chris Jackson's stylized portrayal of George Washington. All the musical's theatrical depictions are hyper-stylized, of course (it's fundamentally a work of fan fiction, after all), but there was, in my view, an astonishingly deep and consistent core to what Lin-Manuel Miranda put into the figure of Washington, brought to beautiful life by Jackson's presence and baritone voice. That core connects with something mythic, something, frankly, scriptural. Appropriately so, since Washington's central song in the musical, "One Last Time," in which Washington instructs by example the unfortunately mostly unteachable Alexander Hamilton the decency and wisdom of knowing when to walk away from power and the contests over power it always involves, is the only line in the whole libretto which quotes the Bible--Micah 4:3-4, specifically. It reads (from the NRSV):

He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

This is a messianic passage, and generally speaking, folks in contemporary democratic (or at least democracy-aspiring) states don't like associating politics, and especially not specific political figures, with messiahs. And yet we do, constantly, all the time. After watching the music, my only comment on social media was to quote the devastatingly dark and funny (and, I think, fundamentally true) line given to the hilariously arch King George III, in the song "I Know Him," immediately following Jackson's rendition of the above song, when he learns that Washington was retiring from the presidency and John Adams had been elected to take his place: "Oceans rise / Empires fall / Next to Washington, they all look small." In response to which, a commenter linked to this command performance of the song:

Many of the mostly self-identifying liberal readers of this blog will likely find themselves touched by this moment, especially in light of the Trump years which have followed it. Yet at the same time, many of those same readers--to say nothing of those few of my fellow leftists out there--are likely to find themselves, as I see it anyway, in a bit of a contradiction. Isn't this kind of sympathetic idealization, which is really a kind of idolization, basically kind of wrong? Don't we want to avoid getting all romantic about those who stand before us in leadership positions? Aren't we obliged to respond to any kind of hero-worship, however wistfully expressed, with thorough-going critique, if not outright rejection? Shouldn't we be, as one of my By Common Consent co-bloggers recently suggested, iconoclasts, tearing down images which presume to situate some felt ideal in the body of some invariably flawed (and, unfortunately often in our history of public statuary, affirmatively racist and criminal) person?

If you don't see or feel this contradiction, more power to you; it may only manifest itself to people like myself who flirt with dangerous philosophical ideas. And I'm not being ironically self-deprecating when I call them "dangerous"--there is a lot of history which proves the danger of reading passages like Micah's above and believing, as I do, that's it's not just poetically describing a hopeful vision of peaceful rest, but is also communicating the holiness, the sacramentality, of being in a place of peaceableness and rest. Start thinking that way, and soon you're thinking: "where can I find such a place?" Or, "how can I make such a place?" And then, eventually, worryingly, "who can make such a place for me?" Could have President Obama? Despite his self-association with the old activist phrase "we are the ones we've been waiting for," he hardly governed in a manner which rigorously avoided any attempt to embody certain ideas for and on behalf of the American people. Nor has President Trump, for that matter. I mean, he did promise to "Make American Great Again," right?

The perversity of linking the actions of President Trump--who has basically never made any serious effort to pretend that his administration reflects or represents or embodies any kind of general civic ideal--with this idealization simply shows up the problem, I think. The very fact that so many will criticize Trump for being unpresidential underscores that most of us think, most of us want, presidents of the United States to be presidential, even if our critical sensibilities tell us otherwise. (The same goes, though obviously to much different and often much lesser degrees, for pretty much all leaders of all communities, I suspect.) Some part of us wants them to embody something! And while many might articulate it differently, I suspect that that wished-for embodiment might best be described as a identification with a longed-for place, or way of being in a place--in the case of the president of the United States, an "Americanism," if you will. A sense that, in other words, this person is making for us, showing us, the way it is supposed to be here. Here, under our own vines, under our own fig trees: it should be like this. Which means, I think, that while the substantive content is radically dissimilar, the phenomenology of putting on a MAGA hat may not be all that different from watching Hamilton and mourning that moment of classiness back in 2016. Especially when we think about it in connection with, and through a stylized and powerfully sung representation of, Washington at the moment of his Farewell Address, with such a thoroughly problematic yet aspirational phrase as "I want to warn against partisan fighting"! (It shouldn't have surprised me to learn from my daughter that there was a gospel remix of this song with Obama speaking lines from the address.)

I write all this not to critique this, but to sermonize on behalf of it. I like, and more importantly actually believe in, this part of politics (which means, this part of living in society with other people, no matter what the organization of that society may be). I like and believe in this admittedly dangerous sentiment; it has always--at least for as long as I can remember thinking about any of these matters--appealed to and made intuitive sense to me. I think it is not only a very human thing, but also, at least always potentially, a very good thing. I was up early this morning with a headache; it was still dark out, and the lines of "One Last Time," and particularly Jackson's gorgeous and plaintive singing of them, kept ringing through my head. And I found myself reflecting upon all the ways in which I've felt myself spiritually pulled towards feeling some real truth in, and thus wanting to defend, this conceptualization of our life as embodied, historical, dialogic, relational beings over the decades. Traditions, holidays, civil religion, public expressions of faith, presidential rituals, civic associations--they've all been part of this decades-old argument I've been having with myself (and others) over what it means to intentionally (and thus more often than not romantically) make, and then consequently to be in and belong to, a place. These vines, these fig trees, and being able to find in them, or having them revealed to us or invoked for us as, a peaceable place that is our own. My thinking about those places have changed over the years. I was much more willing to think nationally about places in the past, whereas now I think much more about local places, and the peace of the home and the neighborhood they can bring. That's a holy thing, I believe.

It is also, unfortunately, always potentially an exclusionary thing as well. Our vines--go away, they're not yours, they don't belong to you! That's a dangerous sentiment, or at least as a Christian and a man of the left I can't help but feel that way. The holiest--and thus, if you'd prefer I use the secular terms I consider to be equivalent, the most empowering and equalizing and democratic--approach to this messianic passage of scripture, the truth within it that calls to us, I think, no matter what the scale of the communities we live within or the character of the leadership which exists within them, is this one:

When Miranda put into Washington's mouth the lyric expressing a retiring president's wish to be "at home in this nation we’ve made," think, I would suggest, not of nation-states, but of the original meaning of "nation": natio, or as we might say today, a "peoplehood." It is both reasonable and even moral, I think, to long for, to look for the embodiment and instantiation of (and, yes, to memorialize through song and statuary, with the understanding that statues can come down and, just as Hamilton did, songs can be resung), one's people and place, one's vine and fig tree, one's home. But that longing has to co-exist with the imperative to enable all of God's children to have their people and place, their vine and fig tree, their home. Maybe their and our homes will turn out to be--will constructed to be, will be sung by someone like Christopher Jackson so as to be revealed to be--one and the same. As the hippies used to say, maybe all us critters have a place in God's choir--or in the Hamilton ensemble, for that matter. I won't presume to think that I could take Washington's place under his vine and fig tree. But maybe he can make space for me, and vice versa, all the same.

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