These days I greet the two scenes depicted in Psalm 149, and their foreshadowing (and fore-shaping?) of what may come in 2020, with joy and trepidation. The psalmist first evokes an immense joy through banquet imagery and a call to worship Yahweh by “singing a new song” and “praising his name in dance, making music with tambourine and lyre” (v. 3). An ecstatic moment, it all delights the Lord, who has “honored the poor with victory” (v. 4). One imagines the shades of Miriam and David returning and whirling in wild abandon with a host of celebrants. Rebels turned revelers. What other way to express radical amazement in the face of what God has wrought? Having been moved, this tango dancer starts to take steps, begins to move, each and every time he reads or hears the psalm’s opening verses. An earthy, earthling ecstasy on display here. No up-sweep into the eschatological just yet!
Now imagine with me a strong Democratic sweep in 2020 and a huge victory party in Central Park with raise-the-roof music and let-it-loose dancing. Taste and see it. Savor the moment in mind’s eye. After the Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis co-bless the many-colored multitude, I can hear Leon Bridges covering Lennon and see all the people swaying, hand in hand in hand. A great assembly of the Rainbow Coalition. Bloomberg and Schultz are in the crowd, not on stage, and no one notices!
Alas, the psalm then pivots badly to an ugly scene. What comes next is a sword for the godless others, wielded with righteous fury by God’s people, now authorized to “bring retribution on the nations, punishment on the peoples, binding their kings in shackles, their nobles in chains of iron, executing the judgments decreed for them” (vv. 7-9). Psalm 149 ends with Israel celebrated as Yahweh’s righteous, avenging horde: “such is the glory of all God’s faithful” (v. 9). You shall dance on their graves!
Only there’s no ending, no bastards dead and done, since the psalm moves many an assembly today, becoming again and again what feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible calls a “text of terror” with continuing deadly effects in history. With each recital, Psalm 149 evokes a powerful joy and then morphs into…what? How shall we name this shadow (or is it an evil substance, like a cancer?) within the gathered faithful--us among them? Dare we acknowledge these shades (poisons?), much less face up to them? Ah, the stubborn, stubborn mystery of human sinfulness that Augustine and Calvin, Niebuhr and Barth, counsel us never to discount. This WM eco-theologian from Concord, MA wants to flee into the wilderness! Enough, drown me now in Walden Pond!
Reflecting on Psalm 149, I tremble at what 2020 may bring. Ear to ground, recent rumblings do not reassure. As the impeachment drums beat more loudly in coming months and the primary contest heats up, I wonder how long the Donkey herd will forbear the faux king astride the corporate Elephant. That he has no clothes is apparent to most adult asses, not just the foal. And if the donkeys do grow ornery en masse, whether before or after the (stolen?) election, I suspect the well-armed wardens of the corporate security-surveillance state we now inhabit will do more than bark warnings to ward off any fatal exposure of the neoliberal regime’s Barnumesque, Oz-like leader. Remember who owns the guns out there. Lots of them.
All this may appear alarmist or, at best, premature, but permit me to share my unscientific findings on the country’s air quality, i.e., the foul air in the public square. Lately I’ve made an admittedly bad habit of wading nose-deep into large, odorous pools of WaPo posts that appear online in response to articles and op-eds about the presidential horse race, which incredibly is nearing the first turn already. (Ever the political entrepreneurs, WaPo’s exec editors also are running a weekly ranking/handicapping feature pompously titled the "Post Pundit 2020 Power Ranking." Is your fav Dem pol in the Top 15? Has s/he slid down or shot up the Leaderboard? How else to keep democracy from dying in darkness!) Mucking about in these cyber-stalls, one mostly smells manure, of course, though on occasion a fragrant insight, actually true fact, or alluring analysis wafts by (it’s spring after all). Still, the former whiff—often pungent--predominates by far.
From moderate Bidenistas to mad-dog Bernie Bros, I find with alarming frequency that comments on the Left exude something other than a healthy moral disgust with #DerangedDonald. Shifting the metaphor slightly, it seems the unholy smoke from a national house on fire has gone through the nostrils and far into many lungs on the Left, and I fear it’s already mutating into something quite unhealthy. You can detect it in their coarse, coughing rhetoric--an off-putting echo of their Old Left standard bearer. They “feel the Bern” still because they are burning with a righteous anger that smells, well, a lot like hate. Not good.
Put another way, these pools of posts I’ve been wading through contain a subtle yet dangerous poison, and these poisoned pools gather and flow daily into a deepening reservoir of resentment and rage among folk toward whom, generally speaking, I gravitate politically.
We progressive Christians—and to be clear, I voted for BS in the 2016 Dem primary and confess to bouts of biblically-fueled righteous anger--tend to assume too easily that all the illiberality lies to the Right of us. We strive to walk the Micah walk, truly yearn for Jubilee justice, respect the rule of law, defend Mumia’s right to due process, etc. But they don’t, damn it all!
Consider the powerful, lucid rhetoric of Chris Hedges, a progressive Christian and fearless writer-activist I greatly respect. After immersing himself in the pain and despair of red-state America a few years back, Hughes now deploys the phrase “American fascists” routinely to describe the Christian nationalists underwriting MAGA Trump’s con er, crusade. At once accurate and incendiary, I worry such language may nurture illiberal tendencies lurking not only within engaged lefties on the coasts but also within a largely un-‘woke but increasingly insecure, pissed-off populace (the opposite result of what Hedges intends, of course).
My fret this time is founded upon social-scientific findings. First, only 24% of U.S. voters register Republican, just 31% register Democrat, leaving 42% independent (3% join third parties). Second, reviewing a raft of new survey data, researcher David Adler finds that “respondents at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, least committed to its institutions, and most supportive of authoritarianism” (“The Centrist Paradox”). So, it may not be the two Koch Bros, or the tiny tea-party remnant, or even the troublesome mini-tribe of alt-rightists we must worry most about. Instead, the not-so-latent danger is an illiberal streak borne of fear running through millions of economically vulnerable Americans. Droves of donkeys so disgusted with democracy’s dysfunction they no longer believe in it. Walls and weapons sound good to these folks when liberal elites prove ineffectual repairers of the guardrails.
This disturbing data point helps to explain in part why Trump’s rogue candidacy gained traction, but for secular and religious progressives alike the more important question it raises for 2020 and beyond is whether and how faith in the idea of democracy can be renewed. Rhetorically, Biden’s announced “calling” to run appears pitched to this challenge. IMHO, right message but wrong messenger (sorry, Joe, you have less street cred than you know).
Note as well what has happened on campuses to the noble art of democratic deliberation, exemplified last year at Villanova University (where I teach) by the public dialogue between conservative legal scholar Robert George and Cornel West, both of whom saw fit to retrieve the virtue tradition and practice of parrhesia. Alas, the woke ones on campuses across the country, now weaponized with intersectional phraseology and trigger-happy, claim the mantle of “social justice warrior” and manage to chill the air enough so that conservative undergrads keep their mouths shut. Not cool, kids.
Turning to the theological dimension of all this, let us remind ourselves that Christians are not called to save democracy--or any other human construct, ideological or otherwise--from itself. We are called to witness to God's love by going and doing likewise. We care for all creation as we taste and see and celebrate in joy and gratitude its goodness even now. We glimpse faintly the eschatological horizon and dare to announce the coming of a beloved community and "new heaven and earth" that remains always out ahead of us, as it were. Tikkun olam is our calling, too. We follow Yeshua ben Nazareth, an uncommonly good Jew.
I suggest we retrieve in this moment Niebuhr’s sense of the tragic as well as his ability to sniff out liberal illusions and willingness to call out liberal self-righteousness, even as he raked the really nasty plutocrats of his day over the coals. Doing so may help us to ponder seriously the unlikely, Overton-window-breaking scenario of, say, a newly-elected Democratic administration and Congress over-reaching badly in its zeal to bring Wall Street's stallions firmly to bit while also vigorously prosecuting all neoliberal miscreants (beginning with #DethronedDonald), only to find the over-reach igniting rampant capital flight (and a slew of other corporate counter-moves to stymie structural reforms) as well as a violent backcountry backlash (with flames fanned by Joel Ornstein & Co). Regarding the latter, they are Legion who swear on the KJB to die by the sword in defense of Donald and the MAGA dream, and if you couple his demise with a neo-Reconstructionist initiative or Green New Deal project that effectively belittles them again, then it surely will unleash serious blowback down South. Again, remember who owns the guns. Lots of them. And recall who burned the Highlander Center down a few months ago, marched on U. VA's campus in 2017, blessed the rigging of elections in NC, and so on.
Or we might ponder a (stolen?) election result that triggers not a women’s mass demonstration against indecency, circa January 2017, but a hugely undisciplined and wickedly polarizing reaction (not the progressive-populist Movement of movements we actually need) “led” by enraged (il)liberals. In either scenario, the country could spiral downward into a Blood-Red Zone it’s never been in and from which it might never recover.
Yugoslavia, Venezuela…it can happen here. Too many prophets in the Tanakh have warned us thus. If and when the dam of civility breaks and the reservoir rages down through the valley, before or after the election, it’s not hard to imagine lots of people in the pews hearing Psalm 149 preached and demanding at fever pitch full punishment and/or perpetual internment of [fill-in-the-blank].
Finally, the IPCC told us last fall--pretty much point-blank, finally--that we can expect hordes of hungry campesinos y campesinas, aka climate refugees, to continue marching toward El Norte, a prospect likely to prompt growing calls for the construction of a well-provisioned and well-guarded Amerikan Ark. If Adler is right about the centrist paradox, then these authoritarian voices backed by buckets of corporate dollars won't appeal simply to the Right (an opening for son-of-Trump here). Christian Parenti in particular gets it; his analysis of the "catastrophic convergence" of die-hard neoliberalism, a Cold War militarism now given new license to expand post-9/11, and quickening climate change is sobering. Along these lines, a re-reading of Conrad's "An Outpost of Progress" seems in order.
None of these dark observations are meant to de-motivate us. Enormously hopeful movements and voices--and here I hold up the new Poor People's Campaign, Sunrise's current "national tour" of town hall meetings, and Andrew Yang's ongoing "Humanity First" tour, among many others--need our financial support and active participation. As I argue in Sustainable Abundance for All (Wipf and Stock, 2018), working together to make the "adjacent possible" of positive social change a reality--through nonviolent direct action campaigns, formation of co-ops, and a hundred other projects along many fronts--is an integral aspect of what good lives are about.