About 60 percent of Americans believe in the existence of Hell. For those who don’t, a pretty good working replica has been on display in our streets since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd. Or if Hell is too strong an image, think Weimar Republic. But Hell is closer to the truth.
People tend to imagine Hell as a lake of fire, thanks to Scripture, or nine descending circles of torment, thanks to Dante. But I suspect the real Hell is both more prosaic and more terrifying. It’s something akin to the answer Faustus got when he asked the devil Mephistopheles how, since he’d been damned, he could manage to leave Hell: “Why, this is hell,” said the demon, “nor am I out of it.”
Just as love is the furnace powering heaven, rage – with all of its subcurrents of confusion, despair, frustration, and conflict – irradiates hell. The damned cannot escape it because they cannot escape themselves. Hell is the shape they have made for themselves.
But what’s that got to do with the last few ugly days (and nights) in America?
Henri de Lubac once noted that, in the modern era, hatred for religious heretics had declined. But not, he said, because we have grown more charitable hearts. Instead, we simply transferred our interests and our hatreds to politics. Our real passion today is power and eliminating anything that stands in our way of getting it and exercising it.
Anger in America over the George Floyd killing has deep and legitimate roots. Racism is one of our nation’s primal sins. Its residue continues to poison our public life. Much of the rioting over the past week has been an explosion of fury at yet another dose of that poison. The pent up frustrations of a COVID-19 quarantine, health fears, and disruptions in employment have helped to fuel the chaos in the streets. But the rioting has also unleashed systematic violence and political hatred not seen in decades.
Within the lifespan of the boomer generation, there was a time when most Americans believed they had a stake in ownership of the nation. Most knew the basic ideas of the Founding. Most had a shared sense of national history. It’s true that American politics has always had an ugly side, and anyone who lived through the bitter turmoil of the 1960s knows that national unity was an illusion.
Yet despite their differences, most Americans even then felt that they shared and had some say in the course of the country. Many still believe that. As the years go by, though, their act of faith seems to have less and less grounding in fact. We were a republic. We’re now, at least in substance, an empire.
Economic and demographic changes, judicial rulings, and foreign wars over the past half-century have transformed the American reality. Our public institutions and structures of law give the appearance of enduring. But they are not immortal. To survive they need to be fed by popular confidence, a spirit of compromise, and a shared sense of national purpose that goes beyond “what’s in it for me.”
A consumer culture – which is what we are – excels at addressing personal appetites. It fails at promoting and sustaining anything beyond the self. That congenital weakness first drains the life out of a politics of solidarity and then replaces it with tribalism and a Hobbesian war of all against all. And all conflict, all the time, is a decent facsimile of Hell.
It would be simple to blame the current coarseness of our politics on Donald Trump, his needless name-calling, his belligerent tweets, and his aggressive personal manner. Many are eager to do exactly that. And he certainly deserves some of the obloquy. But he’s a symptom, not the cause.
Democratic Party leaders like Pelosi, Schumer, Schiff, and others, have been more than generous in stoking the extremist, toxic tone of our political environment. Without a mutually shared sense of obligation to God or higher power that will hold us accountable for our actions – something now reduced to lip service in our public life – politics is simply about power and the war to get it.
And as the intensity of D.C.’s spirit of conflict permeates downward, it triggers those countless front yard “Hate Has No Home Here” signs, most of which are genuine and sincere; and others that mask their own seeds of bitterness with virtue signaling.
It’s easy to feel dwarfed by the scope of the problems we face. The point is, what do we do? I can offer only two thoughts.
The first is, again, from De Lubac. He once wrote that “I do not have to win the world, even for Christ: I have to save my soul. That is what I must always remember, against the temptation of success in the apostolate. And so I will guard myself against impure means. It is not our mission to make truth triumph, but to testify for it.”
The second is from the First Letter of Peter: “So put away all malice, and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander . . .Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God.” And yes, even “Honor the emperor,” no matter who he or she is. (1 Pet 2:1-18)
It’s not a very satisfying message. We want so hungrily to vindicate the good and punish evildoers in whatever shape they take. But we do that, ironically, by the shape we make and take for ourselves. Nations change when we change. And the latter is the much harder task.
*Image: Club Night by George Bellows, c. 1907 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC]