Just a few weeks ago, my quiet neighborhood in suburban Milwaukee was ravaged by the riots that have become all too frequent viewing on the evening news. In a piece I wrote detailing these events, “America’s Front Window,” I explained that our neighborhood was breached because we were all asleep, lulled into the new normal that we have accepted in our country. We boarded up our businesses and waited for the rioters. But when they breached the barriers, this time they did not stop at the stores. This time they saved their last bricks for the picture windows of private homes.
And when this happens to you, as it did to me, you will not feel afraid. “You think you will,” I explained in a subsequent interview on LA Catholic Radio, “but you don’t. You feel indignant.”
At a dramatic and urgent moment in the history of our young nation, captured in verse by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the patriots of the American Revolution are roused to action by a silversmith named Paul Revere. Vigilantly watching the belfry tower of Boston’s old North Church, he spies two lamps burning – the signal of British attack by sea – mounts his steed, and flies “fearless and fleet” through the villages and towns spreading his cry of alarm: “The British are coming!” Revere’s actions prepare the people for the stand they will take in defense of their liberty on the morrow: “For the fate of a nation was riding that night.”
Revere’s vigilance – “a cry of defiance and not of fear” in Longfellow’s words – is a clarion call to us all.
We didn’t have a rider rush through our streets announcing, “The rioters are coming, the rioters are coming!” But we should have seen the warning signs: National Guard stationed at the mall, a police barricade at city hall, a curfew, a shelter in place order to move away from windows. What is it we needed to believe that this was real?
The businesses and houses on the street where I live are now completely boarded over and, I suspect, will remain that way through the election aftermath – just in case. All over the nation, too, businesses are boarded up – just in case.
But the barriers have already been breached. The brick has been flung through the front window, and our response must be “a cry of defiance and not of fear,” as we defend our homes, our businesses, and our American way of life. The signal light is lit, and we must now continue to spread the alarm. Ours must become, like Revere’s, “a voice in the darkness, a knock at the door.” Simple actions. Small actions. But actions that have a profound effect.
As Longfellow put it, “the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight, kindled the land into flame with its heat.”
Something profound is taking place all over our land. As statues are toppled, businesses are burned, and our right to free expression curtailed by the gatekeepers, average Americans are finding their voice. And it is a powerful voice, because it’s the voice of liberty.
We value more ardently what we have when we face the possibility of losing it forever. My love of neighborhood – and our collective love of country – is heightened as we see the ideals we hold dear threatened with extinction by the cancel culture grasping to redefine our cultural landscape. Clearly, the ideals for which our historic figures lived and died are worth attacking – for some people – because they have culture-defining power.
When push comes to shove – or to violent attack – the American character runs deep. But this character must flow from a wellspring, and that source must be replenished. In America, we have something special in our hearts. There is power in the American story. But we cannot hand on the love of country if our children do not know the stories of our great heroes.
They can only understand that some things are worth total sacrifice if they have ridden through the night with Paul Revere on his steed, shivered shoeless in the snow with Washington’s Continental Army at Valley Forge, or journeyed defiantly on the Underground Railroad with Harriet Tubman. Passing on love of country through models of greatness to a child’s imagination is that simple, and that profound.
And sometimes our love of country calls us to the ultimate sacrifice, in defense of what is true and good and beautiful in our land. When such a call comes, we know that our lasting homeland is not of this earth. The greatness of our own nation is at the service of His will and purpose for humanity. And the greatest patriots are loyal to the Eternal King.
With Saint Maximilian Kolbe of Poland or Blessed Franz Jägerstätter of Austria, the ultimate witness of love is often inextricably strengthened by a higher love of this heavenly homeland. Ready to die for all we hold dear, as St. Edith Stein so aptly declared, “We go for our people.”
Our Lord has placed each of us here for a reason. We are born into a particular time and place for His purposes. It shapes who we are meant to be, and the souls we are meant to affect.
Everything is on the line when the voice in the darkness sounds the alarm. With the magnitude of such a message, carried “through the gloom and the light,” we cannot need a second knock at the door. There is not time. Let’s begin. The fate of a nation is riding on it.
*Image: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Grant Wood, 1931 [The MET, New York]
In Dr. Mitchell’s neighborhood . . .