I took late tea yesterday in a small, out of the way coffee house, not Starbucks, but a place very much like it. There were only a few people other than the wait staff gathered around a large screen TV in one corner to watch a 9/11 ceremony.
One was an older man, older than me, with a huge American flag stretched out on a white T-shirt sagged over his pot belly. He snorted at the anniversary events, replete, as they were, with tears and poems and prayers.
“America,” he offered as benediction to the open air, ” is closer to a revolution than they know.”
“Closer,” he repeated and his huge gut shook the flag this time, “than they even think.”
He did not seem to need a reply and I offered him none. He did not advocate revolution, it seemed, he just wanted to demonstrate he knew what “they” did not imagine. He did not even confess to the identity of “they” or “them.” He saw a revolution coming, somehow, out of the blurry twelve year lapse between the Al-Queda attack on America and the bleary present. He did not seem to want violent revolution, so t was just qs good, I thought, to take the tea and let the talk go.
His announcement startled a bit, given his age and gender. I imagine he served the nation somewhere along the way in some variation of the armed forces. His hair was military cut and his bearing mostly erect, except for the great belly. He was not anti-American, just one of those disappointed folks who spend their last years wishing things could be as they mostly never were.
He made me think of the English war poet, Edmund Burden, who, I think, wrote something like these words, though I cannot find them now in any place but my own dim memory:
This was my country and it might yet be, but something came between it and the sun.”
And what came between us and the sun? i think, at least in part, it is our loss of the sense of family. The classical meaning of family is not explained just by its composition, any more than the philosophical school of realism must be determinism, or theology has to be just a disagreement between Perfectionism and Predestination, as if those things are different at all.
No, the classical family is not just this kind of traditional format or that, but rather, classical family values can be described as mutual self-sacrifice. Churches used to describe themselves as families, as did unions and armies and other unlikely groups, like armies, who called themselves a “band of brothers,” and would willingly lay down their lives for one another.
In fact, the Biblical idea of masculinity (remember when he Bible mattered?) is self-sacrifice, likening the groom to the Christ, who loved His bride, the Church, and gave Himself for her. Human leadership is not lordship, it is sacrifice, and the more the better and the sooner is better as well.
If we lost anything, Americans, while we dwelt beneath a clement sun in a cloudless sky, it is the values of a family willing to make sacrifice for the sake of the joy of the other. The sick simplicity of our illness is this; the right people took the wrong line and the rest of us followed. If we have done anything wrong, sinned any sin, it is to become a place under heaven where the strong are not good and the good are not strong.
America, you remember, began as a movement, not a nation. Movements are always better than nations or institutions but the dreadful truth about movements is this one; when you finally hear about a movement it is in its second generation, no longer really a movement and almost certainly captured by the job seekers for the revolutionaries are dead or gone or dead and gone. The job seekers, now the job holders, almost always describe themselves as pragmatists and they are the certain death of a movement. Pragmatists are neither generous nor hospitable and that is where movements die. Jesus spent His days and gave His life to open His table for all. The Church has spent twenty centuries trying to close it to all.
America differed (and may still) with all other nations in its dogged generosity. I can say this in the face of our history of racism and near genocide if its aborigines because America agonizes over its errors and always corrects toward kindness. Jeffersonian, or Lincolnian (and the two are as different as they are alike), Americans knew what our ancestors in Britain did not know, that freedoms of religion, speech and assembly were required for a nation of commonwealths and colonies to be a family determined to mutual self-sacrifice. We saw once, and may see again, that the violation of one fellow’s rights, not matter how wretched and repugnant he may seem, presages the violation of of everyone’s rights.
You and I know that Jefferson violated the basic rights of his slaves. He hated himself for it but not enough to let them go. Lincoln violated States Rights so powerfully we had a Civil War and Lincoln’s violation of States Rights and basic personal rights was so gripping we continue to feel the ripples today, more than 150 years later, in our visceral response to the Affordable Health Care Act, imposed by the Federal government but rejected by so many of the states it might yet touch off what the fat, short haired old fellow in the little tea house foresaw.
Let us not forget.