In my adult life, I have never witnessed such a randomly violent spring and summer as we have had this year: priests murdered while saying Mass; Turkish troops surrounding U.S. military bases; police being executed while on duty; police reacting to stresses (too often poorly) beyond the imagination of most of us; trucks driving through celebratory crowds; demagogues undermining republics; and on and on and on….
Though I’m sure the summer of 1968 seemed just as horrific—I wouldn’t turn one-year-old until that autumn, so, of course, I have no memories of that time—I can’t state this with the certainty of personal observation.
And, let me clarify what I mean by the violence of 2016 as being somehow different from the violence of 1968: I know that communist and fascistic states such as Cambodia and the Soviet Union, to name just two, systematically promoted violence during my lifetime, but I certainly don’t remember a time in which the unpredictability of random violence became so pervasive and, frankly, so predictable. It almost makes one long for the “good old days” of the Cold War and the omnipresent possibility of nuclear annihilation. At least the world would’ve ended with a bang.
To make this summer even stranger, my family and I are living in a self-chosen exile in a cabin at roughly 10,000 feet above sea level. We’re living a sacramental and imagist existence in which everything meshes with everything else. Everything at this altitude has its place, and one accepts it or one perishes. It’s a cocoon from the chaos of the horrors of the world, and, yet, the day is coming very soon in which we must come down from our mountain. No longer will I be able to observe all the chaos and blood and bloodletting and killing and massacring and demagoguery from the utterly safe distance of central Colorado. I have to get a bit closer to it.
Even in this alpine paradise, I’ve not kept myself aloof from the news. Indeed, I’ve tried my best to make sense of 2016. I’ve tried as a historian. I’ve tried as a human. I’ve tried as a Catholic. I’ve tried as a republican. I’ve tried as a conservative. Each time I think I might have something figured out, a new event shatters what I’d hoped would be the end of this time of tumult—or, at the very least, the beginning of the end of this time of tumult.
I’ve tried my best to consider the events of the past six months as an Irving Babbitt, a Christopher Dawson, a Willa Cather, or a Russell Kirk might do. And, I’ve remembered that T.S. Eliot had thought that we’d entered a dark age sometime around 1898 and that Whittaker Chambers had dated the beginning of modernity with the assassination of Tsar Alexander in the early 1880s. I’ve also thought much about G.K. Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse” in which he claims:
For the end of the world was long ago
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.
More than once during this dread year of 2016, I’ve wondered if Chesterton got it right. All of those hairy, hoary, horrid televangelists talking on and on about “meeting Jesus in the Sky” and “being left behind”—always seeing history as a progressive moment by moment by moment event, never understanding the depths of time or the well of eternity.
From the standpoint of eternity, after all, all time is present. Or, so Eliot reminded us.
What if the Apocalypse is not an event, but a long, drawn-out process?
What if rather than the drama of a rapture, we get the dread of a ceaselessly droning Ann Coulter or Rachel Maddow? What if the tyrants marked with the sign of the beast turn out to be elevator operators who love Muzak? What if the four riders of the apocalypse turn out to be Friends, MTV’s Real World, The O’Reilly Factor, and Game of Thrones? What if the Anti-Christ turns out to be the manager of Denny’s no. 3778, located in St. Paul, Minnesota? What if the seven seals turn out to be the best-selling paperbacks at the Detroit airport bookstore—that one right next to gate A37? What if the seven trumpets appear in some big band-polka revival group making its way through the charts of a Sheboygan, Wisconsin AM-station?
No “Hand of God,” no “Jesus in the Sky,” no landing of the mothership, no dragon devouring the world. Instead, just slow, drawn out, painful, and seemingly inevitable decline.
“Help, I’ve fallen down, and I can’t get up!”
If nothing else, Chesterton got one thing right. We are, indeed, a strange people. We kill, we terrorize, we torture, we maim, we blow stuff up, we shoot guns and missiles and bigger guns and bigger missiles. We turn our liberties over to the very people who could care less about us in the name of security. We flee at the first sign of danger… sometimes even to our little mountain hideouts in central Colorado.
We strange people also write, direct, produce, shape, help, and love. We build churches that even our parents wouldn’t have imagined with their fancy futuristic spaceship Marys of two decades ago; we tell stories about virtue with masked Demi-gods in gaudy capes running around the screen or about children who wage righteous wars behind and within wardrobes; we produce and discover medicines that have—at least to this point—eradicated hundreds if not thousands of diseases; and, we—especially we Americans—send aid and people to help in war zones and in areas dealing with natural disasters. We see horrors that never seem to cease, and we pray and send our best thoughts to people we’ve never met, but who somehow seem to know. Even when those growing number of atheists on social media mock us for praying, we keep praying. We know how real prayer is—even if don’t know exactly what the results of those prayers are. We see a police officer in Walmart, and we thank him. We see that vet who just came back from that war—you know, that war—and we shake his hand, hoping that we can live up to whatever sacrifice that person just made. We teach our children, too often taking it for granted that when we teach, we make huge leaps of faith, knowing that much of what we say is lost in the noise and confusion of the present world. Yet, in some possible way, a word or a gesture might just reappear a generation later in ways could never expect or predict.
What better definition of hope could there be?
We stop on that lonely highway, hoping against hope that those horror movies we’ve seen one too many times are just fiction because a frustrated husband and wife are trying to keep their kids calm as they change a tire. We talk to the homeless person because… well, he’s a person. We find out that he’s not lazy, but maybe just at the end of his luck. We thank the janitor, and the lunch lady, and the garbage collector because we know that such jobs—especially when done well—have all the dignity in the world, but few recognize those jobs as such. We tell a nothing story to our children, because, frankly, we are their world for only a small amount of time. We see a child screaming in the grocery store aisle, and we offer the parent a kind and knowing smile: “It’s ok, it’s ok. It happens to all of us.” We adopt children from the hellholes of the world because no child should live in hell. We play baseball in the neighborhood green space. We attend the HOA meeting. We give at the office. We sell cookies. We help the poor and the disadvantaged. We create schools for the blind and the deaf.
Yes, 2016 is a horrible year. So much senseless violence, so much abuse, so much discrimination, so much randomness, so much chaos. But, all the good remains. Russell Kirk once told Richard Nixon a very obvious thing: If we don’t believe in hope, there is no hope. If we believe in it, there’s always hope.
As Imaginative Conservatives, we know better than most the evil that men do. We also, equally, know and celebrate the glorious things men do. We know that Our Mother is the mother of Our Lord. And, we know that Our Lord is the Word, the beginning of all Creation, through whom all things were made. You, me, and that guy over there… God made every one of us—black, white, male, female, Greek, Jew—a unique reflection of His Divine Essence. We sin, but He forgives. We stumble, and He helps us back up. We sin again, and He dies for us, becoming the Lord of all, the one true King. And, when so animated by His Grace, we see not the janitor, the neighbor, that dude, or that Muslim terrorist, but the Image of the One True God, no matter what the accidents of birth or the corruptions we build for ourselves. When we see with reality, we see the true Weight of Glory inside each one of us, each a Temple of the Holy Spirit.
Only in such faith, do we have hope. And, only in hope can we love. After all, love is all you need.
Dedicated to Winston Elliott: friend, ally, and confidant for twenty-one years. Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.