We’re on the cusp of another new year. Traditionally a time for “resolutions”. Acutely aware of my own flaws of character and weakness of will, I rather use it as a time to sit in my Father’s lap and see how it is with us.
Wittgenstein, echoing Jeremiah, said that “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself.” “Difficult”? Impossible! What is my life really like? That is something I cannot tell my self. Only God can tell me what my life is really like.
So I sit on my Father’s knee. We look into each other’s eyes. His gaze gets to the heart of the matter. The denied and the dross is exposed. It is not a happy sight. But I am on my Father’s knee. His gaze exposes me, but it neither judges nor condemns me: it is the look of love that is so searing. And unlike human love, which is contingent and partial, God’s love is absolute and goes all the way down. Nothing I do will ever make God love me any more or any less than he has always loved me and will always love me. So I am freed to see me as God sees me.
How do I feel about what I see - about my history? I am, of course, ashamed. Do comparisons with others who are “greater” sinners than I make me feel any better? Then it was the devil’s knee I was sitting on. But shamed though I am, nevertheless, embraced by the Father, I can now get on with my life, not defensively but cheerfully - to try again, screw up again, screw up better next time.
Which, finally, leads me out of the personal and into the political (for if faith begins with the Other, it ends with all others). If examination of my own history makes me feel ashamed, why should the study of my nation’s history make me feel proud? And shouldn’t US citizens like myself, of all people, know this? And yet our two primal crimes - the ethnic cleansing of native Americans and the genocide of slavery - along with our many imperial misadventures, from the conquest of the Philippines, to the disaster of Vietnam, to our shameful support of the state terror of Mobutu in the Congo, Suharto in Indonesia, and Pinochet in Chile - not even this litany of national sin can disabuse us of our belief in the myths of American exceptionalism and innocence. “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself.”
“Why do they hate us?” a reporter asked Bush after 9/11. “Because we’re so good,” the President replied. Abraham Lincoln would never have said such a thing. Humbly and thoughtfully he would have expressed his concerns about a nation under judgement. He would have called a day of national fasting and repentance. He would certainly not have gone to war - and a war of revenge - as a first resort. For Lincoln knew, with Dorothy Day, that “a war is not made just by the fact that one’s enemies’ deeds are hateful.”
Here is the tragedy of contemporary America. Because the present is what the past is doing now, but because Americans refuse to confront what we have been, we do not know who we are, what we are doing, or where we are going. It is time that as nations as well as individuals we sit in the Father’s lap.