Everybody, it seems, is angry at somebody these days, although has not that always been true? We are also caught up in a lot of anger toward groups of people who are different from us and from whom we strongly sense a threat to “our way of life,” or our security, or simply because they are wrong and stupid.
Politics, it is said, is about the art of compromise, and that is true. But it also is the art of division, of getting people to choose up sides. Actually this impulse of politics usually comes first, and then, when we are clear about our divisions comes the art of compromise.
Of course the problem is that the art of compromise is a significant aspect of politics about which many people are angry. Members of congress who engage in it are quickly labeled apostate, challenged and driven from office (Eric Cantor being a good example). The former Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was often angry at President Obama. He even sued him, but the two remained friendly, so Boehner remained suspect because he did not allow his anger to turn into hate.
The language of hate follows upon the language of anger, when the latter is devoid of mercy. Some may cry “foul!” for my introducing a religious concept into the conversation, but it also has a history in American political rhetoric. A couple times recently I listened to the whole of “America the Beautiful,” Katherine Lee Bates’ hymn for the country she loved and wanted us to as well. It is the second verse that has moved me in my recent hearings.
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
A patriot is one who loves country more than self, and mercy more than life. What does that mean? An internet search found almost exclusively the interpretation that “mercy” is a stand in for God or for the grace of God as saving us, more than we ever can by our own deeds. Maybe that is what Bates meant, but she also chose that particular word, mercy.
Mercy is about the capacity to love even when wronged, to forgive and be able to accept forgiveness. It is the value at the heart of our hearts that, in one of my favorite definitions of forgiveness because it is so provocative, we recognize “That we are not, at bottom, radically different from those who harm us.” Most of us, including myself, do not want this to be true, and, when we fell hurt and angry, find the thought an abomination. Of course I/we am/are better than he/she/them. It is the “natural” way of things. There would, however, be no authentic Christian faith without mercy and forgiveness at its heart, and precisely this kind of turn-the-world-upside-down.
The United States as a political and social experiment also depends on the value of mercy—that I remain convinced that those who differ from me or more like me than different from me, that even in our profound differences, we can be patriots together. We might even learn to love our differences rather than be suspicious of them or even hate them.
There are plenty of incidences in the Bible where God gets angry with his people, even to the point of wrath and judgment. But the key to the Bible’s story is that never tells the whole truth about God, and that is that God can never let go, and God asks the same of us with each other. It’s hard work when the world is not clearly stratified into hierarchies based either on birth or wealth or behavior. I think that’s the one thing our founding fathers and mothers knew: that this grand experiment of a free society of equals would be very hard work indeed.
Katherine Lee Bates knew that we would need to love mercy more than life itself for this beautiful dream to come true.
When we say, “I’m angry!” Jesus says “Be merciful just as God has been merciful.”