Oct  2017 24
The End or a New Beginning?

Something broke on November 8, 2016. Nearly everyone in my bubble-world feels it. One might say that what broke were incorrect assumptions and prejudices regarding “reality,” such as “look at how far we’ve come on (fill in the blank), even as we acknowledge how far we have to go.” One might say, along with a too-true feeling SNL sketch, that what broke was another version of white liberal privilege.

Whatever the source of the brokenness, people I know have felt disoriented (“I don’t know this country.”), discouraged (“Does the arc of history really bend toward justice?”), and suspicious (see below). And, the intensity of suspicion seems to be greatest in relation to those closest to us.

Arguments between the political right and political left are fought either in courts or with fists and sticks when white supremacists and “blood and soil” groups punch the accelerator for their First Amendment speech and assembly rights.

But social media, workplaces, and religious communities are more likely divided not between Right and left but between the right-of-center and the further right, or the left-of-center and the further left (with “center” being an inhospitable canyon where no one can live for long).

Read Sarah Leonard’s opinion piece about President Trump’s election turning liberals into radicals. Before the election, celebrities and partisan pundits backed Senator Sanders in the primary but refused to back Secretary Clinton. “Let Trump get elected and then we can have the revolution we need” was their message.

On the right, with content radically different from the left, there are similar dynamics. The minions of Breitbart News, armed anti-federalists, and the “government is incompetent in all matters but national defense, contracts, and keeping markets free to benefit those who are wealthy” Republicans resist any moderation, any compromise with anyone who does not share their purist views. They want a revolution, too. (Interesting how Senators Corker and McCain, or former President George W. Bush, now seem like moderates!)

Admittedly, I live in a bubble of sorts. I read widely but don’t work closely with people from bubbles on the other side of the Great Right-Left Divide. But I’ve spoken with people in different religious communities, different schools, and different business who all report similar dynamics: tensions created by fights within our bubbles, and pushes for purity.

Common ground? Fantasy. Civil discourse? A lie generated by people afraid of the fight, a ploy to distract, a shield for those who would rather protect their privilege than midwife the revolution.

Liberal economist Paul Krugman wrote a book I’ve not read (first published in 2003), but I resonate with the title: The Great Unraveling. Is that what is going on, an unraveling of values, communities, ways of life, economies, religious institutions, and/or democracy?

Joseph Shumpater coined the term “creative destruction” to describe the process of change in industrial society. Are we in Western society, are we in Western religious institutions, witnessing creative destruction or just destruction?

Are we at an end, or are we experiencing the birth pangs of a new beginning? In terms of U.S. history, in terms of Western identities, in terms of what it means to be a Christian and how to be community/congregation together, have we reached an end?

Or, have we entered a liminal space, in which an old identity must die for something new to be born? Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner wrote about liminal space. A liminal space is a place “betwixt and between.”

In rituals, there is an initiation into the ritual space, a liminal space, and then a new identity on the other side. For example, in Christian baptism, the one being baptized is immersed into the water (the liminal space) and comes up as newly born in Christ.

In cultures that ritualize the status change from child to adult, boys might be snatched from their homes (with the consent and foreknowledge of parents), taken into the forest, stripped of their identities, trained into the ways of being an adult, symbolically re-clothed with adult garb and roles, and then released back to their communities as adults.

Naming the present time “liminal” is a much more hopeful interpretation than saying “endtime, period.”

However, every liminal space is mined with both danger and opportunity. In movies, a now classic (at least in my household) scene of liminal space is from Star Wars. Luke Skywaker is being trained by Yoda in the ways of the Jedi. Luke enters a dark, wet passageway (a birth canal image) in which he will encounter something fearful. Suddenly, Darth Vader appears.

Luke battles him for a moment, then severs Vader’s head with a light sabre. However, when the helmeted head rolls to a stop, the face within the helmet is none other than Luke’s own. In that interchange, Luke does not succeed in doing other than showing himself how immature he was in the ways of the Jedi. (For those of us who consider ourselves left-of-center, I fear we are acting like Luke in that scene, and those within our reach who don’t align perfectly with us are Vader.)

There is no guarantee that one who enters liminal space will exit alive and well. Dangers are real, and one can die, or be permanently wounded, in the in-between.

We live at a time when something is ending. Given persistent and growing economic and social inequalities, a disappearing middle class, and a broad and profound sense of disenfranchisement, revolution is possible. Some think revolution is necessary. (Personally, I am not a fan of revolution, for swords are not easily re-forged into instruments of peace.)

Is this end a hard stop, or is the end more like the beginning of a liminal space? Theologically, I’d say Christianity is founded on a story of death and resurrection. In my gut, however, my answer concerning end or new beginning depends on the day you ask me. 

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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