We have not seen this movie before, and we do not know how it will end. For people about my age or older, the closest we have come in our lifetimes to the current situation was in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in the spring of 1968, which set off demonstrations and civil disobedience all across the country. Parts of Washington DC were destroyed. This was the case in scores of mainly poor, minority neighborhoods in cities all across the country. Embry and I were living in New York then. When the assassination happened, I was in my final semester at Union Seminary, and Embry was about to graduate from Barnard. Classes were canceled for the remainder of the school year as the demonstrations and arrests increased. It felt like we were on the verge of civil war.
It feels a lot like that now except the protests against the brutal murder of George Floyd and police brutality in general are just part of the picture. We also are in the middle of the covid-19 pandemic, and we have the most incompetent–and also the most dangerous–president in the history of the republic. It is a time that is almost impossible for us to fathom. No, we have not seen this movie before, and we surely do not know how it is going to end.
But what we do know is this: How we come out of this crisis will determine the fate of our country and perhaps the planet. Will we use this experience as a wakeup call, a time of reckoning, a time to address the terrible inequities and unfairness that are fault lines in our society that the pandemic has exposed, or will we allow what I call The Forces of Darkness to tear us apart? Trump’s photo-op catastrophe in front of Saint John’s Episcopal Church highlights once again what is at stake. His response to unrest is to hunker down, to fight back, to use force to punish adversaries, and to divide and conquer. Four more years of Trump could mean the end of democracy and the end of the America as we have known it. The stakes have never been higher.
We know now and have known for a long time that the image of the United States as the shining city on a hill is not the true image of this country. We are still dealing with the awful legacy of slavery. We have gone through the era of Jim Crow, the Robber Barons, the Great Depression, Joe McCarthy, ill-fated and unnecessary wars like Vietnam and the Iraq War, and now the era of Donald Trump– police brutality, incarceration of minorities, lingering racism, increased inequality, cronyism, anti immigration, and overshadowing almost everything, the looming devastation caused by global warming. There has never been a time where good leadership is needed and yet is in such short supply.
But there is another America, an America that says we can do this, we can tackle these problems. We came through the Civil War. We freed the slaves. We responded to the era of the Robber Barons with anti trust legislation and tax reform. We prevailed over the McCarthy witch hunt. We fought in two world wars and defeated Fascism and totalitarianism. We outlasted Communism. We passed civil rights legislation and the New Deal and expanded the social safety net. We invented the Peace Corps. We have the most dynamic economy on the planet. Despite Trump, we still have a free press and freedom of speech.
Yes, we have our warts and fault lines, but we also have our victories and accomplishments. We are a great country, despite our failures.
There are two endings to this movie. The happy ending is the defeat of Trump, and the retaking of the Senate by progressive Democrats while keeping the House. This era would begin with a vaccine for the coronavirus. It would produce progressive legislation, which would start to tackle inequality, the problems in education and health care, racism, incarceration, police violence, and global warming. It would promote science, affordable housing, the rebuilding of our infrastructure, welcoming immigrants, and a fair tax structure. This period would restore our leadership role on the planet and secure our place as the greatest county on Earth.
The other ending is the tragic one. I can’t bring myself to fathom that one.
Lord have mercy.