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  • Matthew Baker

Staying with America's Troubles, Part 1

Updated: May 22



Blessed are the Peacemakers


I feel as if perhaps I should say that I had no intention of beginning with the words of Jesus, and yet they are the first ones that have come to mind. Blessed are the peacemakers. They feel like the right words to begin with, and they just so happen to be among the last my grandmother spoke to me before she died several years ago. I can no longer remember what we had been discussing, or what the context was, or why it has stuck with me since then, but I recall she landed the phrase so as to punctuate some larger point she had been building towards. As a violinist and a pastor, she was capable, and indeed rather fond of delivering a bit of dramatic effect whenever she pleased, which was quite often. She increased her pitch while slowing her cadence just enough to make sure you were actually paying attention. It worked. Her long pointer finger, knobbed and ancient, rose upward, then down like a magic wand to emphasize the point. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God”, she said, pausing afterwards to permit gravity to do its work. Back then, I was still more or less committed to what might best be described as a species of Christian-realism, by which I mean something along the lines of what philosopher Paul Ricoeur referred to as ‘first-naïveté’. However, having come to Christianity as an adult, mine was not the faith of a child, but neither had it received adequate time to develop into the secularized faith it would later become. I recall one day when, while in the shower I was suddenly struck by an overwhelming desire to ‘see God’, whatever that meant. My mother had explained to me when I was seven or eight years old that no one could lay eyes on God, that the very sight of Her brilliance is enough to knock anyone flat. This had the curious twin effect of making God sound not only infinitely mysterious, but terribly awful and frightening as well, an entity one would perhaps do well to steer clear of. Just as staring into the sun will cause a person to go blind, so the analogy went, one could not bear witness to God’s brilliance without suffering fatal consequences. In spite of the warning, I struck up a deal with God there in the shower. Steam swirled upward, encircling me in a cloud while sunlight arching through the small bath window illuminated everything from within, producing a veil of shimmering gold. The terms were simple enough: I would sort myself out (whatever that meant) and God would reserve me a front row seat at the old cosmic peep-show. I realize this will probably sound ridiculous to some, and frankly I’m a little embarrassed to be talking about it. I had no real sense of what it might really mean to see God. What I did know, however, was that I wanted to glimpse something of the Ultimate, to behold something quite literally beyond imagining, a carry over, perhaps, from the psychedelic experiences of my youth. In any case, I somehow knew, or at least intuited that any possibility of seeing God would necessarily coincide with a significant transformation of some sort. A change of heart, perhaps. I probably don’t have to explain what happened afterward. I never did see God – at least not in the way I thought I might at the time - and I never did quite sort myself out. The deal was off.


In the years since, I’ve passed through several varieties of naïveté, by which I mean something along the lines of what Discordian author Robert Anton Wilson might have referred to as one's situatedness in this or that ‘reality-tunnel’. Upon approach, these tunnels or corridors gleam with the seductive promise of ushering in some final revelation, some secret and ultimate truth to be unearthed, yet concealed beneath the surface are hidden wellsprings of error for the initiate to discover. As any accomplished liar will tell you, for every convincing falsehood there must exist in it a kernel of truth, just enough to remain plausible. In fact, the greater the measure of truth, the more persuasive (and pervasive) the lie often becomes. I understand Thomas Kuhn’s now popularized theory of ‘paradigmatic shifts’ as getting at essentially the same idea. Of course, Kuhn was writing about the development of science, but the theory is broadly applicable to almost any domain of knowledge. Kuhn’s idea was essentially that certain ways of thinking about the world enjoy long periods of stability and growth before suddenly becoming punctuated by the introduction of some novel element, calling the entirety of the constructed edifice into question and necessitating the construction of a new model with improved explanatory power.


What is often referred to as the ‘revolutionary’ nature of science is thus never so much an over-turning as a turning-over. So it is with revolutions of all kinds. It’s a subtle but important difference worth lingering on momentarily. One may overthrow or overturn an oppressive government, or overturn a decision so as to disrupt the current ordering of things, and certainly there are instances where such things ought to happen, but too often one discovers in such movements a deeply embedded supercessionist logic whereby continuity masquerades as rupture, permitting one to imagine one's small plot of land for the entirety of the terrain. Then, there is the other option of turning-over. One turns-over the soil to prepare the land for new growth. Or, one might turn-over a new leaf, the suggestion being of inhabiting a new way-of-being. Also, one turns this way, now that, in the everyday navigation of life so as to find a way over, under, around, and across various terrain, moving from place to place, remaining always in contact with the surfaces of things. Rather than revolution as ‘leaving-behind’, 'turning-over', as I’m using, is a ‘staying-with’ that permits additional features of any object to come into view, exposing a potentially infinite number of surfaces to appear. For those who wish to turn-over and to stay-with the troubling nature of this operation, each of these sur-faces shines forth as a face, and each of these faces constitutes a facet. This is why, for me at least, it is the image of the crystal that best symbolizes the essentially multidimensional and occult nature of reality though which we adventure. To apprehend the totality of the crystal is an impossible task, a fool’s errand, a hermetic fantasy. Placing epistemic limits aside, and despite the enduring allure of the One, it may very well be the case that no such totality exists. I remain squarely agnositic on the question. But, given a choice between the One and the many, as a strategic choice, I'm more inclined to side with the many. In any case, even if one imagines the possibility of a God’s eye view, a kind of divine panopticon, it remains just that, an imagining, one which must always remain troubled else it should lapse into totalitarianism.


We have heard rumors of God, perhaps even glimpsed for ourselves a shadow of divinity moving at the edge of our vision; yet God remains ineluctably beyond the reach of direct observation. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God", she said.


Troubling Matters


Peace and peace-making are themes that have been on my mind ever since the incident at the US Capital building earlier in the year. Like many, I was deeply troubled by the event, a theme to which I wish to return later. Of all the images seen that day, it was the appearance of the Confederate flag that struck me most forcefully and highlighted the continuity of America’s Civil War with today’s war of culture. The razor lines of division lacerating the American consciousness since its inception - at once racial, economic, familial, and political – extend in all directions like a subterranean hydra, entangling us all in a collective transtemporal trauma, endlessly repeated. The contours of that wound are at times obscure. The once seemingly clear line dividing North from South is more readily identified today in ideological terms. Even still, the old story of North vs. South, true as it may be, can nonetheless provide one with the sense of a certain symmetry - Confederacy vs. Union, black-hats vs. white-hats, red vs. blue, etc. - which can be misleading. Things are rarely so simple. But whether one chooses to map the conflict along symmetrical or asymmetrical lines, unarguably the cruelest and most terrible characteristic of civil divisions (what's so civil about war anyway, man?) is their potential to divide households and families, turning ‘brother against brother’ as the saying goes.


Before going on, I want to pause momentarily to assure you I have no intention of this becoming an overtly political post. At least not in terms of what often passes for politics, which as I’ve already suggested might be better understood as America’s long running culture war dressed in pallid political drag, fueled now by a mainlining of media-induced algorithmic accelerants. Instead, my focus shall remain elsewhere. In what follows, I’ll have nothing much to say about technology, social media, free speech, or policing. Nor will I present anything having to do with epistemology, anti-intellectualism, or neofascism, nor with America’s ongoing and seemingly intractable (and inextricable) problems of racism, militarism, empire, loss of public trust, and so on. Not directly, anyway. “Why can’t we just get along?” may for some remain a meaningful question, but for many it merely testifies to the seemingly brute fact that America can’t, for whatever reason, get along. For a nation that from the beginning recognized “united we stand, divided we fall”, this apparent inability to find common ground should trouble any civic-minded person. For some, the answer is simple: all reasonable people everywhere in the grand spirit of liberalism must join together so as to find our common ground or purpose. Simply put, we must unify. E Pluribus Unum and all that jazz. It’s a noble and potentially radical sentiment to be sure. Indeed, it is the cornerstone of democracy. However, calls to unity these days sound to my ears far too much like another variety of naïveté, which is something about which I know a thing or two. The invocation of unity hits my ear as the faint pealing of a distant bell calling the townspeople to gather for worship. The resounding call to One-ness is a powerful spell to which we are deeply indebted, and it’s hard to imagine such unity, were it actually possible, as a bad thing. Nonetheless, I fear such pleas often amount to little more than a desire for America to again turn away from its troubles, pushing its differences aside for the sake of a collective dream, even if that dream was not the one we had originally been promised. The temptation is to ‘over-turn' and 'leave-behind’ rather than ‘turning-over' and 'staying-with’. Whether one wishes to color Uncle Sam's stern alabaster face with a blue smile or a red sneer, the widespread desire to make America great again will remain a conservative dead-end. Don’t misunderstand me, a blue smile is substantially better in important ways, but too often the call to unity functions as a protective ward against any further troubles (i.e., disturbances to the machinery of capital which maintain stable divisions along racial and economic lines) in the hope that America’s neoliberal armada might continue to safely sail the high seas without obstruction, plundering the earth and leaving the familiar economic and social wreckage in its wake. Unity sounds simple, because it is, and it simply won’t work anymore. America is currently cruising at warp speed into a new reality tunnel, and for or better or worse a new paradigm is slowly and painfully emerging from today’s technologically induced hyper-culture.


Given the stark reality of this division, asking how it came to be this way, or why, or what happens next, seem almost pointless questions to ask as any proposed answer will inevitably fall out along the sectarian lines already drawn in the sand. Like others, I've nonetheless been asking myself where we go from here. And while I don't have a clear answer, I remain confident of one fact:


America is troubled.





In part 2 I will explore this theme of America's troubles, explain how, where, and under what circumstances one might see God, and attempt to provide something of an alternate starting point for our politics and social life.

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