Franklin Graham tweeted July 25, 2018 about people being judged by God for the words they say, seemingly as a deterrent to those who criticize the president. Some comments to his post added warnings about ‘not touching the Lord’s anointed’... or else! Or else some deserved-evil will visit the naysayers. They said so straight up. I’d reference them but they are so wide spread they pass the no-reference-needed rule. As harsh as these in-your-face tweets come off (unless you are a karma-kind of person), I actually believe these folks earnestly worry about lack of unity in America and worry that criticism against President Trump is further dividing us. Some of it is. But I am not talking about the vile. Those should be judged… by all of us. I am talking about the mistaken belief that to dissent is unpatriotic and unifying.
Now to be fair, I need to say, I like unity too. I speak about it. I’m writing about it now for an upcoming book—about why it doesn’t happen and sometimes shouldn’t, how to achieve it and more. I even feel the passion in Christ’s last words on earth, expressing his desire that humanity know the oneness in which he and his father share. I even think I experience this in a few of my relationships.
However, in these days of hot rhetoric and excited sensibilities, definitions and context make a difference. I want to start from a historian’s point of view and mention a few societies that have sought unity using similar rhetoric as our friends from the Graham tweet.
It’s important to remember that civilizations have universally needed a way to legitimize authority as a way of creating societies. It’s always been a “thing” to find a way to assign sovereignty, a higher calling, and a glory to leadership positions. Often it was called a divine right, an anointing, a bloodline right, or a prerogative.
The big problem is that whenever this kind transcendence and hierarchy is given or taken by someone, a state of exception occurs. It does tricks on followers and public servants who would otherwise never accept ill-gotten gains, injustice, or unrighteous means for attainment. A blindness sets in. Some sociologists explain it by group thinking. I agree. However, it’s a worse kind of group thinking when a religious import is attached with the goal to silence opposition. By ‘religious,’ I don’t necessarily mean a deity is involved, since religious traditions have historically and deeply been embedded in collective cultures. They still are.
Consider Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. He and his Puritan followers believed he was saving Christianity. In order to achieve his goals he assumed from Old Testament examples a “calling” from God with the common belief that peace could be won through conflict. His call gave him leverage to massacre thousands of “Romanish” Irish and also to carry out the persecution and death of Quakers, Jews, and other alleged heretics.
Then there was Charlemagne or Charles the Great and later Holy Roman Emperor. He is credited for saving Christianity, the arts, and Western Europe, even though the rivers Aller and Wiser literally ran red in the 8th century from the blood of more than 4500 Germanic leaders and people who wouldn’t convert to Christianity quickly enough. And, this was only one massacre, the massacre of Verden, of many. In university, only I and one other student stood against my entire class which praised this Christian leader’s anointed-calling. My classmates did admit, however, the unfortunate circumstance, but they concluded it was a necessary price to pay.
Then there is Genghis Khan who used his transcendence to say, “I am the punishment of God...If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
What about Vladimir Lenin who fights his noble cause against the abuses of the tsars and the Industrial Revolution (which were many) to become a violent dictator himself and allowed a Stalin to emerge. He manipulated his way to rule Russia silencing his opposition while proclaiming a utopian peace.
There are so many of these stories. It’s just what humans do. It’s easier to rule if one can dominate; it’s easier to dominate if transcendence above and over others is assumed; it’s easier to have transcendence when “Providence” is the stimulus behind the means. And, once “Providence” is inserted, the nature of means, somehow, no longer matters; they are just unfortunate circumstances for a greater purpose. Unity is required, defined by punitive language and acts. “Join us or else…” just like Cromwell, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Lenin, and that lady who commented on Franklin Graham’s post said.
But America wasn’t founded to be a utopia of singular ideas, not even to be a legislated Christian nation, which would make God immoral by the mere testimony of Jesus alone. No. America was founded to give liberty of conscience to all. And that carries with it the express freedom to dissent. To allow dissent is messy. It is noisy. But it is exactly this seeming chaos that is the material we use to continue this experiment of government we call the United States of America. It helps us grow and if we can dare to believe it is the true root of unity – to respect people we will dissent from and to know their respect in return. It’s a unifying experience. William Penn had it right when he said, “We must give the liberties we ask.”