Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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The Darkness of Our Days:

Published on Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Darkness of Our Days:

Lenten Musings About the Times We Live In


Every year during the Christmas season, I try to read W.H. Auden’s long poem, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” It’s a masterful work, and in it the narrator brilliantly comments – in prose poetic form – about the culture surrounding him. But Auden is really making penetrating observations about human nature which, after all, hasn’t changed all that much since the 1940s when the poem was written. (See lead photo.)

Near the end of that work, the narrator reappears and poetically describes the end of the Christmas festivities, the packing away of the Christmas ornaments for one more year, the returning to the everydayness of our lives. He writes, “The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory, and already the mind begins to be vaguely aware of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now be very far off.” And so yes, here we are already deeply into Lent. And not only that, already and still deeply into the darkness of yet another dark tragedy and stain on our country’s ongoing culture of guns and violence.

Now along about here, if you are a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights and perhaps an NRA sympathizer, you may decide to just click off this blog. However, I hope you’ll bear with me a bit longer and reflect on the state of our culture and our common good. Because I think the complex issues lie deeper than where you or I stand in terms of owning and bearing arms.

If you follow these blogs, I think you may know that I’m not an overly political person. A number of years ago, I was very active in citizens against the death penalty, and I believe we made some headway in Virginia. But other than that – even though as an early Boomer I grew up in the radical ’60s and ’70s – I never marched, demonstrated or otherwise threw my body into the political fray of our times. But after the Parkland, Florida, shooting of Feb. 14 (see second photo below from the Feb. 15 Richmond Times-Dispatch) – a pivotal moment, I think, for many – something just snapped. I told a friend that I will look for an opportunity to march and/or demonstrate about the current gun policy in our state.

In the meantime, I wrote a letter to my Congressional representative Dave Brat (a Tea Party favorite from my 7th District). Near the end of my email, I wrote “if you do not want to lose your seat at the next election, I would hope that you would stand up and do the right thing by all those who live in your jurisdiction – not just the NRA members and gun enthusiasts among us, but all of us who care and think deeply about this (gun) issue.” In a recent New York Times op-ed piece by Thomas L. Friedman titled “Stop Tweeting and Get Into the N.R.A.’s Face,” he points out that “only raw electoral power can beat the gun lobby.” There's a kind of cadence to his article, using what I consider a preacher’s skill in that he repeatedly cites the perks members of Congress get when they stay in office. He writes:

Most of the GOP members of Congress who do the NRA’s bidding care about only one thing: their jobs. The pay of a typical congressman is $174,000 – and free parking at Reagan National Airport – and they will sell themselves to whoever can generate the votes to enable them to keep both.
Friedman then echoes and re-echoes that mantra throughout his article, ending with “but never underestimate what some people will do for a $174,000 job and free parking at Reagan National Airport.” (Sorry Rep. Brat, but according to a list of NRA donor recipients in a recent issue of the Times, you are listed right up there in black and white.)

But the malaise that lies beneath our nation’s gun policies, and beyond mere cravenness and fecklessness on the part of lawmakers was, I think, beautifully described in another op-ed piece offered on Feb. 23 by Paul Krugman. In “Nasty, Brutish and Trump,” he cites Trump’s idea of arming schoolteachers as a direct reflection of the political right’s attack on the basic concept of community. By community, Krugman means the will of society to offer “certain basic protections to all its members.” He argues the obvious: there is a faction in our country – many Trump supporters, in fact – that views public action for the public good – including expanding Medicaid in order to cover more of our citizens – as all part of a conspiratorial package designed to destroy our individual freedom. He concludes:

This political faction is doing all it can to push us toward becoming a society in which individuals can’t count on the community to provide them with even the most basic guarantees of security – security from crazed gunmen, security from drunken drivers, security from exorbitant medical bills (which every other advanced country treats as a right, and does in fact manage to provide). ... [Perhaps] our madness over guns [is] just one aspect of the drive to turn us into what Thomas Hobbes described long ago: a society ‘wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them.’ And Hobbes famously told us what life in such a society is like: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’
Well, sorry folks. That’s just the mood that pervades my consciousness since the Parkland shooting on Valentines Day 2018. (See series of photos below – including a humorous take on our culture in a recent cartoon in The New Yorker.) The alleged killer, Cruz, was and is a broken person – as his lawyer describes him. But he also lives within a broken system, within a culture that our current political leaders are far from making “great again.” When we cease caring for the least among us, when we refuse to make our streets and schools safe from terrorists who stalk with concealed-carry weapons, when we refuse to even limit the sales of AR-15 rifles that are manufactured for the purpose of killing other humans, then our lives indeed have devolved into nasty brutishness. And the lives of the weakest among us become shortened as community bonds are sacrificed on the altar of “individual rights.”

And so back to Auden. The “unpleasant whiff of apprehension” is upon us, with Lent and the specter of Good Friday before us. We know that the “happy morning is over, the night of agony still to come; the time is noon.” And so there is still time to reflect on our lives, to reflect on our community; still time to do something about our common concerns for justice. Toward the end of Auden’s poem the narrator notes: “We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose would be some great suffering ... [which] will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form that we do not expect, and certainly with a force more dreadful than we can imagine.” But here we are, living in the meantime. Knowing that there still is time to pray as Auden adds, ‘That God’s will will be done, that ... God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”

So let us hope and work, march and write, do all we can to further the cause of justice and preserve some semblance of community solidarity in this nation we hold dear ... before it slips away entirely into brutish disregard of our common good.

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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