Burn the Witch! Some Notes

by Shawn Crawford

C.S. Lewis, the Evangelical icon who would be thoroughly nauseated by Evangelicals, once wrote we should not kid ourselves into believing the Reformation had anything to do with religious freedom. Once he escaped the stake, John Calvin had no problem watching Michael Servetus burn. Although he did ask for a beheading instead. Full of tender, predestined mercies was Calvin. The Reformation makes much more sense when viewed as a political and theological battle over who gets to light the matches.

We Did Do the Nose

But for true clarity, we must of course turn to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When the crowd wants to burn a woman as a witch (“She turned me into a newt. I got better.”), the question never arises as to the legitimacy of burning witches or even their existence but whether the mob’s superstition or Sir Bedivere’s “science” (If she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood, and therefore a witch) should determine the case. The lighting of matches gets turned into a question of process; let’s make sure we’re burning people for the right reasons.

Both situations, one historical and one fanciful, existed because a worldview, that certain sins (heresy, witchcraft) must be eliminated through the death of the transgressors, had triumphed and stood beyond question. Only later would a debate arise as to whether we should be killing people over matters of faith and religion. That debate continues in certain cultures.

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If you have nothing to say about Trump, you currently have nothing to say in America. Even his absence becomes the only talking point. Take a survey of reviews about the current Whitney Biennial, the exhibition of the right-now in art at the Whitney Museum in New York. They return again and again to the Lack of Trump in the art. I have seen the most trivial conversations quickly veer into a declaration that the situation is a metaphor/allegory/referendum/parallel for the President. The situation is both fascinating and tedious.

Trump won the election because his worldview operates unquestioned on both sides of the political spectrum. That worldview can be expressed in broad strokes: politics is the only meaningful reality and so everything must be politicized; there only exists winners and losers in that political reality; the winners must impose their will on the segment of America that is out to destroy America; this threat justifies any lie, any cruelty, any strategy that silences Bad Americans and their allies; losing politically means the loss of the America we want to live in. At its heart, this worldview is apocalyptic. Never have so many Americans believed the world is coming to an end. They just believe it’s happening for different reasons. But their solution is the same: to save what we love we must burn the other side to the ground. Everyone is fighting for control of the matches.

So we have Trump’s “shithole countries” and Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.” As politics has replaced religion, we see the application of Lester Kurtz’s Politics of Heresy to remove opposition by ever-stringent purity/orthodoxy tests and the mining of every utterance, every action, and every moment to disqualify the unworthy. Soon candidates will be forced to bow out of races for questionable thoughts their mothers had while in the womb.

Headlines informed us last week that Republicans “won” on gerrymandering at the Supreme Court while Democrats “won” on removing a citizenship question on the census because now we simply keep score. As if Democratic gerrymandering isn’t just as disenfranchising and Republicans haven’t already created the fear they wanted to keep the Latino count low during the census.

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When the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich sought a way to make room for transcendence in a world that increasingly rejected organized religion, he posited the idea of the Unconditioned, something outside ourselves which “implies the unconditional demand upon those who are aware of something unconditional, and which cannot be interpreted as the principle of a rational deduction.” The way we express that apprehension of the Unconditioned becomes what Tillich calls our Ultimate Concern. In the realm of Christianity for instance, that Ultimate Concern becomes “God” and a series of symbols and rituals seek to express that reality.

Tillich’s genius was to extend the possibility into all of human life; the Unconditioned could be recognized in both culture and nature, so that “in every cultural creation . . . an ultimate concern is expressed, and that it is possible to recognize the unconscious theological character of it.”  When I was a student in a small Baptist college, Tillich seemed to offer meaning without dogma, the value of art and literature as transcendent in themselves, the pursuit of justice and equality as the divine minus the need of a god.

While some might have a hazy recollection of Tillich’s Ultimate Concern from an Intro to Philosophy or Religion course, almost no one remembers his important caveat: a gap can occur between our apprehension of the Unconditioned and its expression as an Ultimate Concern: “The criterion of every concrete expression of our ultimate concern is the degree to which the concreteness of the concern is in unity with its ultimacy.  It is the danger of every embodiment of the unconditional element, religious and secular, that it elevates something conditioned, a symbol, an institution, a movement, as such to ultimacy.”

Which brings us back to the matches. Our culture has chosen to express our Ultimate Concern as winning control of government at any cost for the purpose of punishment, the isolation of dissent, and the enforcement of the controlling group’s orthodoxies. I am not talking just about the politicians, who indulge in this rhetoric to varying degrees, but all the chatter underneath the campaigns and the elected officials. I constantly hear an endless narrative of wreaking havoc on the other side once they have the gears of power. This is democracy as blood vengeance, the voting booth as existential threat. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: there is ultimately no Ultimacy in all this hysteria.

Currently too many people on the political spectrum want to see it all burn as long as they get to light the match. When we finally exhaust ourselves and turn to other concerns, what will be left standing to huddle around?