The Pressure of Reality

By Jim Simpson

Monday, July 30

I turned off the news feed on my smartphone a couple weeks ago. The device came out of the box with a feature that pushes snippets of “breaking news” onto the screen. You might have this feature on your phone too. The news feed uses the same sales technique as the dope dealer. The first hit is free. It’s an incredible rush. After that you pay to avoid withdrawal. What do you pay to scan the headlines day and night? It might not only be your time and attention. It might also be your imagination.

The poet Wallace Stevens delivered a lecture at Princeton University a few months before the United States entered the Second World War about the extraordinary pressure of the news. The world was “in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive.” Not only are there more of us now but we are closer together in every way. “We lie in bed and listen to a broadcast from Cairo, and so on. There is no distance. We are intimate with people we have never seen and, unhappily, they are intimate with us.”

Stevens thought that the desperate intimacy of his time was a threat to poetic imagination. Metaphor requires a departure point to bring back unfamiliar, unexpected connections. There is not much room for rhyme and meter when the drums are beating outside the window. I submit that the news feed confounds the moral imagination as well. Factoids drown out facts and values fall into positions. Haven’t you found yourself being less empathetic and compassionate when you’re distracted or fearful? Whether we react with speechless indignation or wild enthusiasm, the news is all the same if we are too overwhelmed to respond to it.

This brings me to the news that a public official claims that a certain biblical passage confers preferential legitimacy on the administration’s callous separation of refugee and immigrant parents from their children at our southern border. It is law, he is quoted as saying, and the scriptures demand obedience to law. By this reasoning, every act of state comes with a holy imprint.

They say the news cycle has moved on from this story. Many people of faith in the Grace Cathedral community and other churches are still trying to understand it. The passage in question comes from a letter published in the New Testament advising readers not to become too worldly, or pick fights with the authorities, or turn away from their neighbors. This is not a dropdown menu of lifestyle options for you to pick and choose. The theology behind it requires all these things at once and more. Read it yourself. It’s probably on your smartphone.

How could an officer of the law think it would be acceptable to people of faith to single out the reference to civil obedience when scripture admonishes us time and again to show hospitality and charity to strangers and refugees in need? Why would they weaponize the Bible for political purposes? Not only does this overrule moral imagination in the public square, it clouds the vision of the leaders themselves. If the authorities are beyond question, they don’t even have make sense. The law is simply more bad news.

There will be borders as long as there are nations. Surely we can find a way to patrol them with decency and kindness. Executive power and morality are not mutually exclusive. Could it be that our leaders, no less than ordinary people like me, need to switch off the news from time to time, tone down the tweets, and engage their imagination?

Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “All beings obey the law. Man is able to sing the law.” At Grace Cathedral and other churches throughout the country, we are trying to imagine how we can sing truth and justice into law. Come and see sometime.

Jim Simpson is a member of the congregation. His blog is inspired in part by the Civil Discourse seminar that the cathedral held in July.  You can find the Wallace Stevens essay in a compilation entitled “The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination.” Romans 12-13 can be found at biblegateway.com.

(Image is from the documentary, The Armor of Light, which was screened at the cathedral in 2017.)

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