As my accent has no doubt already given away, I am American. And as an American, there is only one thing on my mind this morning. My nation has done the unthinkable, electing a man so reprehensible that I refuse to speak his name here.
I had a reflection written for this morning. Two, as a matter of fact. But upon waking from the hour of sleep I got last night, I realized I would have to write a third.
At the very least, the election is over. Here we are. Life, somehow or other, carries on.
Today’s reading is the story of a ruler laid low, although if this was a critique of one ruler’s choices at one time, then the relevance of the story would have died with him. Belshazaar’s actions are described antidotally, we are given more a caricature than a man, proving that some things never change.
On a certain level, public figures will always be caricatures. Humans are messy, complicated things, not readily distilled into a manifesto or a soundbite. Yet that is what is demanded of lives in the spotlight, and doubly so from politicians. In the American system, in which the leader of the nation is elected directly, not with the election of their party as is done here, the candidates become vessels of ideology, rather than full human beings.
The man elected today does not matter. What matters is the ideology that he has become the vessel of: a paranoid, all-consuming xenophobia so vast that it could never be the product on one man, or even--I would argue--one nation.
America may be renowned for its racism, discrimination, and bull-headed reluctance to change, but it does not hold the monopoly on any of those qualities. The idea of a Mexican border wall has loomed large in headlines, while construction on what has been dubbed The Great Wall of Calais has already begun, and the nearby camp which held over seven thousand migrants has been torched. Before that, a razor-wire topped fence was put up along the Hungarian border. But the concept of putting a wall between us and whoever we deem undesirable is hardly new. The American poet Robert Frost wrote “Good fences make good neighbors,” and that does seem to be the mentality throughout much of human history. As long as we have been building walls, there has been someone on the other side of them. It is a physical monument to the idea of “us versus them.” As an anthropologist, I can tell you that the identity of human groups is just as identified by a presence of an Other as it is by internal coherency.
But where does that leave us? This chapel, dedicated to the young men of this university who died in the first and second world wars, is a testament to what happens when intolerance, discrimination, and hatred of the Other is allowed to spread and fester and reach its ultimate goal: the elimination of that which is not Us. But while there is sorrow in the lives that were lost, there is hope in the lives that were saved. There is hope in the mere fact that you and I are here, a century later, in a world that has healed and moved on. We, as allied forces, as the Western World, as humanity, were able to pull back from that brink, as we have pulled back from the brink time and time again. Because as much as there is an undeniable drive in humanity to put up walls, to exclude, to distrust the faces, skin tones, religions, orientations, and identities in which we do not see ourselves, that destructive nature is not all that drives us.
We were, after all, created in the image of a loving God, whose greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Like any wise parent instructing their child, our God would not have given us that commandment if it were not possible for us to follow. Is it easy? No. History has shown that it is far easier to fall into those base impulses of distrust and hatred. But difficulty is not impossibility. Through great effort, self-awareness, and the grace of God, we have the ability to pull ourselves back from the brink.
There will always be leaders who foster hate for their own agendas. There will always be politicians who let their followers turn them into vessels of toxic ideology. And there will always be goodness in the human heart that, when pushed far enough, will fight back, like a light in the darkness.
The danger is in waiting. The danger is letting that darkness, that hatred, spread and fester and cause more destruction, take more lives. I had hoped, no, expected, that I could stand here today in the knowledge that my homeland chose progress over regression, acceptance over hatred, and globalization over nationalism. I think it will be several days, if not longer, before I can fully grasp the outcome the world is waking to today. My heart is sick.
I can’t help but wonder if things could not have been nipped in the bud sooner. How did we come to this point? What other choices could we have made? How do you fix a country that still cannot apologize for slavery, or admit to the genocide of the Native Americans? Where an internationally recognized symbol of neo-Nazis, the Confederate Battle Flag, is defended as a symbol of the nation's heritage?
I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that history is on our side. We will come back from the brink. It will not be easy, it will not come without cost, and it appears things will get worse before they get better. But as humanity has done before, it will do again: we will pull back from the brink.
And as for the war-mongers and those who fan the flames of intolerance and injustice, God has numbered the days of their reign and will bring them to an end.
Here we are. Life, somehow or other, carries on.
Lizy is the student outreach worker at Wellington Church, Glasgow. You can follow her on Twitter @LizyNewswanger