John Donne (1572-1631) has a way of sneaking up on me from time to time. I was using a portion of his Satire #3 for another article, a portion that has often counseled me through times of doubt as I struggle to understand the world around me. Doubt is something we all deal with about nearly everything in our fast paced world. Anyway, the other article was about religion, but as I reread Donne it occurred to me that he spoke directly to our contemporary political culture as clearly as he spoke to his own. And that’s where this article came from.
Donne’s English is enough different from ours that some years ago I reworded this part to make it more palatable to the modern ear, and more useful in adult Christian education classes. You should read Donne yourself in his own words, but here is my updated version intended to spark more conversation about American politics.
Truth and falsehood are near twins, yet truth is the elder. Work hard to seek her. Believe me this, you are not nothing or worse to seek the best. To adore, or scorn an image (statues and paintings in church), or protest. All may be bad, but doubt wisely. In a strange way to stand inquiring is not to stray. To sleep, or run wrong, is.
On a huge hill, cragged and steep, truth stands, and if you will reach her you must take a twisting trail. What the hill makes difficult must be overcome. Strive hard before age, death’s twilight, deprives you of your strength. Do not delay. Do it now. Hard deeds, bodily pains, difficult study, are the work that needs to be done.
The mysteries of truth are like the sun, dazzling, blinding, yet plain to all the eyes. When you have found truth, keep it. Ordinary men are not so ill served by God that he has signed blank charters for kings to kill whom they hate. They are not vicars of Christ but hangmen of fate. Don’t be a fool, a wretch, and let your soul be tied to their laws, a slave to kings’ powers. You will not be tried by them on the last day.
On judgement day will it do you any good to say that Phillip (King of Spain), Gregory (pope), Harry (Henry VIII), or Martin (Luther) taught you this or that? Before God their disputes are mere contraries, maybe equally wrong. Isn’t that what they claim – that each of the others is wrong? Maybe they all are.
So that you may obey kings rightly, know their bounds, their history, their nature, and their names. Know how they’ve changed. Humbling yourself before them is idolatry. A king’s power is like a stream, and those who prosper in its gentle backwaters lose their roots in the greater law of God. When the tyrant rages, alas, they are driven through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost consumed, going into the sea where all is lost. And thus also perish the souls who choose for themselves unjust power, who claim to have it from God. Trust in God himself, not them.
Consider that last part, “So that you may obey kings rightly, know their bounds, their history, their nature, and their names. Know how they’ve changed”
When I watch the crowds at Trump rallies, I don’t see people interested in obeying Trump rightly, knowing his bounds, believing his history, understanding his nature, or from whence he came. I see people who have become idolators worshiping at the feet of a despotic man who basks in their adulation, yet cares nothing for them. It’s all he wants from them. He feeds on their homage like a vampire feeds on his victim’s blood. His ego demands it. He can’t live without it. As long as they humble themselves before him, he’s content until his gnawing hunger for more leads him to another rally.
Promising everything and delivering nothing, yet they remain loyal for reasons that dismay me. Believing he will make them free and prosperous, they surrender their freedom and their prosperity to his authoritarian ways. What’s worse, certain leaders claiming to be Christian have assumed for themselves unjust power, claiming to have it from God, and presume to confer it on Trump.
Are rallies for others any different? I think they are. It isn’t simply that the candidates themselves speak in full sentences with considerable knowledge about the issues. Those attending may express passionate support for Joe, Bernie, Elizabeth, Pete, or Amy, but no two rallies are the same for any candidate. The mood at each is unique; participants freely express widely differing thoughts on important matters. Unquestioned loyalty is neither demanded nor expected. Of course the candidates have sizable egos or they wouldn’t be running, but they sublimate them to earn the peoples’ trust, and in the interest of the greater good.
In the end will it do you any good to say that Donald, or Mitch, or Bernie, or Elizabeth taught you this or that? Before God their disputes are mere contraries, maybe equally wrong. Isn’t that what they claim – that each of the others is wrong? Maybe they all are.
This year brings many doubts, and Donne’s good counsel helps. But about one matter I have no doubt. I have no doubt that Trump is a bumbling authoritarian narcissist who, claiming to know more about everything than anybody, knows little and is unable to anticipate the consequences of his gut inspired actions. For that reason alone he’s dangerous, and needs to be defeated. As for Mitch, I have no doubt that he’s sold his soul in a faustian deal, and using his considerable skills works to manipulate government toward the plutocracy he favors.
How to best evaluate the others continues to be a search for truth on a twisting trail. Any of them would be an improvement, but one of them will be the right one for our time. Which?