Monday, July 04, 2022

Rituals of Purification and the Republic: On the 2022 Anniversary Celebrations of Independence Day in the United States



 The 4th day of July has been set aside in our Republic for the celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the members of the Second Continental Congress at that moment in rebellion against the authority of the King in Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland, whose subjects they then were. Last year I wrote about rebellion and revolution; of the power of detachment sealed with the blood of those who fought for separation and those who sought to retain union and of the shifting constitution of political solidarity (In Celebration of U.S.Independence Day 2021--Revolution and Solidarity). The Russo-Ukrainian war of 2022 serves as an application of the general principles memorialized in the document and then incarnated in the sacrifices that come with rebellion, separation, and the constitution of political solidarity.  

For this Independence Day, it might be useful to reflect on rituals of purification.  Purification rituals--the performance of acts of cleansing, of washing away the dirty, impure, wrong and the like--is an essential part of the human collective experience.  It is bound up in virtually every social system and expressed in many ways. It serves as the concrete manifestation of societal belief, its ideal, and the affirmation of the fidelity of the individual (or collective) to that ideal.  It can also signal an act of defiance--of rituals of purification in the face of decay, or impurity. Purification brings the celebrant closer to the ideal, and farther from those persons or practices which are unclean, impure, corrupting, and in the end, perhaps, not worth saving. Purification can suggest detachment in the sense that there may be such a gulf between those purified (or seeking purification) and those who do not that it becomes impossible to find any space on which solidarity may be established between them.

Purification and its rituals has acquired a peculiar cultural-political dimension in the American Republic.  The peculiarity arises from the appearance of what may be a more openly expressed sentiment that the Republic (understood as a space for solidarity among those with quite distinct approaches to purity) might be best served by its disintegration and rebirth--purified and better able to engage in those ritual practices that might produce a greater alignment with the pure ideal. The Bible suggests the appropriate imagery: "Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction." (Isaiah 48:10 KJV). That is the imagery that might be understood as most useful--of the furnace in which both pure and impure, heretofore amalgamated together, might be separated so that what is precious may be smelted out from the dross of that which ought to be cast aside. 

These purification movements in the Republic appear now to have acquired a double set of generalized forms.  On the one side one encounters collectives who view the rituals of destructive purification as necessary to bring the collective back to some ideal buried in time, or reflecting a vision of an awakened population to the truth of certain modes of behaviors and ways of thinking.  These look back for purification.  On the other are those collectives for which purification is a function of a set of rationalized objectives for the attainment of which it is necessary to reduce or eliminate those public spaces that must be shared with the impure--those who stand in the way of the realization of these principle-objectives. In both cases, the Republic, in its current state, is both the ideal and the impediment to the realization of purity.  And in both cases, that impurity must be exercised in the furnace of affliction.  In both cases the rituals of purification meld with the imagery of the divine furnace within which the impure, the corrupt, the worthless, may be excised. 

18 Son of man, the house of Israel is to me become dross: all they are brass, and tin, and iron, and lead, in the midst of the furnace; they are even the dross of silver. 19 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Because ye are all become dross, behold, therefore I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem. 20 As they gather silver, and brass, and iron, and lead, and tin, into the midst of the furnace, to blow the fire upon it, to melt it; so will I gather you in mine anger and in my fury, and I will leave you there, and melt you. (Ezekiel 22:18-20 KJV)

For those who increasingly hold these views, who view the Republic as corrupted by the impure which must be cast aside, it is necessary to cast the Republic itself into the furnace.

It is against these forces of purity (in its varied and incompatible, warring, forms); it is against this temptation to toss the Republic into the furnace of purification, that the commemoration of the proclamation of independence serves as a useful reminder.  It is a useful reminder that the Republic was designed for the impure.  It was made to express perfection through the solidarity of the imperfect.  Its genius was cast in a very different furnace, one in which the combination of the pure and the impure, of the past and the present, might be bound together in the way that nature (now perhaps better understood as the interconnections between all of the elements of earth, living and not) make a whole. Perfection, and purification, at least in this Republic, is better expressed as the stability of diverse systems than of a homogeneity or in hierarchies of homogeneity, that the current fashionable embrace of purity suggests. In the less abstract language of Mitt Romney's 4th of July 2022 essay:

Bolstering our natural inclination toward wishful thinking are the carefully constructed, prejudice-confirming arguments from the usual gang of sophists, grifters, and truth-deniers. Watching angry commentators on cable news, I’m reminded of H. L. Mencken’s observation: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

It may not be wrong in the factual sense; it is certainly wrong in the sense that purification  in this case will inevitably produce its own state of impurity. Mr. Romney argues that "But a crisis may come too late for a course correction that can prevent tragedy. The only cure for wishful thinking is leadership." But perhaps it is the Biblical furnace that is a better option--not a Shepard but a nation of shepherds, all committed to a shared vision that we do better together than apart. It is not to a President that the Republic must necessarily look to to move beyond these forces of narrow purification; perhaps it requires something else--and far broader. And that may start with the remembrance that solidarity starts from self and then mutual, and then communal, respect. Mr. Romney would have us wait for our Shepard. "While we wait, leadership must come from fathers and mothers, teachers and nurses, priests and rabbis, businessmen and businesswomen, journalists and pundits. That will require us all to rise above ourselves—above our grievances and resentments—and grasp the mantle of leadership our country so badly needs." I would be inclined to suggest that it is already in the power of the Shepard-less to constitute themselves a collective Shepard free of the crutch of a human person on to whom collective expectation requires some sort of incarnation.

On this day, then, one might celebrate the possibility that these great forces of purification might themselves all be cast back into the furnace to emerge not united but more conscious of the symbiosis that gives each their strength and that guards against their presumption.

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