The Great Experiment and the Great Commandment | Sojourners

The Great Experiment and the Great Commandment

Summer Sundays with Phyllis Tickle

Tomorrow is Bastille Day. We Americans don't take much notice of that these days, but once there was a time when we did. Once was the time, especially as the storm clouds of World War II were gathering over us, when school children and working folk alike stopped to acknowledge a deep and compelling affinity between America and France. Not only had France, historically speaking, always been our most faithful and dependable ally, but she was also seen, politically speaking, as the other half of the Great Experiment.

Both of us had fought wars of ferocious and egalitarian intensity against the armies of kings and of the scabrous nobility that fawned upon them. We, the people, had won those wars, the French on their side of the Atlantic and we on ours; but we had done so with a great deal of mutual help and encouragement, one from another. And we had--the French too--done all of this in the name of a shared vision, in the name of democracy.

We had fought because of our belief in government by the consent of the governed; and in both cases, we were convinced we had won our battles because of the justness and righteousness of that cause. It followed then, especially in the 1930's and 1940's of my own childhood and adolescence, that sheer patriotism required a great celebration on July 4th each summer and, ten days later, at the very least, a rousing public rendition or two of the Marseillaise, a lifting of the hat at noon, and a waving about of France's blue, white, and red in acknowledgment that together, united in principle and vision, even if separated by oceans and language, we had each secured democracy for the world and were determined to secure it still. We had established by mutual example and history, democracy's feasibility, its great utility, its role as benefactor for all people. Long live the rule of law and democratic principles in both our houses.

The first Fourth of July was two hundred and thirty-two years ago; the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, two hundred and nineteen years ago. In both cases, less than a quarter of a millennium. A mere dollop of time. No more than a passing interruption in the long reach of human history. But time enough for us, on this side of the pond, at least, to have some perspective, some distance for considering the course of the Great Experiment as it has played out in reality. Enough for us to inquire of ourselves about how well we have stayed, or not stayed, the course toward human equality; about how well we have achieved flagrant, rampant justice for all; about how fully we have created radical access for all to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

I am not a politician. God knows, it is enough in this day and age just to be Christian at some kind of serious and functional level. To the extent that I am Christian, though, it follows of necessity that what I write and what I say and the actions I take have political repercussions or consequences, for better or worse. I am not naïve enough to think otherwise. When I say I am not a politician, in other words, I simply mean to say that I have no knowledge of how to resolve all the contradictions and conflicts of interest that impede the easy execution of our common life, both domestic and foreign. I don't pretend, either, to have a professional's grasp of what all of those opposing forces are. I certainly don't claim the expertise that would be able to calculate accurately what the consequences might be of restraining any or all of those opposing forces for the sake of the common good of humanity and the on-going health of the Great Experiment.

What I do know, however, is that this July I am reading more and more about Guantanamo Bay and what we have done there. I can view again on the net pictures that have been taken in that place and understand to the depths of my soul, all over again, that something died there, that the Great Experiment was dealt something close to a fatal blow there, that the hope which birthed both the Marseillaise and the Star-Spangled Banner was mocked into impotence there.

I doubt seriously that I will hum the national anthem of France tomorrow, unless inadvertently. I certainly won't tip my hat at noon, and I no longer even own a tri-colored flag to either wave or wear. But I do plan to do again tomorrow what I did ten days ago. The Christian in me will look a while at the pictures of Gitmo on my screen and read the current reportage about Guantanamo in my newspapers and, that having been done, will beseech God somehow to release us all from the hell of what we Americans have permitted and empowered.

That ultimately is the dark side of the Great Experiment, isn't it? That in a democracy, it is not ever some "other" or some "they" who have permitted and empowered. It is we who have done so. It is we who at Guantanamo have desecrated within a single decade the hope of two centuries and, for the Christians among us, shattered completely the second half of the Great Commandment.

Gitmo and all its kind will not undo, nor will they ever be undone. That is our truth this Summer Sunday. But, by the grace of God, there is another and redeeming truth: Gitmo and all its kind can be repented of.

May that be done in all our houses this Bastille Day and every day thereafter, for so long as we who live now, shall live.

Phyllis Tickle ( is the founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly and author of The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord and the forthcoming fall release, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Listen, Lord - A Prayer is from God's Trombones, by James Weldon Johnson.

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