Battle for our National Soul

In 1990, Ken Burns produced a documentary on the Civil War.  It ran for several weeks, and generated no end of conversation.  A friend of mine reflected that the Civil War was a battle for the national soul.  The documentary exposed serious flaws in the republic that led to a divided nation, and at the same time revealing the fierce commitment that many had to preserve — and extend, the cause of freedom.  The soul question the Civil War posed was —  How free were we going to be?  And who can have that freedom?

Last Thursday night, when the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 attack made its prime time presentation to the American public, I recalled my friend’s comments from thirty years ago;  and sensed that the process of drilling down into what happened on January 6  at the Capitol was a necessary exercise to diagnose the state of the nation’s soul — and to offer appropriate remedies for healing.  The symbolic center of democracy was breached with verbal and physical violence, and as a result that soul of the nation has been wounded.

Burns’ documentary presented material that had not been seen before.  It had an impact on how we view our history. And helped to promote healing of that terrible chapter in America’s history. The Select Committee’s is presenting some material that has not been seen before, and it is having an impact — in two opposing ways.  One impact is the desire to keep digging, and to keep exposing the conversations and actions that led to the attack, and what happened in various places during and after the assault.  The opposite impact is to dismiss the January 6 event as a minor “dust-up”, or more brazenly, to do whatever can be done to shut the process down.  Because it is nothing more than a partisan ploy.

Getting to the soul is not easy, because the journey needs to go through the ego first.  And the ego is resistant to change, averse to risk, avoids pain— and wants stability.  Getting to the soul involves going down — and exposing images and ideas and situations that may be uncomfortable.

There are forces and voices in this country that want to restrict access to the soul.  Forces and voices that say we shouldn’t — or can’t talk about certain forms of sexuality, or investigate more fully the nation’s record on race, or consider that the moment that life begins may not be absolutely clear.

When apartheid ended in South Africa, the country established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  It was an exercise in going down to the depths of the country’s pain and shame — to reveal the nation’s soul.  A chaplain to the Commission said that it was necessary to completely identify the wound caused by over 40 years of apartheid if there was to be any prospect of healing.  Stories were told — openly, honestly and vulnerably.  The journey to healing has not been a smooth one, but I hate to think of what might be happening now in South African if those stories hadn’t been told.

There are many who say we need to limit the telling of these stories, or at least contain them.  And on this they have a point.  There are people all over the world who wish that we Americans would turn off our exports of tawdry entertainment, violent video games and unbridled promotion of greed.  Many of these exports are regarded as soulless — and manipulative, and reflect an attitude that “anything goes”.  That is part of the argument of those who are mightily resisting what the Select Committee’s hearings are about.

The journey to the soul is not easy, and the pathway is a trajectory that is not always clear.  But the desire for healing requires goes down to investigate the full extent of the wound— how it was created, how it might fester, where does it bleed.  That is hard — and necessary, soul work, which is what the Select Committee is attempting to do.







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