The Fragile Brilliance of Glass: An Ethic of Glory in Trump’s America

Following-up last week’s post about Hauerwas and Coles’ Christianity, Democracy and the Radical Ordinary, I want to point out another passage from early in the book. The book, a series of essays and letters, was compiled in 2008, but this particular essay by Hauerwas was originally written in 2006. Despite being a decade old at this point, it feels especially relevant today, as another example of brokenglasswhere our American civil society is in 2016.

Hauerwas is writing about Augustine’s City of God, and his discussion of the glorification of Roman heroes juxtaposed against the glorification of Christian martyrs, and what each of these mean for their communities. 

Hauerwas writes (emphasis mine):

In contrast to the Roman desire for political glory, as the only way to defeat death, Dodaro calls attention to Augustine’s understanding of martyrdom. For the martyr, fear of death was overcome by faith in a reality that, from the Roman perspective, could not help but appear “invisible.” Yet the martyr’s victory challenges the Roman understanding of “politics,” because the martyr does not depend on memory secured by military or political glory. The martyr’s memory is secured, rather, in the communion of saints who dies victorious because they broke forever the fatal victim/victimizer logic¹. The martyr cannot be a hero – whose glory is his own – because the glory of the martyr is a reflected glory – a reflection of the glory of Christ – signaling an alternative political ethic…

…Accordingly, Augustine asks “is it reasonable, is it sensible, to boast of the extent and grandeur of empire, when you cannot show that men lived in happiness, as they passed their lives amid the horrors of war, amid the shedding of men’s blood-whether the blood of enemies or fellow citizens-under the shadow of fear and amid the terror of ruthless ambition?” The only joy such people achieve has the “fragile brilliance of glass” and is outweighed by the fear of loss. So the rich and the powerful are “tortured by fears, worn out with sadness, burnt up with ambition, never knowing the serenity of repose.” In contrast, the person of limited resources is loved by family and friends, enjoys the blessing and peace with his relations and friends; “he is loyal, compassionate, and kind, healthy in body, temperate in habits, of unblemished character, and enjoys the serenity of good conscience.”

The contrast here is between a political ethic that glorifies “winning” with an ethic that achieves lasting victory. And not victory in a political, temporal sense, but victory in a more cosmic, justice-oriented sense.

Think about it this way: we don’t remember the heroes of Rome; but many of us do celebrate the feasts of the martyrs and saints even today.

The politics of Empire – the politics of death – inevitably are driven by self-glorification and competition. American democracy is no different, and this competitive, self-centered  way of being is only grotesquely enhanced by capitalism’s ethos of winning at all costs and personal enrichment. There is no reflected glory of the Divine in our political ethic of Empire. Instead, it is a dull glory, quickly forgotten and with no lasting impact. And, in 2016, we have have wrapped our arms around it completely.

Martyrs, however, serve here as exemplars of a people who have rejected structures and strictures of being in the world in the way it says you must. In doing so, they have proven the futility of the world’s need to make scapegoats, a la Rene Girard. As Hauerwas points out so beautifully, they have overcome the logic of the victimizer. They cannot be seen as someone punished with death, because they have embraced death with open arms, showing it to be, not a punishment, but a glorification, a vindication.

This break is especially relevant in a modern political climate that has taken victimization to a level not seen since Nazi Germany. Political leaders – especially our president-elect – have played the victim card, which white Christian American has eaten up, and consequently, the supposed perpetrators of this victimization – immigrants, Muslims, refugees, gays, black nationalists, lefts – have been targeted.

Donald Trump, I believe, is the apotheosis of Hauerwas’ examples of everything wrong with liberal democracy, as shown here. We have a president-elect desirous of glory, willing to play to the masses by promising their safety through the death of others; a man so obviously eaten up with envy and ambition and insecurity, covered in fragile bluster and fear and anger. He is a reflection of the pathology of white Christian American. And the only way for him and them to cope with these insecurities is to project them outwards, on to others, to make themselves the victims and their enemies – the Others – as their oppressors.

Those of us who fall in these labels, or who know, love, and respect those who do, don’t have to play this game. Hauerwas continues:

In short, a community shaped by the memory of the martyrs makes possible a people capable of the slow, hard work of politics of place, because they are not driven by the politics of fear. Yoder’s “wild patience” assumes that such a people must exist if the work of nonviolence is to be a radical challenge to the way the world is. What the church contributes to radical democracy is therefore a people who seek not glory but justice. Such a people have been made possible because they have been formed through liturgical action to be for the world what the world can become.

There is a way out of the cruel logic of the scapegoat. It is the way of love, of radical acceptance and hospitality, of refusing the blame or live in fear and suspicion of those perceived as the Other. As we saw in my previous post, it is a way that sees what those different than us have to bring to the table, and respecting that.

The politics of glory and death is not the call of the followers of the Crucified One. We don’t “win.” We don’t get first place.

Instead, we reflect the glory of the Divine. We take a back seat. We are willing to lose so others may win. We embrace the possibility of death and loss, because of the promise of resurrection. And in so doing, we show the possibility of a different world, achievable right here on earth, if we only have the courage to see it.


¹From the (much-longer) book footnote: “Rome could kill Christians but they could not victimize them.”


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