As a historian, I challenge students to relate past historical patterns to contemporary religious, political, and cultural realities. In the wake of the Tucson shootings some distinct historical themes emerged that reflect not only the deep political chasms that exist in the country, but the cavernous moral divide as well. And at the center of this divide is the way that different groups understand the concept of redemption in the aftermath of tragedy.
Within the context of American history, there’s always been a popular craving for what Robert Jewett, in his book The Captain America Complex, called the “redemptive hero.” One iteration of this model is seen through what could be called “the man on the white horse,” a figure who, in the face of national peril, is able to rectify the nation’s suffering through heroic words or actions (often associated with military force). Part of the appeal of this model is that, like superhero figures out of popular culture, the hero does all the work, requiring no sacrifice from us—only that we have faith in the power of the heroic figure to save us.
But there is a more prophetic vision of redemption in American history which requires us to enter into a web of suffering and tragedy in the hope that a genuine transformation might occur; Martin Luther King Jr. embodies this theme. Part of King’s compelling legacy was his synthesis of theological, philosophical, and civil religious languages that outlined a vision of justice that required Americans to see collective meaning in suffering—even in the face of apparent failure. In many ways, Barack Obama’s address at the University of Arizona lays claim to this prophetic understanding of redemption, not only calling upon Americans to mourn the tragedy of the event, but to find a collective vision as the nation seeks to move forward.
Historically, what makes the concept of redemptive suffering attractive—not to mention theologically persuasive—is when the sacrifice of others enables us to reexamine both our collective and personal shortcomings, calling upon society as a whole to accept culpability in the face of injustice (or, as one might phrase it theologically, to repent of our personal and collective sins). Some public figures have, in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, quietly outlined a vision of collective change, in which the nation can come together around a shared conversation on how to change our volatile political climate.
But the issue of collective culpability regarding Tucson has been vigorously rejected by the major spokespersons on the political right. While Sarah Palin’s “Blood Libel” comment reflects her lack of sensitivity (and ignorance) on deep-seated religious differences, she and others also reveal the right’s doctrine of individual freedom taken to its logical insanity. In their reading, what happened in Arizona was merely the act of a crazy person requiring no response, while bemoaning the ways the media has used the tragedy to the left’s political advantage.
For Palin and others on the right, there is an acknowledgement of the losses in Tucson, but these events are just minor blips on the radar that requires only that we carry on believing in the inherit goodness of individual liberty. No doubt this rhetoric appeals to the conservative ethos of freedom and individual responsibility, but it is a rhetoric that lacks any sense that some collective response is required of us—some sense of repentance. Although many conservatives praised Obama’s Tucson speech for not associating the violence of Tucson with the contemporary political climate, they missed the ways Obama attempted to set a penitent tone, calling Americans to a higher level of moral accountability.
When I watched the University of Arizona ceremony leading up to the president’s speech, in some way the audience reaction seemed a bit surreal—more like a college pep rally than a communal mourning. Rising above this atmosphere, however, Obama gave an address that combined elements of eulogy and psalmist awe (making direct reference to Psalm 46, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells…”), with a classic civil religious hope that the nation could come together and find meaning out of senseless tragedy.
Even as he spoke about the victims of the shootings, he challenged his audience to hope that the tragedy in Tucson would claim our hearts and change our collective behavior. In his words:
I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here—they help me believe we may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
In this sentiment, the president accentuates the best of an American idealistic tradition that acknowledges the existence of evil while maintaining hope that the nation can find the collective will to gain a higher moral ground and eradicate it. As much as I want to believe in Obama’s words, there are few signs that any lasting change will emerge from the tragedy.
Some commentators on the left might be taking the argument too far when they lay the blame for the shootings on the politics of conservatives like Sarah Palin. Yet the angry responses of the Palins, Glenn Becks, Mike Huckabees, and Rush Limbaughs after such a tragedy accentuate a divide that goes beyond any particular political perspective—they reflect a moral worldview that makes no room for collective culpability or a language of national repentance.
At a moment when Americans are given an opportunity through a senseless tragedy to reflect upon the political and cultural mood of the country and be part of a larger conversation on how to alter the aggressive and polarizing political climate (as Representative Gabrielle Giffords called upon her congressional colleagues to do just days before she was shot), conservative pundits don’t want to participate. In short, conservatives like Palin don’t see the need for the collective self-examination Obama called for because they don’t believe that there is a problem to begin with.
Just to be clear: I don’t want to demonize all conservatives by claiming or implying that they fall into the worldview of individuals like Palin (nor suggest that all liberals would necessarily be swayed by moral arguments for some sort of collective repentance). However, I do believe that if any larger meaning is to emerge from the tragedy of Tucson, it must not only trigger something within us that makes us mourn the loss of life, but also compel us to some collective desire to be the type of society that Obama called for in his address.
At the culmination of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965, Dr. King’s speech noted that the ultimate aim of a just nation is to become a society “at peace with itself.” Although King’s words referenced the imperative for racial harmony, he also reflected on the necessity for Americans to embrace a vision that would hold us accountable to a larger goal of collective responsibility. Such a perspective acknowledges that while we may not agree on political stands it is our right to be part of a larger conversation about the type of nation we want to create.
Sadly, within the framework of American history tragedies like Tucson tend to register in our conscience for a limited time. Part of what Obama’s response calls us to do is to move beyond the limitations of our attention span to acknowledge that the current problems of America transcend party affiliation. If we can at least acknowledge that reality, then perhaps we can use the president’s words to engage in a meaningful—dare I say, redemptive—conversation. But until that happens we’re stuck at a tragic impasse.