In his classic 1974 single Annie’s Song, the late John Denver drew vivid portraits of nature to describe his love for his wife, Annie:
“You fill up my senses like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in spring time
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean”
The poetry reaches its climax with “Come let me love you, Come love me again.” If ever there was ever an American song to make you appreciate love and senses in life’s sadder moments, it’s Annie’s Song.
Reflecting upon First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention, memories of Annie’s Song came flooding back, precisely because the “American spirit” the First Lady was describing went in the polar opposite direction of the spirit of Annie’s Song.
Speaking about the American spirit of “service and sacrifice” Michelle Obama told the convention, “I’ve seen it in our men and women in uniform and our proud military families…in wounded warriors who tell me they’re not just going to walk again, they’re going to run, and they’re going to run marathons.”
All right, so maybe her husband did not turn out to be the peacemaker many Americans had hoped he would be, but certainly, using her platform before the nation to give praise to paralyzed soldiers confident they will walk again, one could set aside the disappointments and simply appreciate the indomitable American spirits of the wounded soldiers Michelle Obama spoke of. Then came the stunner, sordid and twisted as it was revelatory about our times.
As the hotly-contested Republican primaries waged on with the former candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both Catholics, trying to outshine the other in the Iran war-mongering portfolio, a little-noticed letter was sent to Secretary of State Clinton.
Bishop Richard Pates, the Roman Catholic bishop of Des Moines, and chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote to Clinton on March 2nd calling for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff. Bishop Pates wrote, “Iran’s bellicose statements, its failure to be transparent about its nuclear program and its possible acquisition of nuclear weapons are serious matters, but in themselves do not justify military action.” The bishop went on to write, “Discussing or promoting military options at this time is unwise and may be counterproductive.”
Presumably, the bishop would have likewise bristled at the Iran warmongering by fellow Catholics Santorum and Gingrich. Nevertheless, despite the clear difference between the bishop and the former candidates on the matter of war with Iran, he did, and still does, share some common ground with the Catholic former presidential hopefuls: Like Santorum and Gingrich, the bishop was utterly mum about the powerful incentives Iran has to acquire the bomb: namely, to counter Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Mideast, and thus secure its own regime against an attack from nuclear-armed Israel, or its benefactor, the United States.
I have never had a “pay it forward” moment at a toll booth. It would be nice. But it would not be nice if the person in the car in front of me who paid the toll then followed me, got me to pull over and roll down my window as he said, “Hi! I’m the one who paid your toll back there!”
Immediately, the context would be shifted. A context in which the joy and freedom of genuine human regard could be celebrated would be transformed into a context in which the slavery of indebtedness rules: The selfless giver now becomes the emotional creditor, and the very act of giving now becomes a source of power and prestige for the person who paid the toll. And that begs the question: What if I do not want to participate in furthering another person’s need for power and prestige, and in particular their manipulation of kindness itself to achieve that power and prestige?
Thankfully, I have never been in such a situation. I can put that down in my gratitude journal. Unfortunately, however, there is a larger reality that does not belong in my gratitude journal: All of us are living in a time of massive-scale manipulation of false charity and mercy.