Saturday, September 15, 2001

A Common Bond in Service of Rival Masters

WATCHING the almost simultaneous commemorative services at Saint Paul’s in London and the National Cathedral at week’s close, it was impossible not to be impressed by the deep bond of memory shared by the peoples of the English speaking world. It is a palpable sort of thing which is as difficult to explain to the peoples of the Spanish speaking world as it is for the collective Ibero-American experience to reverberate in us.

The United States is a very different country from England. Our Germans and Irish, Italians and Poles, myriad lesser ethnicities and Jews have all made us a distinct, raucously brash and agitated country. Although all Americans are Anglicized, it is by now exclusionarily absurd to think of the U.S. as an Anglo Saxon country. (I’m fairly sure that notion sank with the Titanic.) And yet, a Martian beholding the two services this Friday could not fail to think : “These are both stemming from some same thing.”

That sense of sameness is extraordinary if one happens to know that the St. Paul’s service was strictly C of E, whereas the Washington service was inter denominational and inter-faith. It is even more extraordinary if one compares the restrained formality of what BBC called an “informal” service with the casualness of the American which, one supposes, BBC would have characterized as a church beer bust.

The sameness I am talking is not a matter of professional definitions but of evoked and signified feelings. Beyond the vestments and vergers, beyond the processionals, I suspect the language of the soul had the most to do with it. It is not the differences the expert hears that matters but rather the cross-borrowing sameness the layman feels at home with. Immortal Invisible (London), Oh God Our Hope ... and A Mighty Fortress (Washington) are sounds which by liturgical or historical experience are part of a shared family album.... albeit an irredeemably Protestant one. (I kept on thinking how out of place the Catholic cardinals looked on either side of the Atlantic -- their red robes conjuring up a very different confluence of memories.)

The English fixed our common bond by singing the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of the service, the Battle Hymn of the Republic toward the end and God Save the T’is of Thee at the last. The message sent was more than one of just sympathy. Whether amnesiac Americans remember it or not, the Crown certainly has not forgotten that when Churchill came a-begging for help aboard the Prince of Wales, he had the ship’s complement sing: “....Oh hear us when we cry to thee, For those in peril on the sea...” The message was, it seems to me, that the English saw it as pay-back time. They would stand with us, no questions asked.

But the second thing that was just as striking was how different the two services were notwithstanding their deep commonality. The English service bespoke the polities of religion; the American was all about religion in the service of politics. The differences were appalling.

Bush’s pseudo sermon (presumably qua ius pontifex) was pretty much a plain declaration of war. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s homily was a reminder that a just war must have a just purpose. Thus, when the English sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic the sense of it was “dying to make men free....” When the Americans sang it, to the accompaniment of belligerent blasts of brass, the sense of it was “nuking out the vintage where Bin Ladin’s grapes are stored”. It was unmistakably blood thirsty and chilling.

It was very strange seeing two things so deeply common at one level being done with such critically different spirits on the other. The Anglo-American memory is something I cannot help responding to. But my critical mind kept telling me that Washington was, yet again, abusing my responses.

Of course, it is not possible for a nation to be attacked as we were and not retaliate in some way. All the priestly prattling notwithstanding, it is a brute fact of geo politics that the nation must vindicate its honor they put it in the modern world, “sustain its credibility”.

But in such times, a service such as these is more properly used as the pause before war than the as prelude to war. We need a time to calm the passions and to make space for a modicum of reflection before reaction. Dismally enough, the belligerence out of Washington is unremitting. Bush proclaims a global campaign to “whip terrorism” in a “new kind of war” while Collin Powell says we should not expect “this war” to be without casualties. Since terrorists don’t usually fight on battle fields, I think he means to includes civilian casualties. Are we really marching off into some nightmare?

©WCG, 2001


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