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Gary Percesepe

Introduction to the Politics 2004 Issue

The foundations of the world do shake. Earth breaks to pieces, Earth is split in pieces, Earth reels like a drunken man, Earth rocks like a hammock; Under the weight of its transgressions earth falls down to rise no more! The world itself shall crumble, but my righteousness shall be forever, and my salvation knows no end."—Isaiah 24:18-20

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." –Mark 13:1-2

The great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once preached a famous sermon based on the text cited above from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.

The sermon was called, "The Shaking of the Foundations."

As a kid growing up in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I remember the fuss that was made about some new buildings that were going up downtown. New Yorkers find it difficult to get too excited about some new building; new buildings go up all the time. At the time I am speaking of and in my teenaged mind, New York already had some pretty impressive buildings. There was the Woolworth building downtown—the Cathedral of Commerce, it was called. There was Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building, its slender hull plowing up Fifth Avenue—it filled me with delight from the first time my father drove me past it as a child. The art deco Chrysler Building on 42nd Street, at the time of its construction the tallest building in the world; with its slender steel spire and eerily elegant gargoyles, remains one of the wonders of the world. The Empire State Building, at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, an even taller building, another art deco architectural icon. The Grand Central Terminal, a Beaux Arts beauty, where I met so many friends and family members by the four faced golden clock, under the 130 foot vaulted ceiling. And the churches! St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, the Trinity Church, at the end of the narrow cavern of buildings near Wall Street, rising like the finger of God at the end of the street, visible from the East River. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, still unfinished—when it is completed it will be the largest church in the world, larger even than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Impressive buildings.

So I’m saying when these new buildings were going up downtown, many New Yorkers didn’t pay much attention. Would these twin towers in the Financial District live up to the high standards of New York architecture? They didn’t seem too remarkable—just tall. They didn’t seem to have the charm of those other buildings. I remember a lot of New Yorkers cursing them when they went up; they blocked the view, they were just uninteresting, boring even, nothing special. Some were offended that such dull buildings would be taller than the Empire State Building, a building that had won the hearts of New Yorkers over time. It was kind of like Mickey Mantle when he replaced Joe DiMaggio in center field for the Yankees—who is this young whippersnapper? It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I even bothered to go see the World Trade Center towers. By then they had come to be grudgingly accepted—they did seem to anchor the skyline, like twin exclamation points at the end of slender island of Manhattan. I remember the day I went over to see them. I was giving a philosophy paper at a socialist scholar’s conference downtown near the Hudson, and the Twin Towers were a short distance away, so I walked over and stood next to them. I remember the incredible wind that always seemed to be blowing down there, sweeping through the great canyon of streetscape. I touched them. I craned my neck to look up at them and almost lost my balance. I went inside and looked around. How solid they seemed to be, built on New York bedrock, on this isle of rock called Manhattan, yet graceful with their tubular structure, designed to sway with the wind. The most interesting thing about them was that there were two of them, and the way they were positioned, not exactly next to each other, but north and south at the perfect angle in relation to the other, so that they seemed to echo one another other, an exercise in architectural repetition. Perfect parallelepipeds, as Jean Baudrillard puts it, they stood over 1,300 feet tall, on a square base. It was felt by many that these buildings would come to stand the test of time, like the Chrysler, like the Empire State, they would always be identified with the New York skyline, there as long as there was a New York.

Some things—buildings like the World Trade Center, buildings like the Pentagon—some things, empires, nations, political and cultural traditions— may appear to endure forever.

But they won’t.

A few short years ago the U.S. economy was humming along. After many years of budget deficits there were record budget surpluses. Wall Street investors and entrepreneurs were awash in money. The fifty states had budget surpluses too, and record revenues. With the money saved from welfare reform, states were looking to spend more on education. Here in Ohio, after many years of stagnation money was finally allocated to public works projects, to build new schools. The Ohio Facilities Commission was established to provide money for school districts that needed to replace aging school buildings. Springfield, Ohio, where I live, benefited directly from this new commission, winning over $160 million to build all new school buildings. Manufacturing jobs in Springfield at places like O-Cedar were being created; more people were being employed, the welfare rolls were dropping. Not only that, but with the exception of some hot spots around the globe, America and the world seemed to be at peace. The Cold War was over. With a booming economy, record budget surpluses, more police on the streets, crime figures dropping, public works increasing, it appeared that we had entered a new era of peace and prosperity. The new American century.

Today America is at war. There are record, historic budget deficits. 3.1 million jobs have disappeared, over 200,000 in Ohio, mostly in the manufacturing sector. The O-Cedar company has declared bankruptcy, its workers losing their jobs with the downturn in the economy. Our local public school system is over three million dollars in debt. Nationally, 43 million Americans remain without heath care. Large pubic service projects are stalled. States are struggling to make up budget deficits, with California leading the way, billions of dollars in debt. In Oregon last year a school district had to cut short the school year for lack of funds. A new federal department has been created, the Department of Homeland Security. A color-coded nation lives in fear of another terrorist attack. The Pentagon, the citadel of American military might and the home of the Department of "Defense," had its security breached and walls tumbled down, struck by a 747. And of course, the Twin Towers are gone. Their collapse, while shockingly literal, was also a symbolic event. Had they not collapsed, says Baudrillard, or had only one of them collapsed, the effect would not have been the same. The fragility of global power would not have been so strikingly demonstrated. The towers, emblematic of that power, embodied in their dramatic end a kind of suicide. Witnessing their collapse, as if by implosion, one had the impression, says Baudrillard, that they were committing suicide in response to the suicide of the suicide planes. Nerves of steel cracked, and they collapsed vertically, drained of their strength, with the whole world looking on in astonishment, shock and awe.

The Roman Empire is no more. Its ruins are on display for tourists. One day, though it is difficult at present to imagine it, the American empire will be a distant memory. In the history books of the future, what will be written of the American empire, how many lines? We can only guess.

Once, Jesus’ disciples were admiring the Temple in Jerusalem. It, too, was an impressive building.

"Look, Teacher," they cried in amazement, "What large stones! What large buildings!"

Jesus replied, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

With revolutionary patience we must ask ourselves the question, what lasts? What endures the slippage of time? What is there to hold on to in this world, and of what would we be better off letting go?

These are end-of-the world type questions-- what theologians call eschatological questions. Eschatological, or "final judgment," "texts of terror" were always popular during times of severe persecution and oppression, in both Jewish and Christian circles. They provided hope for those experiencing persecution and reminded believing souls that suffering and evil, while mysteries, were not meaningless. Rather, the community was encouraged to remain faithful despite adversity, for God too shall remain faithful. In answer to our question, "What lasts," these texts call back to us, "Nothing human lasts! Nothing human endures!" What then? If nothing human—no buildings, no empires, no religious or cultural understandings endure, what does? God, says the prophets. Only God endures.

God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in time of trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though

the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in

the heart of the sea:

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble

with its tumult. –Psalm 46

No wonder those were the words that congregants clung to in the aftermath of 9/11 as they flocked in huge numbers to houses of worship all across America, when it seemed as though the foundations of the world itself had been shaken.

In the lead essay of the current issue of the Blip Magazine Archive, Brother John of Taizé suggests that the tragic events of 9/11 amounted to a "missed opportunity" to reflect on the shaking of the foundations. International solidarity and empathy—"We are all Americans" cried the headline of a leading French newspaper!—were soon squandered as nationalistic and partisan bickering came to dominate the news.

Regret is ambiguous. It can make us sink into despair or lead to what Brother John calls a metanoia, a call to change our outlook.

The editors of the Blip Magazine Archive, with this issue, provide such an opportunity.

Tillich asked, "How could the Hebrew prophets speak as they did? How could they paint these terrible pictures of doom and destruction without cynicism or despair?" He answered: because beyond the sphere of destruction, they saw the sphere of salvation, i.e. a transition from an unsatisfactory state of existence to a limitlessly better one, and the hope of a better world; in the doom of the temporal, they saw the outline of the Eternal, the shape of things to come, the New Being, as he liked to call it. This message is what the prophets stood for, says Tillich, and this is what we should properly call religion (rather than the shabby, nationalistic, divisive shell of what often passes for religion), or more precisely, the religious ground for all religion.

For many years Americans had the luxury of forgetting about the shaking of the foundations. But today Americans no longer have that luxury. Most humans are not able to stand the message of the shaking of the foundations. We wish for things to go on as before. We may even believe that it is a sign of patriotism or confidence in one’s own nation to counsel silence or blind allegiance when the foundations are shaking. But more and more, as cherished institutions and buildings and traditions fall apart, it is becoming impossible to remain silent. In fact, the times in which we live pose to us an interesting question: who are the true patriots: those who remain silent and dream of the status quo enduring, or those who cry out in alarm? Today there are soldiers returning from war who have become prophets, former heads of Israeli security who are speaking out against their nations’ leadership, rank and file workers whose life savings have been torched by corrupt corporate leaders, whistles being blown, prophetic voices being raised, truth being spoken to power, and here is the thing—now more than ever, we cannot lose heart, we cannot retreat into cynicism but we must remain engaged with the powers that be, because as Paul Tillich pointed out, if the foundations of this place and all places begin to crumble, cynicism itself crumbles with them. And only two alternatives remain—despair, which is the certainty of eternal destruction, or faith, which is the certainty of eternal salvation.

We often appear to succeed in forgetting the end, but ultimately we fail, for we always carry the end with us in our bodies and in our souls. We happen to live in a time, Tillich says, in which very few of us, very few nations, very few sections of the earth, will succeed in forgetting the end. Perhaps America has been the last nation on earth to finally come to the realization that it cannot forget the end, the end of things, and to experience on her own shores the very shaking of the foundations. But now that we have remembered, Tillich calls to us today from the grave, asking us to not turn our eyes and hearts away! But may we rather see, Tillich says, through the crumbling away of a world, the rock of eternity and the salvation which has no end.

We feature writers from North America, Europe, Africa, Israel, and New Zealand.

The essays, poems, and stories that have been collected here amount to a prophetic call to re-examine the foundations of political life. Some of the writers we feature regard themselves as persons of faith, some do not. But all agree that as citizens of the world it is appropriate to raise our voices in alarm, in story, in lament, and in hope of a democracy which is yet to come.

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