I had insisted that we wait to watch it until we had an uninterrupted time block like this — because of the reverent way people talked about the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical set in America’s formative years, almost like it was something holy.
Holy. What it is that’s holy in the world’s oldest presidential democracy has been much on people’s minds since the temple that is the U.S. Capitol was sullied by violent insurrectionists less than two weeks ago. “Our house,” the invaders repeatedly called out, according to a ProPublica report that comprehensively examined 500 videos uploaded to the Parler social media platform.
Many commenters have heard this expression as an explicitly racist call — a declaration that the Capitol and the government resident there properly belongs only to white people. The ProPublica writer agrees that it’s a racist call expressing white entitlement, but he also sees it as part of a more complex picture, one where the rioters were expressing not just assertive dominance, but also a deep confusion. In these videos, he writes, the “entitlement is laced with insecurity. The attackers profess ownership of this house, but so much of their commentary betrays discomfort and alienation within it, bordering on a sort of provincial awe. ‘This is the state Capitol,’ a man says to his young female companion inside the visitor center, his struggle to grasp the grandeur of the place encapsulated in his incorrect terminology.”
A bit of a similar struggle to grasp the grandeur of a ‘holy house’ — that ‘house’ that is the whole project of American democracy — happened for me watching Hamilton on MLK Day. Does this project really belong to me, I wondered?
Growing up going mostly to public schools in the American Northeast, I was repeatedly subjected to history lessons about the great American founders. These lessons, I assume, were meant to instill awe in me. But I was just bored.
Instead, compelling American history for me only began about the time my own forebears came to American shores, in the earliest years of the 20th century. I was captivated by the great American struggles of the 20th century, especially those of poor European immigrants, like Jews from places like Russia, to make a place for themselves on the tough streets of big cities like New York amid the Great Depression and years following World War II.
Now, I can hardly claim to have any new insights into a play with as many devoted fans as Hamilton, but I can share that for me it did awaken some sense that those early American years belonged to me, too. When Hamilton’s wife Eliza lets loose a gasp at the end, I was not confused as so many have been. Emotionally, it made total sense to me. It spoke of how overwhelmed I felt at the end of the show — overwhelmed to think that maybe this thing, this house, that was America’s founding years as democracy was something compelling that belonged to me, too.
The show gets the power to do that not just from the brilliance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music and lyrics, but also because it does what I think the most compelling contemporary Midrash of the Bible does — it takes something from a distant time and instills in it new life by retelling it with our tools and forms (rap music, multi-racial casting etc., in the case of Hamilton). These contemporary tools and forms turn an old dusty house into ‘our house’.
It’s hard to imagine exactly what Martin Luther King would have made out of Hamilton, but I think he surely would have approved of Miranda’s effort to help more Americans feel like the nation’s democracy belonged to them, like the house is truly ‘our house’.
And what would have he thought of the Capitol invaders? He certainly would have been deeply repelled as so many of us are. But we can also be sure he would have tried to love them. The Christian Bible’s command to “love your enemies” was deeply meaningful to him. In a sermon in 1957 — the year the SCLC was founded — he acknowledged the difficulty of following this command but also said it “is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization.”
But the person of faith, he said, should not only seek to love enemies for the sake of civilization but also for the spiritual health of the person’s individual self. Hating our enemies “distorts the personality of the hater,” he warned. “You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted.”
Mere hours after I write this Joe Biden is scheduled to ascend to the presidency. Biden surely, by his very nature, is not the kind of agent of profound, radical change that MLK was. But I think he does have one important thing in common with King — each man is characterized by their own deep commitment to forms of non-violence. I think Biden would enthusiastically agree with King “that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me [it] just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.”
My prayer is that Biden will be that person who can break the chain of hate for America, and can help bring everybody into ‘our house.’ It will not be easy. Some people are too in love with their own hate. But may it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that their numbers will shrink in the days to come and that with every minute more Americans will feel able to love, and be loved, by their fellow citizens.