Even at random times in my life when the song had no specific relevance, for my whole life I've been very vulnerable to being song-virused by "Simple Gifts," also known as The Shaker Hymn. Whistle or hum a few bars of it, and it'll be running through my head for hours, sometimes days. But this transcends the source material. "Air and Simple Gifts" begins with a very modern tone poem, this haunting, beautiful, and yet heart-rending wandering melody of loss, sadness, and depression with a hint of nostalgia. And just as the nostalgia part of the tune starts to veer dangerously close to Southern Confederate nostalgia, it is interrupted, specifically by a black man on the clarinet, who plays the opening of "All Creatures of Our God and King" right over the two white people and the Asian who are dragging us all down into an emotional morass, and (through the magic of Williams' composition) seems to persuade them, to drag them along, into this different vision, one both older and more modern than the melancholy air they were playing before, "Simple Gifts:"
"'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free.I've written before about the subject of repentance, going all the way back to my classic series "Christians in the Hand of an Angry God." There is a lie that is taught in too many of our churches now, including the churches attended by almost ever President we've had since Carter, that says that repentance is a magic formula, a specific ritual incantation that lets you do whatever you want and escape all consequences. You can be as beastly and vicious and greedy and ruthless and dishonest as you want, if you can learn to perform this simple magical ritual. Work yourself up into an artificial state of temporary self-pity and self-loathing, and then recite a few magic words, and then when somebody comes to call you to account for what you've done, you can say, "You can't hold me responsible for that, God has forgiven me." And that's never been what the Bible has taught. If nothing else, nowhere in the Christian Bible does it say that God's forgiveness gets you off the hook for the mundane consequences of your actions. But it also says repeatedly that God's forgiveness is itself contingent not just on that magical ritual but also on one more component, and that is true repentance. True repentance requires more than just a momentary expression of feeling bad about getting caught at what you did. True repentance requires that you visibly and demonstrably turn away from what you did, that you show both God and others that you understand why what you did was wrong, that you understand why you were wrong to do it, and that you intend to do differently next time. And even then, forgiveness is conditional on you, the next time the same temptation is placed in your path, demonstrating your repentance by turning away from repeating the same sin. If you intend to do the same thing the next time? Or if you intend to do something different the next time, but fail, and wallow in the same sin time after time? There is no forgiveness for you, not in this world or in the life everlasting. That is explicitly what the Bible teaches, over and over again, whether you were told that from any of the pulpits of false Christianity or not.
'Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we come to the place that's just right
We shall be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed
But to turn, and turn, shall be our delight
Until by turning, turning we come 'round right."
And for all that it was written as a square dance tune, there is an accidental brilliance to the way that "Simple Gifts" portrays repentance: it's not just one turn and you're done. By sheer accident (perhaps not?) it reminds us that it may be just as easy to turn away from one sin into another. No, if need be keep turning, and turning, and turning again until if by nothing else than sheer persistence you find that you have turned around right. The Shaker Hymn reminds us that there is no shame in going the wrong way; we're not gods, we're human, we make mistakes. The shame is in finding out that you're going the wrong way and refusing to turn around, for fear that admitting that you went the wrong way will expose weakness. There is a mindset that says that the world is full of predators who are just waiting for you to show the first sign of doubt or the slightest symptom of weakness, and then in your moment of vulnerability they'll pounce on you and rend you to shreds, and surely nobody deserves that for a simple mistake? But the world is also full of the victims of your sin, and if you keep going down the same sinful path out of pride or fear of showing weakness, every step you take down that path makes more victims; before terribly long, they will out number and out-gun the predators. And all the world's religions preach that there is a God of Justice; as Thomas Jefferson said in his own sinful time, wrestling with the political compromises he'd been backed into over slavery, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever."
And what times John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts" perfectly for its moment is that Barack Obama understands something that George Bush, and his few remaining followers, do not: America has nothing to be ashamed of, but many national sins to repent. We just lived through eight years of being stubbornly lead by a team of men who all shared this trait: with the best of intentions they did what seemed to them to be the obvious right thing to do. Because their intentions were just, they do not think they can be blamed for the evil they wrought when they were wrong. Nor can they admit that they were wrong, for fear of the consequences to themselves (and, they would say, to our nation) if they admit that under their authority, America did wrong.
For example, all of the world's religions and all of the world's laws declare it a sin against God and a crime against humanity and a violation of the law of every country in the world including our own if you torture a prisoner for information, but surely they would argue there must be an exception for self-defense? It seemed entirely obvious to them that torturing a couple of dozen people, some of them to death, was a lesser evil than just letting our enemies attack at will. And if they were wrong, surely God will forgive them if they repent privately to him, and the rest of us will understand that their intentions were good, and shouldn't that be enough? President Obama understands that it is not enough: to earn not just the trust of the world and the forgiveness of our victims, but the forgiveness of almighty God, his faith teaches him that we must also repent. With the simple elegance of Anthony McGill's clarinet, Barack Obama's gifted speaking voice has broken though our national symphony of decline, defensiveness, and false nostalgia to persuade us that we must show the world that we do know that what America did out of fear was wrong, and we must demonstrate that we know that it was also a bad idea, and we must convincingly make the case that if we are tempted to torture prisoners for information again we will not do so because we now remember that it is wrong, and when the opportunity arises again we must openly and transparently show the world that we did not commit that sin again: then, and only then, can we be forgiven. (Does President Obama's view of repentance include a belief that true repentance also requires that you openly accept that sin has temporal consequences, and embrace those consequences? I hope so. But whether or not it does, this is progress.)
Nor, as the elegant simplicity of the Shaker Hymn reminds us, is repentance a sign of weakness, but of strength: we as a nation are so strong that we can admit that we did wrong, show repentance, and still be invulnerable to the predators who may mistake that for their time to strike. Repentance will not make us weaker as a nation, it will make us stronger. Not only will it deprive our enemies of future victims to be their recruits, not only will it earn us allies who will again be unashamed to be seen alongside of us, but even more important than that, we won't be going in the wrong direction any more. Or maybe we will; we are after all still human. But if we truly internalize the value of repentance, we shall still be unashamed to bow or to bend: we shall delight in turning again, and again if need be, until we turn around right.
Nor is torture our only national sin, but all of our national sins have this in common with the torture of terrorism suspects: we meant well, but were wrong. We make this nation a hell on earth for most black men not because we're racist monsters, but because the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is so monstrous we assume they must be waiting for us to show a moment of weakness and then they'll slaughter and rob us all, because frankly that would be fair. Even if we were right, continuing their oppression rather than admit we are still doing wrong would be evil, but it's also wrong: we saw in New Orleans that when we withdraw the heavily armed oppressors and the rich employers and for that matter all the infrastructure of civilization what we should have noticed in our daily lives over and over again since the 16th century: black men are not just waiting for their chance to lash out in an orgy of violence, they just want to make a better life for themselves and their children, same as us. Nor can we as a nation be forgiven for letting cops shoot black men with impunity even when there's no rational reason to fear, or for letting employers refuse to hire them over equally unsupported fears, or for packing our prisons with black male drug dealers at 14 times the rate we imprison white or female drug dealers, or any of our other sins of racism until we are persuaded that what we are doing is wrong, not just a sin but based on factual errors, that we do not need to be doing what we are doing out of self defense, and that we do not put ourselves in harm's way but instead make ourselves stronger as a nation if we repent and do differently from now on.
After 9/11, I'm sure that George Bush and his administration were not the only people who thought that it was obvious that the only plausible way to respond to a terrorist attack on the United States was to spend billions of dollars (and to scrap huge chunks of the Bill of Rights) in an attempt to harden every possible terrorist target against attack, while waging pre-emptive war "fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here." Nor was Donald Rumsfeld the only military theorist who believed that our newest ultra-tech military advances meant that we could topple terrorism-supporting regimes one after another in very little time, at nearly no cost, with few if any casualties on either side, and then go right on to the next one. These were natural assumptions and plausible theories. They turned out to be factually incorrect. There are too many plausible terrorist targets and too many ways for them to work around defenses of any kind; even an East-German-style totalitarian dictatorship couldn't keep us safe from any possible terrorist attack. And "netro-centric" warfare is very good at defeating armies, but turns out not to be so great at keeping terrorists from capturing the anarchic destroyed states it leaves behind. But these were not only factually incorrect ideas, they also happen to be legally and morally wrong. Much of the rest of the world so far tentatively trusts Barack Obama not to have a private list of countries that he's looking to manufacture an excuse to invade (although if I were the Sudanese government, I'd certainly be squawking my fool head off about some of the evidence to the contrary). We will not have any diplomatic credibility until we not merely denounce the Iraq War, as President Obama did even before he was Senator Obama, but until we can convincingly show the world that we as all Americans can be trusted not to do it again for so many reasons that they become willing to give us the benefit of the doubt again. And that process is called "repentance."
We did not remove all the watchdogs and regulators and overseers from our economy, nor did we turn our entire health care system over to huge corporations, because we are secretly feudalists or fascists who believe that might makes right, that it is natural and desirable for the strong to crush the weak. We did so because we mistakenly believed that we had successfully aligned the incentives such that the people running our financial corporations and our prescription drug companies and our medical insurance companies would do the right thing even when nobody was watching. It didn't turn out that way, for a variety of reasons, not least of which we failed to predict that until new science comes along, additional money funneled into corporate "pharmaceutical research" would be used to illegally protect monopolies; if there are no more breakthrough drugs to patent until we make another scientific breakthrough, did we think that those gigantic accumulations of wealth wouldn't be used to defend those gigantic accumulations of wealth, did we think that once the patents ran out they'd go peacefully back to being minimally profitable commodity manufacturing businesses? Yes, we did, and we were wrong, and the death toll of that mistake runs into the thousands per year in America and perhaps hundreds of thousands per year around the world. And we failed to recognize the danger of tens of thousands of financial industry employees whose very ability to pay their own mortgages and feed their own children depended on making the kind of returns on investments that they got used to during the dot-com bubble, we failed to predict just what depths of evil they would be able to rationalize and what risks they would take with their companies if the alternative was to move out of their McMansions into tiny little apartments and send their kids to public schools in bad neighborhoods. We were wrong to think they wouldn't do what they did, and as we desperately race to stave off Weimar-level inflation that would kill millions around the world, we need to repent that mistake, too.
There maybe be predators lurking around the world looking for an excuse to "prove" that capitalism itself doesn't work, but that doesn't mean that we can't afford to repent. It means that the victims of those mistakes are gunning for us, and even the non-victims won't trust any promise we make or any help that we offer until we show that we understand that we were wrong, not just wrong to do what we did but wrong in the reasons why we thought we were right to do it, until we show that rather than creating another equally fraudulent investment bubble whether in banking or "green technology" we really do intend to re-install the safeguards that kept us and the whole world safe for so long. Only when we demonstrate that the next time we are tempted to commit the same sin that we will do something different, only until we re-inspire the world's confidence that even if the next thing we try turns out to be just as sinful we will also repent that and turn away from it again in yet another new direction, can we be forgiven, and trusted to lead again. And that, and so many opportunities to repent of the mistakes of Reaganomics and (falsely named) "realpolitick" is what the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama means: that this is our time of repentance, and that that's not a sad thing or an unpleasant thing, it's the valley of love and delight.
Which brings us back to John Williams. Because after a moving arrangement of "Simple Gifts," the mood of the combo has changed. So when the violinist brings the group back to the opening air, it's different in the reprise. At the point where the original air veered off towards Confederate "noble lost cause" toxic nostalgia, the reprise instead steers in new directions: sobriety, yes, but also optimism, confidence, dignified good cheer, and ends on a note of, yes, hope. All prefiguring the moment not long after when, having given his oath, a man stood up and said (among other things):
"Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights. Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.And John Williams, with the help of a genuinely gifted quartet of some of the greatest musical performers of our lifetimes, managed to say all of that without a single word and in only five minutes. I was in awe. I felt shivers. And when I think about it, and while I'm writing about it now, I weep for the beauty of it and the rightness of it. It was, for me, the emotional highlight of the whole day.
"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.
"We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." -- Barack Obama, "First Inaugural Address," 1/20/09.