Last Friday, as I drove into Arlington, Virginia, for a lunch meeting, I rounded the curve of the Potomac and saw the Washington Monument and then the Capitol slide into view. Many times before I’d enjoyed that sight, my heart stirring with pride at the symbols of American greatness—and the vague thrill of proximity to the world’s greatest center of power. This time, though, I felt a wholly different sensation—a tight knot in the pit of my stomach, a sense of grief and dread—the sense, it struck me, that one has in driving to the funeral of a friend. A fitting feeling, I thought, as I drove past the Iwo Jima Memorial, with its six sculpted Marines striving to plant an American flag beneath an iron-gray sky; after all, something had died within me last Wednesday, and in the hearts of every American patriot.
On that day, a crowd of “freedom fighters” had gathered before the White House, to cheer their defeated chief to one last act of resistance, to turn back, if they might, the inexorable tide of his defeat then being certified in the United States Congress. Exhorting his followers to “take back our country,” President Trump stoked their rage to the boiling point and dispatched them to the US Capitol. By one in the afternoon, the crowd, now an angry mob, was surging against the outer walls and staircases of the Capitol, waving American flags and Confederate flags, Trump banners, crosses, and crucifixes. In between singing snatches of the National Anthem, some shouted curses at police, denouncing them as traitors, while others stood nervously by or snapped pictures for friends and family back home.
Within two hours, the underprepared and overwhelmed police in their thin blue line protecting the sanctuary of the republic had been routed, and the more violent members of the mob had poured into the Capitol building via unlocked doors and shattered windows. The lawmakers within, interrupted in the midst of their own solemn sham of debating the election results that had already been affirmed in court, were forced to unceremoniously flee for cover, crawling on the floor and donning gas masks. Angry rioters rampaged through the hallways, beating policemen and vandalizing offices. In one corner of the vast building, shots from the Capitol Hill police rang out and a woman, crumpled to the ground, bleeding to death; while in another corner, protesters in outlandish costumes posed for selfies in Senate offices. By the end of the day, five lay dead or dying, including one policeman, with many dozens more injured, and millions in a state of shock.
In the face of such chaos, the breaking of our 230-year tradition of peaceful transfers of power, we reach for words strong enough to express our own fear and anger: last Wednesday’s events have been called “an insurrection,” “a coup,” “domestic terrorism.” They are the expression, we are told, of hate, of racism, of white fragility, of a desperate attempt to hold onto power, of mass delusion. Some of these descriptions may be accurate enough, but if we remain at that level, we minimize the depth of the great aching wound in our body politic; we sidestep, I believe, the most illuminating moral description of what happened: vigilantism.
No Justice? No Peace
Those who stormed the Capitol last Wednesday were seeking justice. If they had dared to repeat it, their motto might have been “No justice, no peace.” A fraud had been committed, an election had been stolen, the will of the people was being systematically trampled on, and what other remedy did they have? After all, why should there be peace? Why should we quietly roll over, resign ourselves to oppression, and let the powerful enjoy their spoils?
Many readers will immediately object that the only fraud was that which the protesters themselves propagated, that the only oppression was in their febrile imaginations. Reality matters. Truth matters. But this misses a crucial point, just as right-wing commentators who have questioned the pervasiveness of race-motivated police murders missed the point. Unless we grapple with this point, we cannot begin to restore our nation’s faith in the possibility of politics. For the protesters storming the Capitol, as for the angry activists in Minneapolis or Portland, the time was out of joint, the task of public judgment had failed, a gap had opened up between truth and appearance, and cursed spite though it might be, only they could set it right.
The reference to Hamlet is no mere rhetorical flourish. Shakespeare’s masterpiece is a profound meditation on the lure of vigilantism, the sense that if falsehood has been enthroned in the seat of justice, then those who have been permitted an awful glimpse at the truths that lurk on the dark underside of power must take justice into their own hands. Vigilantism (and revolution, which is after all only vigilantism writ large) is always waiting in the wings of every political system, waiting for the moment when the fragile truce that society makes with the imperfectability of human judgment breaks down. Trapped within his own private reality, the vigilante can no longer be sure whether he is acting to vindicate the corrupted order of public justice or merely to achieve some private catharsis. Even when the vigilante achieves his end, however, as the irresolute Hamlet finally does, it turns out more often than not to be the end of the body politic that he had sought to renew. The play ends to the tramping boots of an occupying army.
The modern-day masterworks of filmmaker Christopher Nolan wrestle with the same paradox: in a world of corrupt institutions and systemic deception, only private agents seem able to enact judgment; and yet the result of such vengeance never seem to be justice after all. From Leonard Shelby in Memento to Robert Angier in The Prestige to a whole string of heroes and villains in the Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan’s characters work in the shadows to uncover and avenge the wrongs that society can’t be bothered to make right, but they never seem to be able to find their way back to the light. Shelby discovers that his supposed quest for justice was an elaborate fiction, a saga of self-deception serving to convince himself that his actions had meaning in a world that no longer had any of its own. Angier apparently succeeds in bringing his nemesis to justice, only for a cataclysmic reveal at the end to expose that he has helped hang an innocent man, and is in fact his own murderer. Harvey Dent, despairing of the inexpungible corruption of the justice system he himself had idealistically led, embarks on a nihilistic quest to enact a justice so unbiased that it hangs on the flip of a coin. Dent’s own death then becomes the foundation for a faux restoration of the shattered political order, ironically by making a scapegoat of another vigilante, Batman, and promising a “law and order” crackdown in response. In the final act of the trilogy, these unstable foundations are then demolished by the villain Bane, who reveals the rot at the heart of Gotham, storming the city’s public buildings and promising to bring long-deserved judgment on its corrupt institutions.
The Thorns of Uncertainty
The plot of these stories, like the plot of the slow-motion unraveling of America that we have watched the past year, each revolve around a crisis of judgment—in both senses of the word. We use the word “judgment” not merely for the act of public justice but also for the epistemic act of determining what is true. Indeed, this is no coincidence, for the enforcement of justice depends on a determination of truth; otherwise it is mere violence.
But therein lies the problem, for we feel ourselves compelled to form our own judgments about the adequacy of public justice. As soon as we attempt to do so, however, we are brought face-to-face with the limits of our knowledge, with the sheer opacity of human affairs. Why was Breonna Taylor killed? How and why did George Floyd die? Are lockdowns necessary? Do masks work? Why did the vote count change? Is there evidence of widespread election fraud? The only thing these questions have in common is the fact that, as individuals, most of us are totally unfit to answer them with any degree of certainty. Whatever certainty we do possess on such questions is likely to derive from networks of trust, from belonging to an epistemic community in which certain authorities command respect and assent. The successful practice of politics relies, as much as possible, on a shared public discourse, within which we can at least broadly agree on what has happened, even if we may always debate what is to be done next. Once doubt creeps in, once some Ghost whispers to us that this imposing façade of consensus may all be a lie, we are thrown back on our own resources.
In such a crisis, we are apt to take one of two courses. Either we may, like Hamlet, dither in a paralysis of indecision, or else we may, like Leonard Shelby of Memento, seek to wring certainty out of the veil of ignorance by sheer act of will, even if it means making up our own truth. The former would seem to be the malady of many of our intelligentsia and political elites, while the latter has become the strategy of our citizenry. Most versions of such self-certification are not so solipsistic as Leonard Shelby’s. Most, rather, take the form of what Eric Voegelin called “Gnosticism”: a community of shared grievance discovers (or creates) some source of hidden knowledge, an insight into the real nature of the evil that lies under the thin veneer of polite society, and the radical solutions needed to overcome it. They have, they believe, cracked the code: discovered the universal pattern to all wrong, and how to fix it. Having “woke” up (or been “red-pilled”) to what’s really going on, the community latches on to its narrative with a fierce hunger for certainty, and, lest anything should disturb the comfort of this newfound confidence, learns to shut its ears against the satanic siren song of contrary evidence.
As Richard Hooker, one of the keenest diagnosticians of this condition, wrote in 1593,
After the common people are thoroughly convinced that the Spirit has persuaded them of these things, then they learn that believing in this . . . is a sign of being born of God and that earnest love for this discipline is the surest way to distinguish God’s people from all others. This has caused them to use terms that sharply distinguish between themselves and the rest of the world: they call themselves “the brethren,” “the godly,” and so forth, while the rest are termed “worldlings,” “time-servers,” “pleasers of men, not of God,” and so forth. Because of this, such people are led to believe that they must do everything they can to strengthen one another and make themselves manifest to the world, lest they quench the Spirit.
Once this condition is adopted, it becomes very difficult to escape, and there is no telling where it may lead. Writes Hooker, “This is the very point for which I write: my purpose is to show that when the minds of men are once erroneously persuaded that it is the will of God for them to do those things they fancy, their opinions are as thorns in their sides, not allowing them to rest until they have put their speculations into practice. Their restless desire to remove anything in their way leads them by the hand into increasingly dangerous opinions, sometimes quite contrary to their original intentions.” Those who began by crying, “Honor the Stars and Stripes” and “Back the Blue” may find themselves denouncing policemen as “traitors” and bludgeoning them to death with flagpoles.
Those who have ridden this train of private judgment to its dark and lonely end deserve our pity more than our anger; there are few more terrible fates that can befall a person than to become trapped within his own self-justifying reality. That is why we must counter this cancer at its source.
Imperfectability and the Hunger for Eschatological Justice
Doubt in our shared reality begins in disappointment, disappointment with the stubborn imperfectability of human judgment. Even the best and most zealous human judge, after all, is woefully imperfect in the pursuit of justice because he is human, because his knowledge extends to such a narrow slice of reality, and his reasoning so often falls short. In City of God book 19, Augustine wrenchingly chronicles the fallibility of the judge, his knowledge that he sometimes allows the innocent to suffer and the guilty to escape, as one of the greatest evils of life under the sun. But of course, it is worse than that, because every judge is also tainted with bias, corruption, ambition. Every judge and political leader is in some measure part of the problem with society, rather than part of the solution. We are thus tempted to conclude that judgment must start at the top, that there can be no peace until we have purged the halls of power, drained the swamp.
Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy offers a relentless critique of this temptation. In the first film, Bruce Wayne, embittered by the corruption that allowed his parents’ murderer to go free, encounters the League of Shadows, which invites him to live by a code of ultimate justice rather than corrupt human justice. First he must execute a murderer whom “corrupt bureaucrats” have failed to punish, and then lead a force to destroy Gotham, dealing out summary justice on a city that is corrupt “beyond saving.” Wayne refuses, and dedicates himself to trying to prove that an imperfect order is still worth saving, until the antihero Bane comes as the agent of the League of Shadows to expose the city’s corruption and destroy it utterly, and Gotham is saved by learning to reconcile itself to its imperfection.
There burns within each one of us a hunger for eschatological judgment. And rightly so; it is this hunger that drives us to fight corruption and seek reform rather than throwing up our hands in complacency or despair. We must fight racism, tyranny, and fraud wherever they rear their heads. But we must do so as a public, not as vigilantes, and that means we must enact justice with sometimes maddening imperfection. The cry “No justice, no peace” is truer than we know, for justice cannot be truly served until the reign of the Prince of Peace. In the meantime, though, we should be grateful that justice has not been served, else we should be like Sodom, we should be left like Gomorrah. This is the point of Jesus’s famous encounter with the adulteress: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Before the Lord of Justice, all of us deserve to be stoned. And when we try to set ourselves up in his stead and demand perfect justice here in this life, we are apt to begin stoning one another.
It is to protect against such a judgment day that we accept the rule of law, that we agree to submit ourselves to judgments we know to be imperfect. As Richard Hooker writes in defense of this principle, “We are so prone to willfulness and self-liking that strife will never end, unless we abide by some sort of definitive sentence, which once given, must stand, and a necessity of silence be imposed on both parties.” Indeed, the Lord himself teaches us to submit, “even if the decision seems to be utterly at odds with what is right in [our] private opinion.” The rioters who looted Louisville the night a grand jury exonerated Breonna Taylor’s killers, the anti-masking protesters who cursed policemen attempting to enforce COVID-19 restrictions, the angry mobs at the Capitol last Wednesday were each in their own ways resisting judgments utterly at odds with what was right in their private opinions. Of course, imperfect human judgments are revisable; laws may be repealed, and court rulings appealed. But not indefinitely so; a judgment that is infinitely revisable is not a judgment, but simply a negotiation, and one apt to degenerate into violence. Life under the rule of law requires learning to “abide by some definitive sentence,” and a willingness to await vindication ultimately from God, rather than man, in order that the fragile bands of life together in this age may persist even in the midst of irreconcilable disagreement.
Waiting for a King
Although imperfection is a perpetual feature of earthly politics, there are times when it looms so large as to almost swallow our whole field of vision. The year 2020 has been such a time. I would be willing to wager our political leadership today is worse on the whole—more hypocritical, less unbiased, less grounded in reality—than it was ten years ago, or twenty. But I would also be willing to wager that the difference is incremental, not categorical. Our laws and our leaders had problems aplenty in the year 2000. So why have we lost such faith?
I would suggest at least two reasons, and with these I shall conclude this meditation.
First, history shows that societies can long tolerate the ambiguities, uncertainties, and imperfections of political order so long as they see the judgments it enacts as their judgments, so long as political authority is seen as representative—and thereby becomes representative. In The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham does not become a true polis until it sees itself represented in its deliverer. And as this story suggests, such representation is far more aesthetic than it is procedural. We forget this lesson—as we have largely forgotten it in the late modern West—at our peril. Countless political orders flourished before the advent of liberal democracy because they successfully embodied a people who saw themselves pictured in their leaders; and countless liberal democracies have crumbled because they failed to move the imaginations of their people (most memorably and warningly, Weimar Germany). Donald Trump’s success owes in large part to his cunning recovery of this aesthetic dimension of politics, his willingness to offer himself to his followers as the imaginative projection of all their hopes and fears. Many of those yearning for a politics after Trumpism think that the genie can be put back into the bottle by a healthy dose of procedural liberalism. They will be sadly disappointed.
Second, we have lost faith in politics because we have lost faith in the judgment that lies beyond politics. The US Capitol was stormed on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany. “Epiphany” means an “unveiling” or “manifestation,” and certainly much that we would rather have remained hidden was unveiled last Wednesday. But this is the feast on which the church has long commemorated the unveiling of the infant Jesus as the King of all kings, the desire of all nations. It is, with Ascension, one of the two great political holidays of the Christian calendar.
It has been centuries since we lived in Christendom, but even living in Christendom’s long shadow has been enough to remind us that the justice we enact itself lies under judgment; that we can afford to see through a glass darkly, and to behold the oppressions under the sun, because they do not have the final say. We can bear the torture of uncertainty knowing that he who has suffered in our place will not leave us there forever. We can repress our rage in the face of miscarried justice knowing that the judge unjustly judged in our place will in his own time render a just verdict. We can wait patiently in this veil of tears knowing that a day is coming when he will wipe every tear from every eye. As we mourn the death of the America we once knew, let our patient prayer this Epiphany season be “Come, Lord Jesus.”