Days of Fire, Days of Grace
Fire is a tricky thing. It is the candle that illuminates, it is the hearth that warms, it is the flame that cooks and nourishes. And it is the inferno that rages.
In our understanding of our own humanity, it is our mastery of fire that sets us apart from the animals. In the Promethean myth, fire is the power of the gods stolen for us as a gift of liberation and enfranchisement, to turn to our own betterment or destruction. And we certainly saw a lot of the latter this weekend.
Cities have burned across the country—literal fires ignited by rage over the killing of George Floyd last week. As with most fires lit in anger, they soon burned out of control. Just anger gave way to unjust lawlessness, violence begetting violence as it is fated to do.
Drowning out the protesters’ cry for justice was the incoherent, primal scream of the mob, seeking neither justice nor peace. Once a fire spreads past its proper place, there is no controlling what it consumes; it often burns down the home or community for whose benefit it was lit in the first place.
But if the flames that answered the death of George Floyd burst forth suddenly, they fed on fuel that has long been gathering and smoldering.
There is the constant racial injustice, with its long and horrible history. There were other recent racial incidents: the vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery in February, video of which was leaked online in May. There was the video that went viral the same day Floyd was killed showing a white woman in Central Park calling 911 to complain that a black man was threatening her life because he asked her to put her dog on a leash.
There is also the constant slow burn of online rage and aggression that characterizes social media. For more than a few of those taking to the streets in Minneapolis, and Chicago, and Houston, and elsewhere, the demonstrations over Floyd’s death were just another mob to be joined, another outlet in a culture of total and constant conflict.
President Trump’s message, delivered on Twitter of course, was that when the looting starts, the shooting starts—pouring, as only he can, oil on troubled flames.
But something of the Promethean spark remains. This weekend also saw the first crewed launch of a SpaceX Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket, the rumbling fires of which signaled America’s return to sending astronauts beyond the confines of our planet and fueling, perhaps, a new generation’s dreams of discovery and adventure.
The relentlessly sarcastic denizens of Twitter laced their salutes to the astronauts with the observation that it was a good time to leave earth. Maybe these joking remarks, which got a lot of likes, diminished an icon of common human endeavor and achievement at a time when we desperately could use one. But they also highlighted the bizarre juxtaposition: We are sending men into space as our cities riot. But we perhaps forget that Apollo 11 launched at the height of the Cold War and at the end of a decade that saw mass civil unrest—just and unjust—on a scale we have yet to come close to. It says much about us that one of our proudest achievements was forged in a burning cultural crucible.
And we are in a crucible now. The ravages of a global pandemic, which itself has spread like wildfire, have confronted us with the limits of our power and mortality. Lockdown measures have created a pressure-cooker atmosphere that has surely played a part in the explosion of violence seen in many cities.
This weekend, Christians celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the first apostles. “And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them.”
The story of Pentecost caps a very human fifty days after Easter for the first Christians. Despite seeing the risen Christ, eating with him, talking to him, watching him ascend into heaven, those weeks are filled with doubts, hesitations, and ultimately fear.
Those eleven had grace poured out on them as they—like many of us now—were locked indoors, in fear of their lives, knowing everything they needed to know, but paralyzed. The fire of the grace they received lit within them a desire to go out, not with a spirit of righteousness or anger, but of burning desire to announce something: that life has conquered death.
We too have seen bright lights of grace shining in the darkness. Amid the despair of hospitals and nursing homes, where death has cast a terrible shadow, we have seen true heroism and self-sacrifice. Doctors, nurses, priests, and family members have marched into situations they knew risked death—and many have offered their lives for others. Still more people have become the catalysts for a thousand acts of self-giving, be it taking a loving interest in their isolated neighbors, or marshaling charity—which means love, not pity—for those suddenly without work.
And there have been moments of grace amid the riots and terror and flames in our cities these past few days, too. Protesters who courageously protected the weak or sought to restrain violence. In a few places, police who marched with, or prayed with, the protesters.
Our politics and public discourse have for years wreaked damage on our communities. But faced with extraordinary circumstances, we still see the action of something superhuman among us: grace, which lights a fire of its own, impelling us to serve the other, against our own interests.
This is a truth from which we can take heart: these days of fire are also days of grace.