mirror on the wall

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: On National Self-Understanding

Can we overcome our collective illusions about ourselves?

By William Schweiker|May 24, 2021

Normally, fairy tales like Snow White are not the stuff of Sightings columns. But sometimes simple stories can reveal ourselves to ourselves. After all, we live in a house of mirrors, and the endless refraction of visions of our nation and our world confronts us with ourselves. Mirror, mirror, on the wall—or perhaps nowadays, it is the endless taking of selfies. (Am I not real until I have a photo of myself?) One would think that we are a self-reflective people who, in our calm moments (too rare, one should imagine), take stock of ourselves and catch sight of ourselves, clearly or in a glass darkly. Individuals can do this often and intentionally, but, as Reinhold Niebuhr noted, this capacity is not really found in human communities. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, he argued that the person can transcend, to some extent, the grip of egoism, but that this is never possible with communities. Point taken, but we have to say that matters are a bit more complex. How is that so, and why should this be a matter for Sightings?

From the Hebrew prophets of old to the Civil Rights Movement, there have been crucial times when a people's communal self-understanding has been illumined, analyzed, criticized, condemned, and transformed. Are we living in such a moment in the USA and within the pandemic, globally?  How, if at all, are these moments sightings or suppressions of religion?

We know this work of self-reflection has happened in many cultures. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was an important example of this work on a social level, and it has spawned similar commissions in other nations. In Germany, one may point to the unrelenting inquiry into the Nazi trials, and in the USA we have seen works on the origins of slavery, as well as the renewed focus on the oppression of Native Americans. Recall as well, the heart-wrenching inquiry into the deaths and scars in Nagasaki and Hiroshima following the dropping of atomic bombs. One of the most penetrating and terrifying analyses of such atrocities is found in Jonathan Glover's Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. But honesty demands that we admit that social self-understanding, too often and too readily, finds the reflection in the mirror to be the fairest of them all. Self-deception is the easiest deception of them all. It dehumanizes the self by dehumanizing and silencing others.

That point is certainly true today in the USA. Consider some well-known national self-perceptions: the USA is the greatest and freest nation; we are the most generous people; we have the most sophisticated and prepared military on earth; everything is possible in America. Home of the brave and land of the free.

The reflection of that self-image has been shattered, or at least cracked. The pandemic has exposed massive social injustices around health and wealth, nationally and also globally. On the anniversary of George Floyd's murder we see—say, in the Black Lives Matter movement—criticism of structural racism in the nation that inspires people around the world. The 1619 Project in The New York Times exposed the ugly realities of slavery in the nation's birth and the centrality of Black Americans to its history. Ironically, Nikole Hannah-Jones, its author, has been denied academic tenure by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Asian Americans continue with the legacy of hatred, violence, and discrimination that has stalked their lives.

Yet, again, matters are more complex. It is said that we are a deeply divided nation. That is no doubt true, but it is an overstatement. Deeper than the division is the mirror on the wall that tells everyone, unlike the magic mirror in the fairy tale, exactly what they want to hear. We (whoever that we is) are the fairest of them all. There is no righteousness quite like self-righteousness. So, cancel culture silences utterances and opinions of anyone deemed socially incorrect. Freedom of speech is under attack in seemingly liberal colleges and universities. Big tech and savvy companies quickly subvert social critics and movements into commodities: "green" water bottles; slogans of social justice printed on T-Shirts, coffee mugs, magazine covers; all, of course, sold at a fine price. Everyone, no matter on what front of the culture wars they are fighting, is sure of the righteousness of their cause, their dear selves.

Where is a "sighting" of religion amid these well-known facts about the nation and even the world? The great monotheistic traditions, each celebrating their holy days over the last months, insist on individual responsibility as well as the social responsibility of their communities. Yet what we see among us, I dare to say, is an absorption of persons into collectives. This has, of course, always been a worry among the critics and advocates of democracy. After all, without protection of the minority, the majority wields dangerous, almost mob-like, power. But it is also a mighty challenge to the religions as well to avoid the cultural bandwagon. Maybe the religions need once again to assert the dignity and responsibility of persons in order to protect the precious capacity of self-transcendence.

In truth, neither this nation nor any other nation is the fairest of them all. Yet we do have the resources—religious, political, cultural—to envision and to struggle with people around the world in the ceaseless work of dignifying persons' lives.

Photo: "Mirror Wall," by Jeppe Hein, at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2011. (Justin Green, via Creative Commons

Sightings is edited by Daniel Owings, a PhD Candidate in Theology at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.


William Schweiker

Columnist, William Schweiker (PhD’85), is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.