The culture is upstream from politics, always and everywhere.
A few days ago I made that argument at the University of North Carolina, giving the Wilberforce Lecture. While each week my work matters, and each time I speak I feel “holy butterflies,” this seemed more weighty to me. There had been a tremendous amount of work bringing the event into being— led by my friend and former Falls Church Fellow, Madison Perry —and I was to be welcomed by the chancellor of the university on behalf of students and faculty, as well as alumni and friends from throughout the state.
Deciding to place William Wilberforce in a conversation across the centuries with Walker Percy, once a student at Chapel Hill himself, I called the lecture, “A Signpost in a Strange Land,” remembering the collection of essays by Percy. Profoundly influenced by both, I imagined them listening to each other, learning from each other, together speaking into the 21st-century.
And so I began with these words. “Please remember that you may not say anything counter-revolutionary.” A few weeks before I was to give a lecture at the Beijng Film Academy, these words came to me in a letter; on the one hand I was invited and welcomed, but on the other, it was clear that China was still ruled by autocrats who hold the people’s freedom with a very tight rein. I thought about the requirement, and agreed, remembering that so much of my life is focused on the task of translation, i.e. can we sing songs shaped by the truest truths of the universe in language the whole world can understand? I teach that; could I do that?
A week before I was to leave, I received another letter, asking if it would be possible to bring the film, “Amazing Grace,” the story of Wilberforce’s long fight against the inhumanity of slavery. “It has not yet been seen in China, and we would like to see it here at the academy for its first showing.” I shook my head at the strangeness of history, pondering the restrictions on my speech, wondering what the future might be for China and its cinema.
When I entered Beijing, I hoped— with Brother Andrew of a generation ago —that “God would make seeing eyes blind,” and that the box of DVD’s would pass through customs. No one said anything, and a few days later, with hundreds of students and their professors, we watched the film, me shaking the whole time, saying again and again to myself, “But you asked me to show it to you!”
At the heart of the film was Wilberforce’s determination, “For God’s sake, my country is wrong, and its laws are wrong!” In the most simple terms, the movie is profoundly counter-revolutionary— and we watched it together, me with a whole generation of China’s cinematic story-tellers and their teachers. Drawn by a good story, artfully-imagined and dramatically-told, these students intuitively knew that good art is like that, finding its way into our hearts, slowly shaping our souls and our societies.
Along the way I talked about Wilberforce’s life, and the deepening integrity between what he believed and the way he lived, both personally and publicly; and about the fact that he was not a “hero” by himself, but someone profoundly committed to a common life for the common good. I even brought my most prized book, with a letter from Wilberforce inside its very worn cover, explaining why he wrote the book to the English people, and what it means two hundred years later.
But I also drew in the deeper wisdom of Wilberforce and his friends who came to believe that, “the culture is upstream from politics.” That was not their language— they saw it as “the reformation of manners,” meaning the renewing of the social fabric —but the same insight was theirs, and they acted on it with determined passion in and through their diverse vocations, working out the common calling that was theirs. They knew that the problem of slavery and the slave trade was not first of all a political problem, but a cultural problem. As long as the British people had no objection to the trafficking of human beings, the politicians wouldn’t either; in fact because slavery was the economic engine of the empire on which “the sun never set,” it would take a major reframing of the meaning of the commonwealth and therefore the common good of the English people, for the laws to change.
My lecture at UNC was most of an hour, and so I had time to deepen the dialogue between my teachers, Wilberforce and Percy. In several different ways, I offered them and their work in politics and the arts as “signposts in a strange land,” concluding,
“Today we stand on the shoulders of these two, learning as we look through their hearts, listening to them as they took up the questions of their day with a passion and perseverance formed by their deepest beliefs about the world….
“May that be your life, so that in our lives we will become ‘signposts in the strange land’ that it is ours in these first decades of the 21st-century, stretched across time, learning from history as we take up the history that is ours, pilgrims in the ruins that we are.”
Meaningfully, the last image, “a pilgrim in the ruins,” is the title of one of the biographies of Percy, and in every way it captures the way he saw himself as a man in the world— steadfast and purposeful, but knowing very well the frailty of life, and of his life.
On this November day, a day of political reckoning with our future as these United States— a time of perplexity and puzzlement for many of us —may we too understand that the culture is upstream from politics, that our problems are not first of all political, though they have political meaning. The election is a profoundly sober reflection of who we are and what we are, whether we like that or not.
And now, what now? Our calling to step into the history that is ours, being and becoming “signposts in the strange land” that is ours.