So I made a terrible error in my travels – I read some Chesterton. For those of you unfamiliar, G.K. Chesterton was a turn-of-the-last-century British writer, a Catholic and a critic, and probably one of my five favorite Christian writers of all time – he was a major influence on Lewis, and remains a major influence on me.
My head is full today of Chesterton – his quick reversals, his topsy-turvy truths, in which accepted conventional wisdom is stood on its feet, removed from its upside-down configuration. And it’s full today of my nation’s history.
Fifty years ago today, a man was murdered in an automobile in Texas. He was shot and a nation went into mourning, with a whole array of ritual and symbol and imagery and mythos that are planted deep now in the psyche of the United States.
And while I would never dream of minimizing the suffering of his family, I want to put in a word for the other thing that was killed that day, in the spirit of Chesterton, and that is a certain acknowledgment of reality. In the name of this and other disasters, our presidents and leaders went from convertibles to closed limousines. From open-air speaking to tents and canopies and crystal walls. Our schools are become fortresses. Our homes bristle with defense. Our airports are humiliations of shoes and belts and opened bags.
All of this is deeply practical – a rational response to an irrational need. We practice protection in the face of madness and chaos. But I submit that it is all profoundly unrealistic – that madness and chaos howl at our gates, since, now, and evermore. That the price we pay in protecting our leaders and ourselves is a price in ritual and reality. Now we see our President through a glass, darkly. Then we saw face-to-face. Once it was unthinkable that anyone should be murdered in an open car. Now, every time we watch a motorcade drive by, it is our relationships that have been killed.
And the walls that we have built of plastic and steel are mere tokens of the walls we have built around our own hearts, walls and guns and laws that protect our perceived vulnerability succeed admirably at an aim that was never claimed. If the goal was to keep us safe from one another, we remain unsafe in our colleges and schools and camps and shopping malls and movie theaters. If the goal was to keep us separate from one another, then the walls are winning, and the bullet-proof glass, and the barricades. We are quite separate from one another, and still unsafe.
I do not know that there has been or will be an answer to this question that will satisfy. Today, though, I rejoice in the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and in his martyrdom, in his witness to the principle that a leader should be visible, audible, and face-to-face with his people. JFK died believing that it was a good to be seen and heard, and to see and hear, and I believe it still, in despite of lunatics and murderers and political statements made with bombs.
I pray today for my nation, that we may remember what it was the JFK died doing, and remember the power of the real, in seeing one another face to face.