One hundred years ago, as his pregnant wife, George, convalesced from the 1918 influenza strain that had just almost killed her, and as Europe flailed towards a post-“War to End All Wars” reality, W.B. Yeats wrote what is likely his most famous poem, “The Second Coming.” I could not tell you how often a line or two of it comes to my mind, and I really could not tell you how many other works have referenced it since.
I can tell you that it speaks to me about what is going on in our streets after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Floyd George and others less famous in this year of another global pandemic. So let’s read it together…
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Tonight the falcon is certainly spinning out into those wider and wider circles, peoples more and more distantly connected, less and less able to hear and relate to one another. Things are not just falling apart; they are flying apart. The centre is not only not holding, but it has disintegrated, and it will not return. I hear (or am projecting my own) exhaustion in the best lacking all conviction, even as we all publicly name each other as those worst who are “full of passionate intensity” (and we cannot all be right, but some of us likely are).
“Surely some revelation is at hand.” Will Willimon, among other great preachers of the last quarter of the twentieth century, has returned to plumb the depths of the apocalyptic in Scripture, and then has turned to see the apocalyptic in the world right now (as he did in an interview at this year’s Festival of Homiletics, discussing the coronavirus pandemic). What we are seeing is nothing new. It is something very old, perhaps ancient, being revealed. And it is terrifying.
Traditional Christian readers of the phrase, “The Second Coming,” may be repulsed by the stolen image of the returning Christ, even as they are drawn in by language that sounds a lot like the language of a coming Beast from the book of Revelation. Yeats is so true to Revelation when he casts both the thing the nations hope for and the thing the nations find most horrifying as the same character: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
It’s no coincidence that Chinua Achebe published a novel probably more famous than the poem that inspired its name, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. It’s a novel written by a Nigerian author, wrestling with the salvific promises of white missionaries and British colonialism as the entire British Empire was falling apart. Nigeria itself achieved unified independence two years later, in October 1960.
It’s no coincidence that Joan Didion published Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1968, a year that this week is echoing both here in the US and in protests in other countries around the world.
Something is being birthed. We will not stop it. We will live in the new reality it brings. In the words of another terrifying poet who promised change we could never welcome,
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
I admit that when I try to make sense of the signs of these times, I feel like I am looking at a random pattern of the falcon’s entrails, or tea leaves at the bottom of an empty cup. Still, when the new thing comes, we must not miss its birth, a birth which we may well fear but will not stop.