Last Sunday, I attended the annual Candlelight Service at the church here in Nashville where I am a member. The service includes familiar anthems of the Advent season as Christmas approaches. The program is simple: Scriptures are read, followed by the congregation’s singing of hymns echoing themes from those scriptures. At the end, members of the youth choir pass out candles, and congregants successively light each other’s candles with flames that originated from a single candle burning up front. The lights go off, leaving only the collective candlelight to show the way as the final hymns are sung. It is a time equal parts celebratory and simple, beautiful and plain. The Candlelight Service and holiday season it signifies come this year at a turbulent time, as folks across the congregation—as across the nation—are grappling with the close of one era in American political and social life and the preparation required for another time ahead.
For the two days prior, I attended the Arena Summit, a gathering that brought about 350 people—primarily from the Millennial generation—to Nashville to build personal networks and reservoirs of courage to enter public service and pursue elected office. They came together to rebuke the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and other marginalizing forces that characterized so much of the most recent election season and, more broadly, continue to pervade so much public discourse and political activity. Attendees formed regional cohorts to take back to their communities and remain in contact as they considered how best to act in ways that counter those marginalizing forces and contribute toward building a more beloved community.
The diverse group of millennials who came to Nashville from the Bay Area and Chicago and Detroit and New York and other places across the country heard there is no time to wait. Their voices and energy and, perhaps most importantly, their value for the inherent worth of all people—particularly black and brown, women, LGBTQ, poor, and working class—are needed to transform our discourse and the politics that result from it. The hastily, but well-organized gathering came as a reaction to the November 8 election, but the forces Arena Summit attendees committed to resist and work to break down have been with us from the beginning. Still, any light is welcome when dark shadows sweep over us.
An observer need look no further to understand the reality of today’s dark shadows than the capital city of my home state, North Carolina, over the last few days. In the wake of Governor Pat McCrory’s loss to Governor-Elect Roy Cooper, the legislature convened a special session, its fourth this year, under the guise of approving an aid package to support North Carolinians affected by Hurricane Matthew and recent wildfires. Perhaps the only thing more disconcerting than the fact that no one I knew from North Carolina expected legislators would stop there, turning away from the temptation to engage in political chicanery, is the now-present reality that the chicanery went far beyond expectations.
The General Assembly did pass a $201 million aid package to support residents, businesses, and schools, as well as cleanup efforts stemming from natural disasters of recent months. But the political disaster of recent years became even more entrenched by passage and signing into law of the bills that kept coming. In swift order, new laws stripped the incoming governor’s ability to appoint trustees to govern public higher education institutions and appoint Cabinet officers without State Senate approval; re-introduced partisan elections for State Supreme Court justices; refashioned state court appeals; reduced the number of gubernatorial appointment in state government from 1,500 to near the pre-McCrory level of 425; shifted control over education funding from the appointed State Board of Education to the elected State Superintendent, who happens to now share a political party with the legislature’s super-majority; reduced the governor’s influence over state and local election boards; and appointed the wife of McCrory’s chief of staff to a six-year position on the Industrial Commission, which hears worker’s compensation claims.
Two former North Carolina governors—Republican Jim Martin and Democrat Jim Hunt—made statements criticizing the legislature’s moves to undermine the authority of the next duly-elected chief executive of the state.
The overreach did not go into effect quietly. Hundreds of protestors came to make their voices heard, inspired in many ways by the voice of Rev. William Barber, who knocked without answer on the door to a closed Senate gallery while repeatedly asking, “What are you afraid of?” At least 39 protestors were arrested for their attempts to disrupt the legal arrogation of power. Rev. Barber observed there are no volume control limitations to the First Amendment.
For his part, Governor-Elect Cooper made a brief, but forceful statement, in which he vowed to use all tools available to the governor to affirm the chief executive’s authority. On Twitter, Cooper stated, “Once more, the courts will have to clean up the mess the legislature made, but it won’t stop us from moving North Carolina forward.”
In times of dark shadows, the need for more light in our politics becomes all the more clear. The work of bringing the light falls not only on elected officials—it is arguably the most important work of artists of all kinds. Painters and poets, satirists and sculptors, musicians and novelists always have essential societal contributions to make. Their essential value may be most pressing, however, in the darkest periods.
Seemingly a world away, in a grand hall of Europe, the Swedish Academy convened on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, to present the awards that bear his name. In presenting the award for literature to an absent Bob Dylan, literary historian and critic Horace Engdahl observed the unorthodox decision to grant the award to a songwriter, “seemed daring only beforehand, and already seems obvious.” The now-obvious resonance of the choice made by the Nobel Foundation in October was made clear by its chairman, Carl-Henrik Heldin, who stated, “In times like these, the Nobel Prize is important” because “Alfred Nobel wanted to reward those who have conferred the greatest benefit to [hu]mankind.”
The benefit of a figure like Bob Dylan became immediately clear by Patti Smith, who delivered a transcendent performance of Dylan’s, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Overwhelmed by nerves, Smith lost track of the lyrics in the second verse, as if embodying the fragility so many people feel during times like these. By the song’s final verse, however, Smith found the strength that comes in reassuring words of courage. She clinched her fists and with a voice of recovered purpose delivered Dylan’s words as her own—and as a call to action:
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
The glittery crowd witnessing Smith’s performance in real time appeared collectively overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment, responding with rapturous applause to an old song with enduring meaning.
And so I sat in a church pew several hours after watching video of Patti Smith singing Bob Dylan and a day after being among hundreds of people from my generation as they resolved to get into the arena of public life and hold fast to the power of truth—the kind of truth that art fuels and changes history. There is a dark shadow emanating from Raleigh across North Carolina. Many people nationwide who have been cooled out from the promise of America by forces of political darkness now feel fear and anxiety anew for the future. They may take some small bit of comfort from how Dylan once introduced “Hard Rain,” by mumbling, “Hard rain’s gonna fall means, something’s gonna happen.”
Something—many things, by many people, in many places—must happen. I was reminded of that as I sat by a vent at church. The breeze from the vent threatened to put out my candle at the close of the service. I had to tend to it and protect the flame. I had to take special care to keep the light burning. When the power is switched off around us, we have to take extra care to keep the flames of light burning, and that will be just as true in 2017 and the years ahead as it has ever been.