Tuesday, July 05, 2016
On Hamilton: A Canadian Mennonite reflects on 'An American Musical' after Independence Day
recast the founding fathers as people of color, celebrates the work and contributions of immigrants (they get the job done), and given women a place in history through his musical.
Is Hamilton making me love America? The dream that Miranda captures is compelling. The optimism, hope and creativity are contagious. But as many facts as I learned about the birth of this nation, the story is still historical fiction. Washington repeats the refrain, “You have no control: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” The losers definitely have no control. This, like most of the stories of history passed down tell the story of victors. Yes, Miranda tells the story of Alexander Hamilton with the voice of the man who was his adversary, villainized in memory, played by an actor of color, but we still hear the story from the perspective of the ones who came, saw and conquered. Violently. I don’t love that.
I don’t love the American celebration and idealization of violence (although those songs in Hamilton are so good) and I don’t love how we celebrate independence when we are not independent but, in fact totally dependent. We are interdependent. We need each other, in our communities and in the community of the world. I feel grateful to be a part of a Mennonite congregation that celebrates our dependence not only on each other but on the God who created us and all people, all creation. It is a kind of dependence – among people and on the earth – that was well known to the first peoples of the Americas.
Even as a latter day immigrant, I live with the complicated complicity of being a settler. In Canada my ancestors farmed on Cree land in Saskatchewan, and now I live, work, and worship on what was Duwamish territory in Washington. At Seattle Mennonite Church on Sunday we acknowledged our interdependence and were explicit: American ‘independence’ was achieved at the cost of many lives, European, African and Indigenous, and colonization pushed indigenous folks into reservations that were small compensation for all they lost. And I live too understanding that many of the privileges I have taken for granted are because of my European heritage, won through violent means.
Although I feel the discomfort in my gut at having to face the complicity, I’m grateful. And I feel grateful too that the Mennonite community here in the United States has, in my experience, been more engaged than in Canada with the question of how and whether we participate in government. Or whether Christians of conscience should vote in federal elections. Here in the US voters directly elect the person who is the Commander in Chief of the nation’s military, yet we Mennos place our allegiance in only in Jesus, whose message is peace. I have been challenged to understand that there are many ways to participate in civic life and to build community and to love my neighbor and my enemy. I’ve learned that the church can play the role of prophet in civic life: speaking the truth unspoken by history, calling out government on violence and injustice, renouncing doctrines that brutalize, building community and peacemaking in locally and internationally.
In Hamilton, as George Washington prepares to leave office, he quotes a prophet: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree. And no one will make them afraid.” Washington imagines settling down in his retirement in the verdant landscape of Mount Vernon, “At home in this nation we’ve made.” For Micah, the prophet whose words he quoted, these words are part of God’s imagination for the whole earth, not just one exceptionalist part of it: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid”
I’m not sure that’s what Washington had in mind. And I’m not sure how realistic it is, but it is certainly my prayer and dream for this nation that I live in and that we all inherited from Hamilton and his colleagues. After the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, the cast of Hamilton performed ‘Yorktown (the world turned upside down)’ at the Tony Awards without the guns that they usually carry during that battle scene. May we all learn to lay down our guns and not war against other nations (never mind each other). May we learn instead to care for the earth and for our neighbor. May we all have a share of what is good and made by God. May we acknowledge when we have been the ones who cause fear and been takers and tyrants. And may everyone go out and listen to Hamilton now so that we can have a group discussion and I won’t be the only one holding these questions!