Newton’s Third Law of Motion states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In examining our current state of affairs, we can look to physics to explain both our hope and despair in the dynamics of human interactions.
From his Sermon on the Mount, Christ is said in the Bible to have spoken of the “city set on a hill” that “gives light to all in the house.” John F. Kennedy referred to this city on a hill in his speeches, as did Ronald Reagan, these leaders from opposing parties using the phrase of the city’s lights metaphorically to “guide freedom-loving people everywhere.” Reagan, like his predecessors borrowed the phrase both from the Bible and from John Winthrop. Under neither Kennedy nor Reagan did America achieve such grandeur as predicted, but there was always the promise that gave people hope within and outside that metaphorical house of which Christ first spoke.
It was John Winthrop, however, the fiery future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who addressed both the action and the opposite reaction in Newton’s Law of physics: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses.”
Winthrop’s frightening advisory in which our “prayers” are “turned into curses” addresses American history more accurately than any of our American Presidents, even the most eloquent and compassionate of them, including Lincoln. Winthrop, in attempting to frighten his flock by invoking the wrath of god, offered both the city on the hill and the wild swing from prayers to curses.
When Barack Obama was elected to his first term in 2008, our new president offered “hope and change.” For the first time in our history, we seemed to have confronted our most terrible legacy of slavery and moved beyond it by electing our first black President. Yet, within the seeds of that astounding and powerful victory were the bitter poisons of discontent. White rage roiled beneath the surface at seeing a black leader, and Trump’s rise to power could be viewed as an inevitability, predicted by Newton’s Law of physics.
President Obama in his Farewell speech to the nation in January 2017 stated: “For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.” Although an empathic President Obama acknowledged that white discontent, that poison pill in the landscape, he was unable to change the “upended economic and cultural change” America is facing. To give him credit where credit is due, however, President Obama did keep the country from a deep recession and possible depression; he did find and have Osama bin Laden executed for his crimes against humanity and America; he did find a way to bring the world together to work on a plan to deal with global warming, and much, much more.
Yet, the seeds of discontent would cause our national landscape to swing the other way, and climate change would be wiped from the White House website, America’s participation in the Paris Climate Accord would be annulled by Trump, transgender people would be banned from the military, women would be threatened with “punishment” for having an abortion, advances in the dialogue over civil rights and “black lives matter” would be crushed with even more empowered policing, environmental rules protecting clean air and water were swept away with the winds of the angry discontent that brought Trump to power and seemingly “cause our prayers to turn to curses.” Trump’s most recent, public embrace of white supremacy and American Nazis has brought our nation to a seeming zero level, yet this is not the end.
There is a light—America is not, nor ever will be, “the city on a hill”—, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Remember, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Even Hitler was finally hit with this most telling dynamic of physics in human and political affairs.
Nancy Avery Dafoe
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