National Commentary

‘Let’s Light This Candle!’

It’s been one of the most sharply contrasted weeks in American history as, in the words of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA Michael Curry, “Democracy has been struggling to breathe.”

It started with the awful lynching of George Floyd shown on live TV by a murderous Minneapolis police officer who would not allow his victim to breathe. It was maybe the most horrifying scene ever shown on television, in open daylight on a sunny afternoon, as a look of sheer evil came over the officer’s face the longer he continued for over eight minutes to strangle his victim, who was gasping for breath and pleading for his life, with his knee.

It sparked the growing mass demonstrations all across the U.S., led by legions of multiracial, multicultural citizens of all stripes including many young ones, and the crowds swelled as days passed to the present, willing to ignore the ongoing deadly Covid-19 virus pandemic to explode their anger and resolve to undo the nation’s systemic racism once and for all.

But then there was the marring of the peaceful demonstrations by the intervention of violent, right wing white supremacist groups who were masquerading as demonstrators sowing chaos and looting.

Then there was Trump himself, this lame would-be fascist dictator, blasting his way, led by Secret Service and other agents tear gassing hundreds of peaceful demonstrators ahead of a walk from the White House across Lafayette Park to the historic St. John’s Church where he held up a Bible for a sick “photo op.”

But as the leaders of the peaceful demonstrations amped up their exposes of the toxic white supremacist cults’ role in attempted hijacking of the demonstrations, drawing the sharp contrast between the demonstrators and those disguised agents provocateurs, the force of the peaceful demonstrations has continued to grow.

Legitimate faith leaders have soundly condemned Trump’s crass hypocrisy and authoritarian optics in front of the church, including by the ordained leaders of that Episcopal church and, when Trump repeated the false and shallow exercise at a Catholic Church shrine the next day, by the top leaders of the area’s Catholic Church.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, maybe the most gifted orator of our generation, speaking at a peaceful demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial Tuesday, called Trump’s posing at the church sites a “shameful act of heretical public idolatry,” and said that the only proper reason for the irreligious Trump to go to such a place would be if he felt compelled to truly repent.

But there was nothing of a religious sentiment in what Trump did. Feeling humiliated because he was so quick to cower in the bunker beneath the White House during the demonstrations, as the White House greeted the thousands outside its gates with total darkness, Trump displayed body language in his tear-gas-paved walk to the church and his posture there spoke of only one emotion running through his body — pure hatred, just like the officer who murdered George Floyd.

The cruel choking of George Floyd and an anger-driven Trump holding up a Bible in front of a church were the first and second most repulsive images in recent memory.

But the faces of the forcefully resolved countless people pouring out onto the streets of dozens of American cities offered entirely different, starkly contrasted, story. There are the faces of hope and resolve to recreate a new society grounded in our shared humanity and aspirations.

In the midst of all this came a softly-spoken phrase from an entirely different place, uttered by astronaut Doug Hurley aboard the nation’s first manned rocket destined for space in a decade Saturday afternoon, May 30, from Cape Canaveral.

Just before blastoff, he said, “Let’s light this candle!”

He was quoting America’s first astronaut into space, Alan Shepard Jr., who uttered those words on May 5, 1961 as his historic flight was set to commence.

But in this week’s context, it was a signal to the world that the way beyond the current contention is for everyone to light a candle, a candle to re-ignite humankind’s highest aspirations to reach for the stars, and to bring peace on earth.

Nicholas Benton may be emailed at