December 1170: Henry II of England, furious over the resistance of the Archbishop of Canterbury, cries, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”1
While there is some question as to exactly what Henry said, there is no question that his words were incendiary, and no doubt about the result: four of his knights, considering themselves commissioned by their king, went to Canterbury Cathedral and hacked the “meddlesome priest”2 Thomas à Becket to death.
So was Henry just blowing off steam, or exercising his free-speech rights? Or was he, consciously or not, ordering the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket?3 Both Europe at the time, and the verdict of history, put Becket’s blood on Henry. In order to save his soul (and put himself and his kingdom back in good terms with the Church), Henry performed a rather spectacular public penance.
Washington, February 2021: As I understand it, one of the defenses made by apologists for Trump’s inciting his followers up to and including the January 6 Capitol insurrection is that he didn’t really mean what happened to happen. He was just exercising his First Amendment rights.
In a criminal proceeding, that defense might work. But an impeachment trial is not a criminal proceeding. The President has access to the biggest bully pulpit in the world, and should be held to account for the consequences of his words.
Rome, all Europe, and history impeached4 Henry II. The House has done the same with Trump. Conviction in the Senate won’t bring back the victims of the Capitol insurrection, but it might be a minimum appropriate penance for America’s most irresponsible President.
In one version of the story, anyway. In another, “meddlesome” is replaced by “turbulent.” According to another, what he said was, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!” ↩
Martin Luther King Jr. Day feels different in 2021. Following a tumultuous year and coming just two days before the inauguration of a new administration, this year’s MLK Day reminds us that freedom is never guaranteed and must always be defended.
Events of the past year have forced us to confront our nation’s complicated racial record, which has been filled with both great and sordid things. It seems that every step toward freedom has been followed by a setback.
The Founders created the freest society in history, with a durable system of governance; but to make it happen, they permitted the institution of slavery to be written into its Constitution.
A civil war split the nation, primarily over the issue of slavery. The nation abolished slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, guaranteed equal protection under the law to all races in the Fourteenth and suffrage to all races with the Fifteenth. Then that same nation permitted those rights to be denied during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education desegregated the nation’s public schools, only to give rise to segregation academies, which continue to be enabled by today’s voucher programs and charter schools.
A series of legislation including the Fair Housing Act of 1968 desegregated housing, and white flight re-segregated communities.
In 2008 voters elected our first African-American President. Eight years later they elected a blatant white supremacist who did his best to reverse the policies of his predecessor. And then in November the largest popular vote turnout in American history elected a ticket which included the first black woman Vice President.
In two days, we will witness an unusual Presidential inauguration, celebrating the peaceful transfer of power in a city locked down following the first armed occupation of the Capitol building in over two centuries. State capitals across the country will resemble occupied cities.
Our nation’s seal proclaims e pluribus unum: from many, one. The testing of that ideal doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. One of our greatest challenges as a nation is to permit our diversity to be a source of strength and not division. We need to find our way to each other.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us all pray for our country and commit ourselves to work for a future of justice, equality, and peace.
What an interesting project this has been! The responses have been fantastic. Shockingly, many people have told me that they’ve participated on every song. That takes a special kind of dedication, so at the risk of overstaying my welcome I am emboldened to share some impressions. (Links to all twelve pages appear at the end of this post.)
You don’t do a project like this without learning something. Living with the consequences of your decisions is always instructive, so much of that learning started with decisions.
The first decision was to make this not a concert but a singalong.1 That meant that the songs would have to be both familiar and singable.2 I’m delighted that so many people have told me that they actually did sing along.3
The second decision was the Twelve Days of Christmas organizing scheme.4 Turns out there are two ways to count the days: one that starts on the day after Christmas and includes Epiphany, and one that starts on Christmas and goes to Epiphany Eve. I used the second one.5 A lot of the listeners have indicated that they enjoyed the opportunity to sing Christmas songs after they weren’t being played anywhere else.
The third decision was to include both sacred and secular songs. People seem to have been all right with that. I was shocked to discover how many secular Christmas songs are actually getting-ready-for-Christmas songs, and didn’t fit within the Twelve Days format.6
But the main learning from this project was that I have so many friends who were willing to share this Christmas in this special way. This has been a difficult year, and we’ve learned, I think, that we need to feel that we’re together. Singing these songs in different places on individual schedules may have helped with that. I hope that you enjoyed this little experiment, and like the Muppets and that wonderful song about the figgy pudding, I wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Following are the pages for the twelve days. You can use this list to sing along with the whole list of songs. (If that doesn’t get it out of your system, nothing will.)