The Shakespearean quote, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” comes from a palace guard. After watching Prince Hamlet walk away with the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, the former King, the guard has a sinking feeling about how screwed up things are in his country.
And if you remember the play at all, things were pretty rotten. By the end of the story just about everybody dies. Revenge, misunderstandings, accidents, and lust for power are just a few of the causes of death. The guard was right. Something was rotting away at his country—something that was vacating people’s integrity and trust, something that was not afraid to use violence and lies to get its way, something that was blind with a hunger for more and more power no matter the cost.
Just before Hamlet walks away with his father’s ghost to be told to avenge his death, he bemoans the erosion of his country’s reputation due to excessive drinking among the people. All this revelry took away from their great accomplishments and made them less in the eyes of other nations. There is a visceral air to this moment when the word “rotten” is uttered that there is a process of decay and decomposition already in motion. And things will never be the same.
I hear people all the time say that our current President is destroying our democracy and that all the different checks and balances we have in our systems of government are being undermined by him. It is as if one person is taking down an entire culture of shared and checked power in one fell swoop.
Any feminist worth her salt knows that the current President doesn’t have that kind of power. The demise of our democracy or our illusions about democracy is a collective effort. He has, however, lifted the veil on just how rotten things are in the state of Denmark.
Things were rotting long before he came into the political picture. It is much easier, however, for American culture to blame an individual—especially an individual who gives us so many reasons to be disgusted by him. And giving voice to that sinking feeling that the rot is not just at the top, but that it may be infecting some of our root systems and our soil can be truly demoralizing.
I went to hear Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, speak several days ago. I was struck by her decision to leave the practice of law because she began to see how deeply racialized the systems of justice in our country are. Legal reform is inadequate to the task. She now teaches at Union Theological Seminary because she believes the revolution (not simply reform) must be a moral and spiritual one. I couldn’t agree more about the moral and spiritual part of our collective disease. It is our distorted relationship to power that has made us all sick.
The startling thing for me was not Alexander’s claim that it goes that deep for us as Americans, but her belief that the Church can be a conduit of such a spiritual and moral revolution. As a feminist who labors each day in ecclesia, I have been wondering for years about whether the institutional church is beyond reform and repair. I have wondered if the institutional church was rotten at the roots—too tangled up with patriarchy and white supremacy to be the agent of transformation that it believes itself to be. (Interestingly enough I was headed to law school to fight for social justice when I decided to serve the church instead. My wondering about the church has, in the past, elicited me wondering about whether I should have gone to law school after all. Alexander at least made me feel better about that decision!)
So, just how rotten are things in the State of Denmark? What kind of revolution is it that we need? It is a question I don’t know how to answer right now. These days I am spending my energy trying to nurture and fertilize the healthy layers of the beloved community I serve in the institutional church. So, if a revolution emerges that is truly to life, to love and to justice, we will know it when we experience it and we will welcome the blessed freedom that it brings to all people. And the rotten things that go so deep down can turn, turn, turn into compost for a better world.
Marcia Mount Shoop is an author, theologian, and minister. She is the Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC. Her newest book, released from Cascade Books in October 2015, is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson. Marcia is also the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade, 2014). Find out more at www.marciamountshoop.com