Back in 2009 there was a White House event for musicians and poets to perform some of their work.
A young artist named Lin-Manuel Miranda had a turn and addressed the crowd, telling them he had prepared a song about someone who embodied the spirit of hip hop — and that was: the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
The line got a laugh, but Miranda went on to explain the connection, pointing out how Hamilton, born in obscurity on a Caribbean flyspeck of an island, with a voracious intelligence and combative temperament rose to become right-hand man to George Washington and, eventually, treasury secretary, antagonizing almost every major early-American political figure along the way.
Of course, Miranda is now famous for having written, directed and starred in the musical “Hamilton,” recently reproduced as a movie. The musical follows the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton, but with an interesting twist; the main narrator is none other than Aaron Burr, a one-time vice president of Thomas Jefferson who is most famous for having killed Hamilton in a duel.
The musical follows Hamilton throughout his adult life as it intersects with Burr’s (with some creative license that wanders away from Ron Chernow’s authoritative biography). Burr is the first person Hamilton meets as he wanders off the boat in New York. The chatty and opinionated young Hamilton is surprised by Burr, who tells him to “talk less, smile more,” and generally hide his opinions from the world. Hamilton dives into revolutionary politics. Burr cautions him to moderate. Burr applies for a job with George Washington but is shown the door as Hamilton walks in and takes the position. The two sing a duet as they imagine the future for their children, born as the country is. (One of the many ironies is that Hamilton’s son, Phillip, is killed in duel a few years before Hamilton himself, and on the same spot.)
The stories weave together. Hamilton negotiates a plan for a national bank with his rivals, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, ceding the U.S. capital to Virginia in a closed door meeting. Burr, meanwhile, is left out in the cold, singing about wanting “to be in the room where it happens”—providing the title of former National Security adviser John Bolton’s time in the White House.
The relationship between Hamilton and Burr eventually ruptures as Burr runs for president and fails because Hamilton throws his support behind Jefferson, with whom he disagreed about almost everything. His rationale: “Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”
The two men, Hamilton and Burr, exchange letters. Burr wants to know, why the betrayal? Hamilton sends Burr and itemized list of 30 years of disagreements, because that was the kind of person he was, apparently. The two fight a duel and Hamilton is killed.
What the musical reveals is that it is hard to separate the protagonist from the antagonist. Hamilton and Burr are like oil and water, and their differences make major conflict inevitable. Yet, at the same time, the two share enough in common that it takes a while for them to recognize each other as enemies. Both are Princeton-educated, New York-based revolutionary lawyers who grew into major political figures; similar enough to be attracted to one another, different enough to be repelled. You can almost imagine Hamilton clutching at Burr’s heel, like Jacob with Esau.
My theory on this is that we tend to fight people with whom we have much in common — and that can make it worse. There are no worse fights than those between friends, siblings or spouses. Maybe it’s not an accident that the Bible’s first story about murder contains Cain and Abel, two brothers.
We’re no strangers to this kind of conflict. Maybe you come from a family that has two grasping brothers — or sisters.
Even outside your family, though, you know that, at some point, you are going to run into the person with whom you will inevitably butt heads.
It could be your boss at work, whose demands are always unpredictable or unreasonable. Or it’s that intransigent employee who just won’t do his work.
It could be your neighbor with whom you have never gotten along.
If you have a Facebook account, you know that the conflict could be anyone — the person who had a different political affiliation, or view of the day, or who simply won’t stop reposting things that drive you nuts and you just have to block him or her.
Hamilton and Burr remind me most of Jacob and Esau — two tussling brothers. The Biblical story is confusing because even though Jacob tricks Esau out of his inheritance and his God-given blessing, Jacob reaps the rewards. He wins. It all belongs to him, even if he crossed too many lines with ill-gotten gains.
We cross those lines, too, when we spend more of our lives scoring points against opponents than searching for truth; when our lives become about who won, who’s right or who’s stronger. We can justify our prosperity at the expense of others when we ascribe moral worth to our blessing, even if it is ill-gotten, casting brothers as enemies.
So when Jesus comes, the radical thing he does is he stops the scorekeeping. He calls Matthew the tax collector to be one of his disciples. And Paul, the pharisee. A Roman centurion. A woman caught in adultery. They didn’t have much of a birthright to call their own. Obviously they had lost what they had to deserving younger brothers—the smarter ones and the stronger ones. It didn’t matter. Jesus didn’t come to just save the stronger ones or the smarter ones. He came to save them all, whether they deserved it or not.
Maybe that’s why he tells us to pray for enemies, knowing we can be so much more.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.