The Holocaust was a tragedy, and every tragedy inevitably implies failure. There i no denying that during the period of the exterminations, the Jewish people suffered a crushing defeat, and there is no evading the painful question of why this tragic defeat occurred. We have to face it. But the failure was not only ours; the catastrophe was not of the Jews alone. It was a general human catastrophe: Europe’s culture and civilization, forged through centuries, was ravaged during the days of Hitler’s rule, and the human condition in the modern, technological world was illuminated by the fires of the crematoria at Auschwitz. The Jew, not for the first time in his history, epitomized man’s fate in a time fraught with peril. No historical event can ever be eradicated; once it has happened the possibility of its occurrence is proven. The history of the world since World War II shows that Hitler created a fissure in the moral dam of religion and culture through which a flood of violence and cruelty, stemming from man’s most sinister impulses, burst forth. Thus, our period has been dubbed the Age of Violence, and its most prominent and shocking manifestation was the extermination camp, where violence was raised as a banner and became the emblem of the age. – Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945.
Last week, one man, having sneaked an arsenal of weapons into his hotel room at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay hotel, opened fire on a crowd gathered to listen to a concert by country-western singer Jason Aldean. In a short span of time – no more than ten or so minutes – he killed 59 people and wounded more than 500. While shock, anger, and sorrow greeted the horrible news, so, too, did the demand we not speak about the possibility of controlling the flow of firearms in the United States. Not only were we told it was too soon, we were also reminded – as if we needed reminding – that the right to bear arms is a Constitutional freedom. This particular, contested Amendment to the Constitution has become something of an Escher Drawing of legalese; it presents multiple dimensions all at the same time, confounding our ability to make any kind of singular sense out of its vague meaning and now-lost historical context. All the same, it has been abundantly clear for decades that, to a segment of the population, their ability to own a weapon designed solely for the purpose of killing – whether animals or other human beings – outweighs the rights of others to live free from the fear that any public outing might well end with someone lying dead in a pool of blood from a firearm. We Americans accept both the daily wastage (as the British Army called it during WWI) as well as the occasional orgy of mass death as the price we must pay to make sure a shrinking number of people can purchase firearms without undo obstruction.
We Americans, it seems, have grown comfortable to this Age within which we live. The late Israeli historian Leni Yahil, in her edited and abridged English translation of her own history of the Holocaust, calls it the “Age of Violence”. All human ages, however, have been marked by violence. What is distinct about our current Age of Mass Death is that we now sanction death on a massive scale, excusing it for any number of reasons, whether racial or ethnic purity, religious purity, or the maintenance of a dubious Constitutional status quo. As Yahil notes, this is not a “Jewish” or “German” problem, although they are the exemplars. It is, in fact, a human problem, one with which we have not only not yet come to turns. We rarely recognize it as such. Insisting on “our” own purity both of intent and purpose, we can watch the slaughter of millions and insist it is, for one reason or another, necessary. Human life, never worth that much, has become the penny-stock of our times.
The Enlightenment still has its defenders, to be sure. Already beaten and tattered by the time Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, the moral fabric of western society was gassed, machine gunned, and shelled to death in Flanders and Nancy, on the Somme and at Verdun. With mass death no longer an impossibility, the next few steps to genocide seem, in retrospect, fairly easy to take. The combination of Hitler’s force of personality and Germany’s perfection of technically-minded bureaucracy, the perfect combination emerged to create the conditions for the systematic steps in the destruction of European Jewish life: from stripping them of civil rights and protections; making illegal the practices of Jewish life, creating an outlaw people; the use of a special military force – the Einsatzgruppen – first during the invasion of invasion of Poland, for mass executions; then the gradual, careful, and exhaustively documented trial and error process by which the Nazis arrived at the death camps. While many reeled in horror when the extent of German terror was exposed, leaders around the world understood with something like acceptance that now was the time during which death on a massive scale had become something that could be woven into public policy.
The nuclear shadow under which we continue to live is little more than the acceptance that the threat of mass death, now on a global scale, is the price we must pay for maintaining an always precarious balance of global power. While the anti-nuclear movement certainly claimed a particular moral vocabulary in an attempt to clear the dust from the eyes of those who refused to see the Gordian thread that held thousands of hydrogen bombs at bay, it was no match for the reality that such a moral vocabulary is now, for all intents and purposes, meaningless. Taken over by the powers that hold the keys to near human extinction, that moral vocabulary has, for the past 72 years, been used to justify both the threat and reality of slaughter. Whether in Korea, Indonesia, or Vietnam; Cambodia, Serbia, or Rwanda; in the rubble of the World Trade Center or the blood-soaked schools and streets of the United States; all understand now that there are always reasons for the careful, purposeful use of slaughter as a tool, whether of war or keeping the peace, terrorism or counter-terrorism, or maintaining outdated and incomprehensible notions of “rights”. The only thing that continues to surprise is the constant surprise people express at events that are not at all surprising.
We Americans are at a pivotal moment in our history. The single most unfit person ever to hold the office currently serves as President. His casual disregard for human life, his shallow, thin-skinned personality, and his lack of any understanding of the duties of his office lead us perilously close to yet another brush with nuclear holocaust. We can accept our responsibility for this farcical situation and demand an end both to his Presidency and the political party that continues to enable his dangerous rule. Or we can, which I believe is far more likely to be the case, just accept that our Age of Mass Death continue apace, with the deaths to come only the price to be paid by others for our own fear and venality.
SFGATE reached out to the FBI for their definition and spokesperson Andrew Ames wrote in an email, “our definitions are based on federal law” and directed us to the bureau’s Active Shooter Resources site that uses a broad definition to define mass killings as three or more people killed regardless of weapon. . . .
[James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston] . . . thinks the most accurate definition is four or more victims, not including the killer, and encompasses family, public and burglary killings, and this is the one the U.S. Congressional Research Service uses. With this definition, he says on average there are about two dozen mass shootings a year. – Amy Graff, “How many mass shootings have there really been in 2017? It depends on the source”, sfgate.com, October 2, 2017
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson on Friday morning told a group of high school students that they don’t have a right to health care, food and shelter. . . .
“Do you consider food a right? Do you consider clothing a right? Do you consider shelter a right? What we have as rights is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Past that point, we have the right to freedom. Past that point is a limited resource that we have to use our opportunities given to us to afford those things.”
Johnson then referred to comments made by Sen. Rand Paul more than six years ago when Paul compared the “right to health care” to slavery.
He said the task of public officials is to create an environment that grows the economy so that more people can enjoy the “privilege” of food, shelter and health care. – Hillary Minz, “Johnson: Access to health care ‘a privilege'”, WISN, September 29, 2017
We do not exist only for ourselves, but always in relation to others, from the time we are born. This is no less true in politics than it is in family life. And like family, we exist in a community not of our own making and not of our own choosing. Our very bodies belong not only to us, but always have a public dimension – Mandy Rogers-Gates, “Our Precarious Lives”, Women in Theology, October 2, 2017
It’s become a ritual, as ingrained in our civil discourse as obeisance to the Constitution and paeans to freedom and equality: There’s been a mass shooting and all sorts of people, from the President’s spokesperson yesterday to your average person posting on social media, demand we not start discussing gun control in the immediate aftermath of yet another massacre. Which is odd, when you think about it. After all, no other time seems to be a good one to have such a discussion. In 2012, 20 first graders were massacred just a couple weeks before Christmas and despite an enormous public outcry, Congress insisted on doing exactly nothing. If the slaughter of children is simply the price we pay for living in a free society, then the killing of nearly 60 and wounding of well over 500 certainly doesn’t seem like a time to do anything about gun violence.
Constitutional scholars and social philosophers on all sides seem to emerge, arguing everything from the instant repeal of the Second Amendment to counseling inaction, seeing as criminals will always commit crimes, therefore gun control just won’t work.
Wouldn’t it be better if we were able to talk about gun control as what it really is? That is to say, a successful social policy enacted to one extent or another by most of the industrialized world with the amazing result that there just aren’t that many gun deaths in those countries, on a per capita basis, as there are in the United States. Of course there are gun deaths in those countries; if there weren’t we wouldn’t need a law to protect the public from criminals wielding guns! Still, the daily body count you see here in the US just doesn’t exist in other places because those governments made the conscious decision and took action to restrict access to firearms.
Like the health care debate back in 2009, our public discussion around guns and their regulation ignores the reality that other countries seem to manage just fine. Of course, there are always debates and discussions, both on the principles and the details, but the concept that it is government’s role to regulate areas of our social and civic life is rarely questioned.
Except, as Sen. Ron Johnson made so inelegantly clear, here in the United States. Now, on the face of things, Johnson is not only wrong in spirit, but in the spirit of our Republican dedication to personal freedoms. Our freedoms are actually both delineated – freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, from unlawful search and seizure, to a trial by jury – and expansive – both the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution make it quite clear there are other rights, rights unnamed, that adhere both to individuals and are up to the states to determine. With the adoption of the 14th Amendment in the wake of the Civil War, both the express and implied rights of the Constitution extended up and down our federalist system.
Furthermore, to claim that human beings have no “right”, say, to food, quite apart from its dubious legal truthfulness, is morally vicious in the extreme. To further claim that government’s only job is to create the space for freedom to afford such a “privilege” is ahistorical. Of course people have the right to food. Life isn’t possible without a steady access to food. Human societies were formed in the first place to guarantee that access to the necessities of life – water, food, shelter – were available to all. This isn’t a philosophical point. It’s just a truism that anyone studying human history even at a glance understands to be the case.
The best way to talk about gun control is to talk about it. It’s not sacred space upon which none can venture. Nor does having a perfectly normal, reasonable discussion about the necessity of balancing individual liberty against the safety of society at large threaten anyone at all. Such discussions happen all the time! If the balance between individual liberty and social safety were always struck just right, we’d have no need for government at all. Because times change, needs change, understandings change, and social and cultural situations change, so to do our laws. Again, this isn’t some big insight; it’s common sense. None of the freedoms of the Constitution are now or ever have been considered absolute or sacrosanct. For example, seditious libel – while nearly impossible to prove – nevertheless exists as a law against speech in the United States. The extent of Constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, say, or even habeas corpus – a right so fundamental the authors of the Constitution didn’t delineate it, because its necessity was assumed – have undergone fluctuating understandings in American history. Officially sanctioned prayer was once thought to be no big deal; as we have become a far more secular as well as multi-religious society, however, officially sanctioned prayer is far less tenable not least because it violates the freedom of individuals not to adhere to any particular religion at all, certainly not the once prevalent mainline Protestantism.
Whether the number of mass shootings each year is in the hundreds (a number I think is far too high) or a couple dozen (a number I find far more reflective of our reality), the reality is neither should be socially acceptable. Survey associations, both partisan and non-partisan, have shown pretty consistently there is broad support for particular regulations regarding gun ownership in the United States. Having a discussion that it most certainly within the purview of the state to manage and regulate items that pose a threat and danger to society at large while recognizing there are also legitimate and perfectly reasonable reasons individual gun ownership should be maintained as a fundamental Constitutional right is neither impossible nor even difficult.
The trick is not caring about all the shouting and background noise, and getting the job done. That, alas, takes political courage in an age when such seems non-existent. Having a discussion about gun control begins – and ends! – with having the discussion. Of course people on all sides are going to shout and scream and rant and rave. That’s OK. They certainly have the right, perhaps even duty, to do so, if for no other reason than to remind us that a very real balance needs to be sought between individual liberty and social safety. Neither is absolute nor paramount. Each is legitimate, even if contradictory.
We have these discussions all the time, though. Why should gun control be any different? Let’s just start talking.
Antifa is composed of autonomous groups, and thus has no formal organization. Antifa groups either form loose support networks, such as NYC Antifa, or operate independently. Activists typically organize protests via social media and through websites and email lists. According to Salon it is an organizing strategy, not a group of people. While its membership numbers cannot be estimated accurately, the movement has grown since the election of Donald Trump; approximately 200 groups currently exist in the US, of varying sizes and levels of engagement. – Wikipedia
The revulsion to violence on the part of most people on the left, from liberal to radical, is not born of naïveté over the scale of the right-wing threat. It’s the expression of basic moral principle, as well as a pragmatic political understanding that random mob violence by masked vigilates on the left isn’t going to defeat the Alt Right. In the Bay Area this weekend, the Alt Right was already defeated. All Antifa did was transform that message of people-powered victory into a cascade of headlines bolstering Trump’s “both sides” talking point.
The revulsion to Antifa’s violence is also an indication of the paucity of trust Antifa has established with much of the wider, non-activist world. People want the white nationalist movement smashed into dust; that’s why they’re showing up by the thousands and the tens of thousands to protests against the Alt Right. That doesn’t mean they want to hand leadership over to a subcultural vanguardist movement that barks at them from behind masks and shields and threatens to beat those who disagree with them into submission. – Leighton Woodhouse, “The Ugly Side Of Antifa”, louisproyect.org, August 28, 2017
I’d read the word “antifa” used, mostly by far right and white supremacist supporters, during the summer and fall of 2016. These tended to be whines by members of violent groups about “unfair” treatment by the media who seemed, they claimed, to report “antifa violence”. I looked near and far and just couldn’t see any evidence of such a thing. Truth is, the only time I have ever seen the word used is when the media shouts about anarchists smashing windows or walking around carrying sticks and clubs. While there was some violence at last weeks anti-fascist march instigated by black-shirted, ski-masked anarchists, this is hardly surprising. Anarchists have always reveled in violence, particularly against property (which they insist is not violence). While they were a defensive presence in Charlottesville, protecting a United Methodist Church working as a safe haven for counter-protesters as well as surrounding groups of clergy marching through the Nazi horde. Cornel West and many clergy insist their presence protected the clergy from violence.
All the same, ever since Charlottesville, all I read about is “violent antifa”, classified as a domestic terrorist group by the Obama Justice Department and FBI (see the above-linked Wikipedia article). It’s almost as if a white supremacist speeding his car through a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing one young woman, never happened. Instead, a small group of anarchist nincompoops have somehow become the face of anti-Trump and anti-Nazi protests. Not through anything they’ve done, because the truth is all they’ve done is smash a few windows, punch a few Nazis (including Richard Spencer at Trump’s inauguration), and make their presence known through their dress code. It’s come to the point that some left-wing commentators, including those for whom I have a great deal of respect, insist that liberals and leftists have to disavow what is, by all indications, small cells scattered across the country, most of whom do nothing but carry on online. I, for one, feel no need to speak out against antifa violence, largely because it isn’t anything coordinated (anarchists aren’t big into organizing on the large scale), has no long history like the white supremacists and Nazis, and unlike these latter groups, I’ve yet to see or hear a mainstream Democratic politician insist violent anarchists represent a part of the party, unlike Republicans who have been encouraging these very groups for years without consequence.
These morons don’t even represent anti-fascism. To be anti-fascist is to be a decent human being. Sometimes, alas, it becomes necessary to defend one’s self with the threat or practice of violence; particularly against individuals and groups whose very existence is a threat to civil peace and justice. I cried no tears for Richard Spencer when he was cold-cocked on January 20. On the contrary, I watch the video every once in a while just to smile. Not because I’m a violent person, or “support violence”. No, I smile because Richard Spencer is a vocal Nazi. He embraces a violent, degenerate political philosophy that seeks the physical destruction both of our Constitutional Republic as well as whole groups of human beings. His very existence is violence. Getting punched, it seems to me, is a bit of rough justice, particularly since Spencer has done nothing but whine about it ever since. So much for the master race . . .
Way back in my Seminary days in the spring of 1993 I was taking a seminary on Liberation Theology. A topic that came up early was violence. Our professor had us read The Wretched of the Earth, including the second half in which Fanon insists that violence, while justified in the abstract, is actually counter-productive, destroying the psyches and lives of those who practice violence. When discussing non-violence, however, with our eyes on the height of largely church-led Civil Rights Movement in the United States, I noted that while non-violence certainly sounds good in the abstract, in fact there cannot be “non-violent” protest against a system that is inherently violence. Precisely because white supremacist segregation in the American south was violent to its core, any resistance to it or action against it could only ever be considered itself violent, regardless of the words or actions of those speaking and protesting. I still believe that to be true, and applicable in particular circumstances. While non-violence works well, for example in Boston a few weeks back when the Nazis were simply outnumbered by the tens of thousands (and it’s no small irony the Black Lives Matter members acted as escorts for the fascists as they made their way through the anti-fascist crowd, protecting them), I have never accepted the idea that non-violent protest is the only real way political activists should protest. In the real world, even those actions called “non-violent” are considered violent by those who oppose them. When Nazis and white supremacists gather, as they did in Charlottesville, they arm themselves. To pretend that “non-violence” is morally superior in the face of the direct threat of violence, we forget forceful self-defense is an equally moral option. By their very existence, the Klan, Aryan Nations, other white supremacist organizations, the Nazi Party and its loose affiliates of supporters and hangers-on, represent, preach, and practice violence against our political order, public peace, and whole groups within the country. As far as I know, while a few folks might have been roughed up by Antifa in Boston and Berkeley, only the fascists have actually killed someone – someone protesting peacefully, no less. It’s foolishness to insist, prior to any actual situation, that only non-violence should be practiced. It is also ridiculous for anyone to claim that the anarchists at the inauguration, in Boston, or in Berkeley represent any part of the left; the article quoted above as an epigram appeared in a Marxist online journal. While I don’t doubt the veracity of the claims the author makes regarding what he witnessed, I also think it important to note that Communists and Anarchists detest one another, and have done so for decades. I’m not going to take my political cues from a member of a group institutionally committed to opposing anarchism.
It’s been clear that racist groups, white supremacists, and Nazis have been emboldened by the Trump Administration. The mainstream media isn’t helping much by trying to insist on some moral equivalence between small groups breaking windows and throwing some punches and groups with decades-long histories of violence whose actions have resulted in the death of on counter-protester. The word “antifa”, tossed around so glibly by so many, should be considered a badge of honor. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being against fascism. And insisting a priori on a policy of non-violence does nothing but restrict possible counter-measures to those whose very existence stinks of the blood of millions. Remember, a Nazi is someone who understands full well the blood of millions is on their hands; white supremacists and Klan members embrace the history of violent intimidation, lynching, and social structures designed to oppress African-Americans. These are not people who should be treated with kid gloves.
Well the world is exhausted
And the wreckage is all around
But the arc of your life
Could still be profound – “Song of Unborn”, lyrics by Steven Wilson
Our current moment is one best described as anxious. Whether in politics or society, in churches, synagogues, and mosques, our military and federal workforce, even in our personal lives, we find ourselves bombarded by crises, with neither leadership nor guidance through a time when even our shared reality seems to be up for negotiation. On a more personal level, I know just this week I have seen three death notices, including a gentleman with whom I grew up. He and I had been friends in elementary school, but as time went on and our different interests had us following different paths, we became less so. Still, his was a presence in my life from early on. Two FB friends have posted the passing of dear ones in the past twenty-four hours. Death, it seems, reminds us it is ever-present.
We are bereft of any sense that things will get better any time soon. Our country and world seem to lurch from one outrage to another, our headlines filled with hate and violence; our discussions on these issues resemble the stories, filled with vitriol, mutual disdain, the absence of any sense we are all in this together. Leaderless, we drift without an anchor to hold us down. Our personal lives, once perhaps a solace in times of strife, are far more angst-filled as we wonder and worry what the next day will bring, or even if there will be a next day. As much as we would all prefer not to pay attention, recent nuclear brinksmanship cannot but leave a residue of horror in all of us.
And yet . . .
In the midst of all this, you wouldn’t believe the number of new babies I’ve seen friends and family of friends announce. One FB friend, experiencing a late-life pregnancy, is sharing her pregnant-life in a marvelous tableau. Another FB friend announced his granddaughter’s entry to kindergarten, a little girl who was born prematurely, whose early struggles he shared and so many of us prayed and prayed. This little light brightens my timeline whenever he posts a photo.
I won’t deny anxiety about the kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit. I look at the world into which my own daughters are soon to be launched by time and tide, and I dread the conditions under which they might well have to live. My children, however, are older now and my worries are specific, because I know what they are or will be facing. With the little ones, however, and the ones almost here, my feelings are very different. Perhaps its a peculiar type of Anglo-American sentimentality that leaves us filled with joy at the sight of a newborn child; whatever the case may be, in these little ones that anxiety and worry passes and I feel something very different.
Steven Wilson is, perhaps, the most creative musician of my generation. In his third decade of writing, recording, and performing, whether in bands like Porcupine Tree and Blackfield, or his solo work over the past decade, his music spans the gamut from psychedlia through heavy metal to prog and, with his latest release, pop music. Of course, as he says in a video in which he reviews his latest album To The Bone track by track, it’s “pop” more in the way The Beatles, XTC, and Supertramp were pop than contemporary prepackaged blandness. One of the consistent realities of Wilson’s song-writing has been . . . how can I put this . . . a fascination with dark, hard, themes – death and loss, loneliness and ennui, that peculiar hopelessness that is so much a part of our current world. To The Bone is no different in that regard. Songs about the loss of love, about a terrorist preparing to strike, a refugee scared and enraged over his circumstances are all stand-outs, with the instrumental break on “Refuge” gut wrenching.
A real bright spot is the song Wilson calls “the happiest song I ever wrote,” called “Permanating”. Upbeat, sounding like something ELO or Supertramp would have released in 1978, it’s also the most “mainstream” song Wilson’s ever performed. For that reason, a lot of his long-time fans aren’t happy about it at all. Nothing at all wrong with a well-written and arranged pop song, however, now is there? Since this is an album all about songs, an upbeat song hardly seems out of place.
The album ends with the song that is the heart of this post: “Song for Unborn”. A message for those to come, it offers not only the possibilities open to those who are yet to call our world home; it also presents the stark reality that our world is hard, cold, with the words “there’s nothing new under the sun” echoing across every attempt at creativity. Yet, “the country lanes are decked with the time to come”; there are roads out there, all sorts of them, that can take a wandering, wondering soul to all sorts of places. Even in the midst of the emptiness of our moment – “the world is exhausted and wreckage is all around” – it is still possible to live a profound life. Live in the absence of fear, both of death and life, and those country lanes might just open up a chance to be and do something wonderful, perhaps even world-changing.
I’ve found myself listening to this song quite a bit the past few days. It offers a reminder, at least for me, that while our generation has certainly made a mess of things, there is always hope, that light in the eye of the new ones who come in to our world looking for those country lanes, to be the best they can be. I see the photos of those new babies, and my prayer is they learn that, as bad as the world may seem, it doesn’t have to be this way. In their tiny, sparkling eyes and reaching fingers lies the possibility that, long after I’m gone, the world will have become just a tiny bit better because some few took those decked out country lanes, refusing to accept what was handed to them in our time of despair.
In those unborn and new born, just beginning their wanderings in this life, I am reminded that hope is a very real thing. And I’m grateful to be reminded just how powerful that hope can be when you see it in the flesh and bone.
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. – Amos 5:21-24
Probably the earliest, and most difficult, theological truth I was taught while in Seminary was this: Our God takes sides. Yes, God loves us all (John 3:16-17; 1 John). That love, however, is expressed in different ways depending upon one’s social status. I was no different than quite a few middle-class white folks. I didn’t want to hear this; still holding tight to the ridiculous idea that God doesn’t play favorites, I didn’t want to know that, in fact, God does indeed have preferences. The simple reason I resisted this message should be clear enough: I understood in my gut that I was definitely part of that group God did not prefer. Oh, God’s love for me and others like me – middle class, white, wearing my privilege like a comfortable shirt I didn’t even know was there – was and is always available. It is a love that never gives up, either; that’s true from the Scriptures. All the same, it’s a love that demands our lives. Sometimes, that demand is literal. At the very least, at any rate, it means surrendering all the comforting thoughts and assumptions that once guided how we made our way in the world. Belief in the God of Jesus Christ either means everything – the surrender of everything – or it means nothing at all. Hearing this stark demand, especially when it seems to contradict everything I thought I knew and was taught, can be enough to catch anyone up short.
It is, however, the heart of the Gospel. It is the heart of the Hebrew prophets. It is the heart of St. Paul’s letters. It is the heart of apocalyptic. God loves us all, but it is not an easy love, nor is it cheap. We either respond to that love as if it means everything, or we comfort ourselves in bland, anti-Christian lies that middle-class peace and quiet is the same thing Jesus was offering the outcast of Roman Judea and Galilee so nothing will disturb our equanimity.
Thus we think sin is the same thing as personal moral failing. Sin is sexual immorality. Sin is saying bad words. It’s a character flaw that can be remedied by a therapeutic false gospel that reassures us that “we” who behave ourselves are not sinners like “those others” who smoke and drink and swear and screw. We draw clear lines around the saved and the damned and rest comfortably that our lack of reflection on our own social circumstances is part and parcel of the good Christian life.
There isn’t really much Scriptural warrant for this view. It certainly isn’t part of what Jesus taught. Yes, St. Paul insisted on sexual propriety among Christians, but that was hardly part of the Gospel St. Paul preached, the Gospel he received not from the Apostles but from Christ himself. One searches in vain through the Old Testament for a prophetic word against middle class immorality.
We in the United States are at a hard historical moment. For years, decades even, many could pretend not to hear the apostasy preached as truth, resting easily in a combination of our Biblical illiteracy and the bland reassurances of preachers who offered us solace that success and a happy home are what it means to be a good Christian. Now, however, as the last thin sheet is ripped away from America’s ugly underbelly, we see and hear in no uncertain terms the truth: Our churches are complicit in our current hate-filled divisions. Not wishing to upset anyone, we’ve offered the solace of grace without the demands of discipleship. We’ve reassured people that what God really cares about is whether Aunt Ethel recovers from her hand surgery, instead of the fact that Aunt Ethel spent a lifetime hating and fearing people of color. We refuse to call out those in our midst who dirty our congregations with their disgust at human difference, whether racial, sexual, or even religious.
When the Word came to Amos the shepherd, it was first a Word to Judah and Israel’s neighbors, a bold proclamation in and of itself. All the same, the harshest words and most stern judgments were reserved for the now-divided Kingdoms. Israel, in the north, had never accepted the centralization of religious and political power in Jerusalem, preferring to worship on holy hills as their ancestors had before King David moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Some in the northern kingdom had come to practice the religions of their neighbors, committing apostasy by leaving offerings for these foreign idols upon once sacred places. In the southern Kingdom off Judah, oppression and the apostasy of non-belief had rendered the cultic practices of sacrifice and incense worse than meaningless. The LORD no longer wanted anything to do with the worship of those whose lives did not reflect the history of salvation and the demands of the Law offered to the people as a sign of their covenant with the God of creation.
God took sides. It was the heavy hands of greed in the form of taxing the poor, traffic in slavery, ignoring the “widow and orphan”, traditional Hebrew-speak for those cast out both of society and the religious assembly; these were the sins that enraged God, making God hate their empty, meaningless worship.
Leaving aside the many prophets who have been saying these things all along, those whose words we did not want to hear, we can no longer pretend we face our apostasy full-on. The ugliness of American race-hatred, religious hatred, hatred of sexual minorities – hatred with endorsements from the highest secular office in the land, no less – is out in the open. We cannot pretend these are problems for “other people”. These are our problems, and they are rooted in our church’s terror of offending, of hurting people’s feelings. We preach grace without law and salvation without conversion, allowing people to believe it’s OK to sing God’s praises on Sunday mornings and live out fear and hatred of others the rest of the week. Our churches offer reassurance instead of discipleship, with its demands for sacrifice.
For a variety of reasons, I’ve stopped attending worship over the past few months. I’ll be honest: The last time I attended worship, one of the clergy told the congregation that the United Methodist Church does not teach original sin (it does). I was so enraged, I wasn’t sure what to do. This, however, is just a symptom of the far larger matter of our churches no longer preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with its demands for personal conversion and the practice of personal and social holiness. We want people to know they’ll make it back home in time for the Bear’s game; we want to reassure parents their teens’ Youth Group meetings won’t interfere with all the other things middle class families think are necessary for a happy life. We want our large donors and givers to know they don’t have to sell all they have and give it to the poor then follow Christ. We want people to know that they are good people, people without sin so deeply ingrained in their persons that nothing they can do can remove it. We offer cheap grace and non-sacrificial love in order to keep those attendance numbers up and make sure we reach our budget goals.
The prophet Amos, however, tells us that God doesn’t want our worship if we aren’t living as if our faith didn’t mean everything. God doesn’t demand we don’t say “fuck” or don’t have sex (especially with people of the same gender). God demands we practice justice, in our personal and social lives. That’s the heart of the Gospel, the heart of the Scriptural witness. It is who we are supposed to be.
We need hellfire and brimstone preaching right now, the kind that reminds us of the demands of love and the sacrifice necessary for faith to grow. I’m just not hearing or seeing it. We live in a moment, Paul Tillich called it “kairos”, when we need to make a decision. No one, however, seems to be forcing us to choose. We can have it all, our preachers tell us.
I don’t want it all. I want life and that more abundantly.
The events of the past few days have left me exhausted. I’ve sat down many times since Saturday, wanting to write more, wishing to say something – anything – coherent enough and sensible enough that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to post it. These have been days of chaos, of irrational hatred, of violence, of death. Part of me wants only to make sense of it so this will no longer be true.
The truth is, I’m just going to leave it be what it has been – days of rage and violence, of irrationality, of chaos, of the official sanctioning of racist violence by no less a person than the President of the United States. There is no way typing that can make any more sense. No matter how hard people will try, it is what it is.
Part of me wants to remind readers that Hillary Clinton warned us, last fall during the Presidential campaign. People got upset with her for calling some of Trump’s supporters “deplorable”. Even I, at the time, thought that wasn’t the best move on her part, even though I also thought she was right. The thing is, at that moment she wasn’t caring about politics. She was doing what she thought was right: Warning us as a nation not only what kind of man Donald Trump was, but what kind of people he was carrying along with him in his train. People like David Duke:
Which leads me to say this: Anyone who claims either that Trump isn’t a racist, or that no one can know what’s in another’s heart: (A) Of course he’s a racist. His record on that score is long and very public; (B) White supremacists and Nazis were among his most vocal supporters during his campaign, telling the world he was one of them; (C) You know what’s “in a person’s heart” by that person’s words and actions. Yesterday Donald Trump stood and gave cover to Nazis and white supremacists, cover for their violence that killed one person and wounded 19 others, cover for a group of pipe wielding thugs beating a young African-American.
I was quite sure Trump’s Presidency would be horrible. I remember once saying it would be even more horrible than I could imagine at the time (before the inauguration). The complete and utter moral collapse of the Presidency, however, was nothing even I could imagine. The silence of the Republican leadership following Trump’s horrible press conference yesterday leaves them complicit in his ongoing embrace of the worst among us.
Let me be clear: As long as the Republican leadership – Congressional, Party bureaucracy, Administration members – remain in place saying or doing nothing, they own this turn toward overt white supremacy support by their party. Pretty words by a few here and there, mean absolutely nothing. Either the Party rises up to save itself, or like everything else Trump touches, it will be forever stained by his very presence. Either the Republican Party acts out a very clear, “No!” to white supremacy, it is now the party of white supremacy.
We are at a critical moment. Our President has taken sides with the most morally depraved elements of American society. His failure as a human being, on display for all to see, leaves us with the simple choice of continuing to support him in an office for which he has always been demonstrably unfit, aligning oneself with Nazis, the Klan, white supremacist murderers, and their enablers; or we stand as a country and demand an end to this failure of a Presidency, removing him from office as quickly as possible. While Mike Pence is no one’s choice for President, either, his brand of crazy conversatism is just slightly less deplorable than Trump’s.
Trump has made his bed, in linens covered in swastikas, and is quite comfortable there. The damage he has done to the instruments of our state power is vast, including now vitiating the moral authority the Office of the Presidency. It is up to we the people to demand an end to all of it as soon as possible. Only then can we begin to sort through the wreckage for what’s salvageable.
There are people who are going to read this and be angry with me. Some people might unfriend my on Facebook. Some might want to argue with me. At this point, I couldn’t care less. In light of events in Charlottesville, VA since last night silence is a privilege I will no longer exercise. Wanting not to hear or read about events is something only those who are insulated from the potential dangers of events at UVA spinning out of control can afford. Of course, I’m far removed in many respects, so I could be silent. But I cannot.
First, what’s happening in Charlottesville is not some aberration, something strange and foreign to us as a people. On the contrary, the mass expression of hatred and a desire for violence against minorities is older than the the Republic. When H. Rap Brown said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie,” he wasn’t defending Black Power tactics. He was talking about things like Charlottesville. Because, you see, it’s not new. From the first African slave markets in 17th-century Virginia through the 3/5ths clause of the United States Constitution; the outlawing of freed blacks across the South in the decades before the Civil War; the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan led by a former Confederate Army General and the institutionalization of segregation and white supremacy across first the old Confederacy then the rest of the country; Chief Justice of the United States Roger Taney, writing in Dred Scott v. Ferguson that even freed African-Americans were not citizens, having no rights a white man need respect; the racial terrorism of lynching and the acceptability of the white rape of black women; the destruction of African-American communities in Tulsa, OK and Rosewood, FL; the lynching and murder and continued segregation of African-American veterans returning from war in France in 1918; race riots across the country in 1919 and 1920; massive resistance to school desegregation; George Wallace declaring, “Segregation forever!”; the Ole Miss riots; the harassment and murder of volunteers registering people to vote; riots in LA, Rochester, Newark, Detroit, Harlem, and Chicago; the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King followed by white celebrations; the anti-busing riots in Boston; the destruction of a Philadelphia neighborhood in 1985 because of a small group of MOVE radicals; the on-going murder of young black men by police departments with impunity and without consequence; stripping the Voting Rights Act of any enforcement mechanisms; the criminalization of Black Lives Matter.
Eight years of racist hatred against the first African-American President of the United States.
What’s happening in Charlottesville is just another moment in our ongoing national pageantry of racist violence. If you really think it an aberration, are shocked and saddened, and wish to separate yourself from the torch-wielding mob, please remember we cannot do so without continuing to accept this as part and parcel of American life. We have indeed made great strides, legally and socially. That has not eradicated the dark heart of America, our ugly, evil hatred of those different than we are. Our Constitution is a racist document. Our national wealth is constructed upon centuries of chattel slavery, white supremacy, and the capitalist exploitation of our inherent, institutionalized racism. Even our religion has been hijacked by this demonic stain, with denominations and churches enforcing segregation and white supremacy. Until and unless we see this clearly, accept it as part and parcel of being American, then we shall fail to deal honestly with events in Virginia.
When people demand an example of institutionalized racism – as if I or someone else had made up the idea out of whole-cloth, contrasting events last night and today with what happened in Ferguson, MO a few years back makes it so clear. When a community marched peacefully against decades of racist police practices that culminated in the murder of an unarmed young black man, the police who met them were militarized. A single image captures the absurdity of that particular moment:
Last night, hundreds marched through Charlottesville carrying lit torches with not a police officer in sight.
In Ferguson, it was a community tired an angry at official neglect and harassment. They weren’t anti-police; they wanted better police.
In Charlottesville, they chanted Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil”.
I want to be very clear here so there’s no misunderstanding: the widespread disdain for BlackLivesMatter among whites ignores the reality of blue-on-black violence as well as the desire African-Americans have for their lives and their persons treated the same as whites. Those who claim this is already the case don’t see the truth expressed in these contrasting photos.
This is an American problem. White racial grievances have certainly been encouraged by politicians, aggrieved and enraged whites soothed by promises to make America great again. I want to be clear here on this point: The Republican Party has done more than just play footsie with the darkness that is racist America. When Ronald Reagan began his 1980 campaign for the Presidency in Philadelphia, MS – where two young Jewish men and one young African-American man were murdered for the heinous affront of registering black voters – he was making it very clear to any who were paying attention where he and his party stood. In the decades since, whether it was the Willie Horton commercial, Jesse Helms’s “white hands” commercial, or last year’s love affair between the Klan and the Trump Campaign, highly-visible Republican candidates for high office have certainly been unafraid to make clear where they stand regarding race relations in America. Indeed, the whole idea behind Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan relies upon the ridiculous notion that under Barack Obama, the United States somehow lost respect around the world, or that our domestic life was somehow destroyed. Trump campaigned on white grievance; not a single Republican spoke against it, most denying it all as liberal fantasies. In many ways, what’s happening in Charlottesville right now is not at all surprising or shocking, but rather the result of Republican coddling of racists for over a generation.
Yet, these people are not somehow “un-American” or otherwise not part of our civic life. They represent some of the oldest, darkest parts of what it is to be American. Until and unless we’re willing to claim this, events like this will continue.
And we must rid ourselves of the idea that “non-violence” is a strategy that will work. People who carry lit torches, chant racist slogans, and are part of organizations promoting violence against minorities aren’t interested in dialogue; they won’t be won over by peaceful counter-protests. Force and the threat of violence can only be met with superior force. There will, alas, be blood.
We cannot escape ourselves, no matter how much we might wish to do so. As events continue to unfold in Charlottesville, with the State Police dispersing the fascists, a car plowing into counter-protesters then speeding away, and surely more violence to come, we need to watch and see this all-American show unfolding before us.