Sunday, May 18, 2014

negative work

Murder your darlings.

-- Arthur Quiller-Couch, "On Style," Cambridge lectures 1914

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

-- attr. Michelangelo

When I worked in an art called theatre, I would pray please god don't send me on stage with any nice guys. Let me go into action with the shameless: you can count on them to do what's necessary at the moment it must be done.

Artists may be kind, but Art is cruel. Writing is cruel, if you're doing it for the writing. Writing is rewriting, they all say. The ancient advice from writers to those who would be is to kill babies. Put your beauty on the page and rip its heart out.

It's negative work, like sculpture. There's a pile of words and concealed in it is something worth reading. So hack off the blubber.  Excise everything you can and what's left, if it still breathes, is what you just realized you meant to say.

It's like music - if you're going to get there you have to get there now. Don't justify yourself - it makes you late. The right note at the wrong time is a wreck, and the right word at the wrong time is a disgrace: there you are with your dozen roses and she's run off with the other guy. So don't waste time.

No mercy. No reverence for good intentions, for what's expected, or what you think may be expected, or what you thought you meant to do. No compassion for stragglers; explanation only makes your journey more obscure. You might get lost. You might get hurt. You might die. But if you miss the tide, your voyage sticks in shallows and in miseries.

I do this for the writing.

That sounds pompous.

The actor Peter Siragusa, with whom I once worked, protested the thought that his career was an obscure one. "Obscure! I'll have to climb several rungs up the ladder before I'll deserve to be called 'obscure'!"

So I, who toil in what hardly measures up to "obscurity," say merely as a fact that I do this for the writing. That is the hygiene here practiced. I don't do this to save the world, to satisfy an entrance requirement, to win the approval of a committee or to complete a curriculum.

I hack away at my pile of words until it looks like something has been found in it alive and then, if god gives me good sense on that day, I quit. It's bloody work, a butchery to which I am addicted. I throw away mounds of flesh. I love throwing things away: it feels like victory.

There are other things to write for than writing, but if you're writing for the writing, you do things that you might not otherwise do.

First rule: brevity is, as a tedious fool once said, the soul of wit. So if you can take out a sentence, a phrase, a word, a letter without the house of cards collapsing - you should take it out. All that other stuff, all that explanation and explication and illustration and deprecation, was just getting in the way.

Second rule: the thing has more power than the idea. A proverb says the "pen is mightier than the sword," and that's better writing than "ideas can bring down governments."

Third rule: action takes precedence over abstraction.  "We shook hands" is better than "we made peace."

If you follow these rules religiously, you risk a certain divergence from the truth. Depending on the situation, that divergence may be more important or less so, it's for you to judge. But you must also decide what you mean by truth. If you write for the sake of writing, then it's the truth of writing that is of greatest price. Writing's truth is not what it says but what it does. There never was a Pequod or an Ishmael, but the tale he told to Melville has not finished its run.

I've dramatized myself again, so let me make it clear that I'm a purveyor of small fry and shall not hoist any white whales from my abbatoir. This is just a game I play and need to play, and every now and then I'm informed there are a few others willing to follow along.

Some friends suggest an alternative to the questions I posed last week, and I am flattered by their attention. I proposed that the one and only religious question is: "what is worth dying for?" They would prefer "what is worth living for?" It's hard to argue against them.

I had posed myself, for the sake of writing, a cruel assignment - naming a single question. It's like an assignment I used to give to theatre students: in one sentence (not a compound sentence) what happens in this play? this scene? All sorts of things could be said to happen in for instance Hamlet, but what are you going to make happen? Choose and you have a chance to be remembered - or you can be kind to everybody and wallow in oatmeal.

Both of the questions I posed imply other questions, and those questions could have been the basis of a conversation.

I said that the one and only scientific question is: "how do things generally work?" But the best answers to that question lead us to another question often asked of scientists - "how did it all begin?" It's not possible these days to speak deeply of how things generally work without telling the origin story called Big Bang, and that is what Tyson does. Science of the present day speaks about the general laws only with reference to a singular event, a miracle if you will -- though Dr. Broun apparently can't see the miracle in it. The greatest mystery of all, before which Tyson avowedly flummoxes, is "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

And it's hard to answer the religious question of "what is worth dying for?" without entering the companion question of what one lives for. They're not quite the same question but can often stand in for each other. If you were to get up from your chair this moment and keel over dead, without knowing what hit you, you would have died for exactly what you lived for. For some this may be an appalling thought, and we all know some people for whom the thought is not as appalling as it should be. Though for others of us this would be a fortunate outcome, most would serve themselves well by considering the sum total of their lives at regular intervals: if I died right now, what would I have died for? Making death present to ourselves, as Dr. Johnson reminded us, is a strong way to concentrate the mental and moral faculties. It is possible, by thought and criticism and courage, to die for something other than what one lived for, or to change the composition of one's living.

As a rhetorician I preferred the more shocking question. Asking people to think about their dying concentrates the mind. Perhaps that is why our late most famous minister Forrest Church used to say that "religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." Perhaps that very concentration of the heart and mind, that particular way each of us tightens the breath and the sphincter, is our faith.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

two questions

I have felt/A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts.

-- William Wordsworth, 1798

What I’ve come to learn is that [the Bible is] the manufacturer’s handbook.

-- Rep. Paul Broun, September 27, 2012*

There is only one scientific question: how do things generally work? If you are addressing this question you are doing science. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing science. This goes for you and me, for fundamentalist ministers, for popes and presidents, and it also goes for scientists.

There is only one religious question: what is worth dying for? If you are addressing this question you are doing religion. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing religion. This goes for you and me, for scientists and philosophers, and it also goes for popes and prophets and fundamentalist preachers.

No one works on either of these questions all the time, because there are plenty of other good questions to be asked and answered, but everyone works on each question some of the time. But you can't do both at once because they are different questions, different as oil and water that cannot mix. If Neil deGrasse Tyson rhapsodizes on the awesome magnitude of space/time, revealing what makes him tick and displaying his intuition of the sacred, he has for that moment stopped being a scientist. If Dr. Broun insists that all the major scientific theories are "lies from the pit of hell," and treats the scripture as a textbook of cosmology, he has for that moment stopped being a man of faith.

Science is not about awe, and religion is not about the facts. Science is about generalities, but religion is about singularities. The product of science is expressed in laws, but the product of faith is expressed in miracles. They have nothing to say to each other.

The laws of science, i. e., Newton's Laws of Motion, or Einstein's Laws of General and Special Relativity, or the octaves and chords of the Periodic Table, are not human laws. Copernicus did not compel the earth to travel around the sun, Newton did not order every action to produce an equal and opposite reaction, and Freud did not command the Unconscious to direct our conscious decisions. So-called laws of nature express regularities. They tell us how the world generally works. It is not scientists who speak such laws but Cosmos itself, answering to those questions that scientists call experiments.

Now as every stockbroker tells us, we cannot prove, by proclamation or deduction, that the cosmos will do tomorrow what it has done till now. We can be pretty darn sure that the sun will come up again tomorrow, but we acquire that assurance by affirming the regularity of the world, that if we do this kind of thing, then a certain kind of that will follow. A scientist may be wonder-struck at what he learns, but his job is to demystify the world, and he had better get on with it. He picks out the pattern in what we thought was chaotic. He makes the unconscious conscious, the unpredictable predictable, the random lawful. Otherwise he is a failure.

Miracles, i. e., the Resurrection of an executed prophet, or the peaceful collapse of a violent empire, or the recovery of an addict, or the making of a way where there is no way, or the reconciliation of lifelong enemies, are not lawful; they are exceptions to laws. They are the things that no one can see coming. No one thought that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley would make peace; no one thought that gay people would win the right to marry each other; no one thought a president of color could be elected; almost no one thought that people would walk on the moon -- not until these things happened.  They are things to be marveled at -- miracula.

After miracles happen, science may try to rationalize the singularity, by making new and larger laws that include it. Sometimes science succeeds. Sometimes not. With success comes demystification: a former miracle becomes the newest predictable event. With failure comes skepticism: we don't expect the thing to happen again -- or perhaps we don't expect that it happened even the first time.

If tomorrow morning the science page of the New York Times reports that a prophet, using only his words, turned certain containers of water into containers of wine, the event so described would be a miracle. But it would not end science. Nor would it prove that God exists. It would prove only what we already know: stuff happens that we have no way of expecting. But science is not about that stuff. Science is about all that other stuff that we can learn to predict. And its task is to show us how to predict things we formerly had no way of predicting.

If the New York Times reported transformation of water into wine by fiat, then on the very next morning a new research project would begin, whose goal would be to determine how, by a hitherto unknown process, water can be so altered. When we have our science hats on we expect that, sooner or later, if enough resources are provided, the project will succeed, and new larger laws of nature will be discovered. Perhaps we can industrialize the process, making vineyards unnecessary -- though there will always be those old farts who still savor miracles, clinging to the notion that there is no substitutute for terroir. And perhaps there is no substitute. It's been said that most people blindfolded can't distinguish red from white; but even if that's true do we really want to get all our wine from test tubes, forgetting what earth is for, to whom we shall return whether we are familiar with our mother or not?

I have a recurring dream that looks a bit like Tyson's voyage amidst iridescent vortices of space and time.** Like him I look through the portal of a space-ship, and I marvel at the awful beauty of what I am privileged to behold. Then I think of how far I have come from the earth, a very particular place, a New England village with trees that arch over the street, Victorian homes and a meeting-house on the square with white pillars and green shutters, a high spire and clear windows through which truth can shine. How long ago and far away. How many doors I have shut behind me, when the music grew sour, to enter different rooms with a different face and a bigger ensemble and a greater hope, one door after another. I realize that they were one-way doors; the portal of this cockpit behind me is sealed. There is no going back, only forward amidst strange splendor, and I long instead to put another log on the fire, don my slippers and sip my single-malt in an ancient parlor now forbidden by a flaming sword.

The sadness of fundamentalists, or of politicians who troll for votes by pretending to be fundamentalists, is that neither the scientific question nor the religious one is adequate in itself for life. Though I am reasonably healthy for a man of my age, I have on three occasions rejected, with the help of medical science, nature's plan for my death. And my friend has come through a greater trial than any of mine, with a vision of recovery before him confirmed by the fallible predictability of "best practice." If Dr. Broun's spouse or child gets cancer or a rotten appendix, I will not condemn him for praying; but I know damn well that before he prays he will recommend his loved one to medical science, though the scripture of science proceeds, he says, from hell-mouth. But he does not really believe that science emerges from hell-mouth: when life is on the line he will entreat the scorned goddess to work a miracle for him.

So there are two possibilities about the congressman's character. He is perhaps an outright liar, swindling those who hate the mind. Or with slender knowledge of himself he may really think he believes what he said, ignorant of his own ultimate concern. When he takes his scripture for a science text, he mixes what God has set apart, offending both science and his faith. Let us pray for his soul.

I have plenty to confess myself, but I'm pretty damn sure I know the difference between my sixteen-year Bushmill's Irish, aged as they assure me in three woods, and my Laphroig triple wood Scotch. Pretty sure. Really. I'd know it blind-folded.

*Liberty Baptist Church, Hartwell, Georgia

**Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos, Fox Television Network

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

real life

We just borrowed . . . during a desperate time.  We had no way of knowing that all the times would be desperate.

-- "The Jump," The Middle, November 13, 2013

There is one thing that should not be scarce, that should in fact increase, and that is good and pleasurable and decent work.

-- Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling*

I once heard the chairman of one of those academic theatre departments where I spent much of my life say to his students and the professors, that he had been here more than twenty years and he was still waiting for a regular year. By which he meant a year that was not deformed by some unexpected emergency, so that everybody forgot what the purpose, the real life, of the department was. He was waiting for real life to begin.

It's a different tree in my parlor every December, but the same objects adorn it.  The same lights, the same museum-store stars and snowflakes, the same lustrous paper globes made in China and acquired I know not how or when. Some people make the Christmas tree anew each year, but that is not our way. The tree is supposed to take us back in time. To what?

Whenever I die, I would have lived ten years longer if I hadn't been a homeowner. It's been hard to stay in the middle class.

Ehrenreich pegged us: we belong to the managerial middle-class. Those misérables of vast accountability and scant power, those villeins who hold the title of "manager," are our brothers and sisters.

But I'm not a manager, I say. I'm a do-gooder. I'm not charged with quotas for the production of widgets. I don't feed my children by inducing others to do things, always faster, that they nor I would otherwise do.

No no. We are creatures of a different sort, and our own masters. We make the world better. We serve our hearts' intuition of paradise; and we plan to come home in the evening proud, nourished by our good deeds. We are teachers, academics, pastors, social workers, artists, journalists, tellers of truth, doctors to the poor, comforters of the afflicted. We are professionals. For the greater good of course. Ad maiorem dei gloriam.

The right to choose our rewards, to prosper either financially or morally, is our middle-class pretension. Some endure their work for the sake of its compensation, but we are the ones who endure their compensation for the sake of the work. We feel entitled to a secure if modest place in the middle class. We don't expect to be rich, but at least god help us we shall not be poor. We have our degrees and our diplomas and our certificates, those prizes that can never be taken away, and we expect by diligence, education and purity, to succeed as breadwinners.

But staying in the middle class has been a brutal ordeal. Nobody told us how hard this would be.

I've owned four houses, and sold each of them for more than we paid. But the surplus from each house went to pay the debts we had contracted to live there. We never got ahead. This is how it works.

You had to buy a house because if you didn't you weren't middle-class. And because you would be passing up a tax deduction. And because your kids had to go to good schools. So you had two options: you could pay private school tuition, or you could buy the cheapest house in the expensive neighborhood where the schools were good. To buy that cheapest house you forked over every penny you had, would have or could imagine ever having; then you paid forty-percent of your monthly paycheck to live in it. You were amazed the bank would let you do this, but the bank didn't care, they would sell your mortgage six months later to a hedge fund in Hong Kong. You had nothing left over to start a college fund, or (lol) to save for retirement, or to buy a summer home, or to take vacations on the Riviera or at Disney World, or to set aside a fund for future home repairs and maintenance. You didn't own a boat. Your cars (and no, you couldn't survive with less than two) were so old and disgusting that the private police would throw you out of neighborhoods you were invited to visit.  You were not having fun. Your credit cards ballooned. Sometimes the kids got winter coats and you did not.

Then came the day when the boiler died, or the roof leaked, or the plumbing went rotten; you learned why that cheapest house had come to you so cheap. Since you had no slush fund to meet such expense, you took out another loan, because the community would punish you if you didn't take care of your house, would expose you as a deadbeat who didn't deserve to live in a middle-class neighborhood: the next time your infrastructure failed, you wouldn't be able to get that loan.

Meanwhile you and your children were running with people and their children who lived in a different world, people who took ski vacations in Colorado or Switzerland, people whose take-home pay leaped upward when their "year-to-date" exceeded the maximum payments to Social Security and Medicare. I have never in my life experienced that upward leap.

And you had to keep up. If you looked poor they would kick you out of the caravan and leave you by the roadside. I once received a letter from my agent, saying that there was nothing wrong with my talent but that my wardrobe was unbelievably shabby, and that I needed immediately to acquire several thousand dollars worth of new clothes: this many suits of such colors and fabrics, sweaters and dress shirts and ties, shoes and socks of such colors and qualities, where to buy them and in what combinations. As I read that letter the plastic in my wallet began to hiss and pop.

I felt one step ahead of the bailiff, five minutes from the jailhouse. What is this jail you're afraid of? asked a therapist.  Debtors' prison, I said, don't let anybody tell you it doesn't exist any more. Like Tennessee Ernie Ford, I was another year older and deeper in debt. And having no fun. Every year, like James Stewart in Vertigo, we hung from the gutter by our fingertips, waiting for the whole assembly to detach and fling us into some shameful void. And o come o come Emmanuel we longed for a regular year.  We wondered if real life would ever begin for us, the life our neighbors seemed to be living, the life where you paid your mortgage and fed and clothed yourself and set aside some other money for a rainy day and prepared for the future that you and your kids might inhabit as a citizen rather than a sojourner. And it wouldn't have to be a miracle.

Each December we looked at the tree and, with the help of a few beers, gave cautious thanks that we weren't in jail yet. It was, despite incremental changes in the cast of ornaments, the same tree; it carried us back to those past years which, though they had teemed with their own horrors, seemed safe in memory because we had survived them.

The past, in one sense, is always disappointing; but in another sense it is always safe, which is why we feel such liberty to condemn it. However horrible the annus horribilis, we knew that we had survived. I had not gone to jail that year, which meant it had been a mild year after all, unlike the beastly year that hissed and roared before me, the year to come in which for sure . . . .

Well, never mind.

So now I do not own a home. I do not own a car. I pay my rent and take a subway to work. I'm still paying off the debts I took out to get the kids through college, but no more of those unpayable bills are coming in.  I live in the New Jerusalem, a city of God with twelve gates where the nations come to visit, or to make a new life. The savings I did not know how to tap and deplete on houses, my 401K and my SSI and my pensions, are now available; it's my money now, and if the balance of the month is a bit in the red I can go find a bit of that cash. I look at the same old red and white lights, the same snowflakes and stars and angels, the same lustrous Chinese paper globes, and am reasonably sure that I will not be in jail next year. If by some chance I die this year, I won't die in jail.

Maybe this was a regular year.

Maybe my real life has begun.

There are others who are still waiting.

*Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), p, 260

Sunday, October 13, 2013

sistine chapel

If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all.

-- Mk 9:35 (REB)

I’m looking at an artifact of my father’s, hanging on the wall, a triptych of scenes from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the center panel, God reaches out toward the inert hand of Adam, about to transfer the spark of life. On the right and left, God has his closeups, his one-shots: creating the sun and moon on the left, separating heavens from earth on the right. For some reason, the face of God creating the lights of heaven, the one on the left, seems angry.

He rendered those scenes in black and white, no grays, printed from linoleum blocks whose surface he cut away with special tools to reveal the figures. So the lines and shapes have no modulation; the terminator between dark and light is absolute, like shadows on the moon.

These majestic shapes of God, rendered by my father, are inseparable for me from my father himself. He still floats in featureless space with no visible support, ordering the firmament with his gestures and moods.

He was more than this forbidding majesty. My children never knew that he had once been a goofy man, clowning and punning, pranking and cracking wise -- a six-foot-four elf, gangly and awkward, who made my mother and me laugh till we could not breathe. Addicted to language, he initiated me into word games that left the rest of the family behind, sometimes in tears.

In his study I saw my first brick-and-plank bookcases; in no other home did I see so many books, too many for a polite single cabinet. They towered over me in various languages ancient and modern; but because they belonged to him they were my friends. I could not meet them all on their own terms, but was sure that when I got older they would speak to me.

He wrote his sermons the night before, until two or three in the morning, and while he wrote he would play Beethoven or Wagner, Bach or Brahms, Marian Anderson or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, at penetrating volume. And when the music woke me I would turn and go back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that the shepherd was awake and vigilant below, a man of God in the midst of God’s work. Schafe können sicher weiden, wo ein guter Hirte wacht.

But the faces of God in his triptych, suspended in darkness, are forbidding. Under each panel an inscription in Greek. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word became flesh. He made his home among us.

These were his Christmas cards to his congregation. Stern faces of God floating in darkness. Texts in an ancient language. He might as well have gone on to say, The world did not recognize him. It’s the perfect summation of his love and disdain, wisdom and folly, vision and blindness.

I imagine myself receiving this opus from my minister. What a downer. What are these letters at the bottom? What’s he trying to say? Who does he think he is? Does he even care whether we understand him? Some of those who admired him would say to me, he’s so much more than a parish minister. Now I think he was so much other.

I once asked him why he sent the verses in Greek. How would the congregants understand them? “Maybe it’ll make them curious,” he said. “Maybe they’ll read the Bible for once.” Every pastor suffers in the ministry, and he suffered exquisitely.

I could never get rid of this triptych, and now it hangs in my parlor. So well done, so severe, so sophisticated, so learned, so good for my wall, so bad for the purpose intended. I could never get rid of this triptych, so eloquent of him and speechless to the souls in his charge, because it speaks to me, and of me. I too love my books, and grieve for the loss of them. I too feel their call when I am too long away from them. I’ve been too long away from them.

No one compelled him, in his generation of ministerial formation, to take on the work that I have taken on. Nowadays there are requirements -- but then I suppose it was understood that if you knew the Bible, you knew how to give counsel. The thing we begin to learn on the first day, and continue to learn on the second, the third, the hundredth, the thousandth and again tomorrow morning, is that I am not in the center of it all. My knowledge is not the good news that might come today. My stuff is not the thing that is to do. I’m supposed to do my homework, then put it away and go to work.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

foot soldiers

photo: Richard Apple

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war!

-- Sabine Baring-Gould

“We are soldiers in freedom’s army,” we’re singing; “we have to fight, sometimes we have to die.” We stand by the side of an Alabama highway, at the gravestone of a martyr.* Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and mortally wounded by an Alabama state trooper in February of 1965, because he and other black citizens had attempted, on many occasions, to register as voters. His death incited events in the following month that became known as the March from Selma to Montgomery.

“Every morning they thought they were going to war,” says our songleader. And we sing some more: “You’ve got to hold up freedom’s banner; you’ve got to hold it up till you die.” And many died.

The Campaign required training, discipline and courage. Large groups, or individuals alone, advanced on cue into mortal danger. Amidst mayhem and temptations to revenge, they behaved by strict protocols. Their actions of resistance sometimes required a quartermaster’s grasp of logistics: the Montgomery Bus Boycott depended on maintaining an alternative transportation system for a year.

“Troublemakers,” they were called, if they were local; or if they came from somewhere else they were called “outside agitators.” They disturbed what had passed for peace.  But there was no peace, and those who defended the phony peace were false prophets. The state was at war with its people.  

Foot-soldiers, they called themselves. Now they call themselves veterans. They were in the army, fighting a war. They were, in the best sense of an old hymn not included in the hymnal of my church, Christian soldiers, with the cross of Jesus going on before them.

Lions do not naturally lie down with lambs, and non-violent resistance does not make the enemy become peaceful. Over and over again, the lions responded with greater levels of violence. The foot soldiers were told that they would be attacked, injured or perhaps killed. There was no hope that the forces arrayed against them would dissolve; the purpose of the campaign was to draw out and expose the violence that lay hidden, camouflaged by a culture of repressive civility. The foot soldiers were there to display the phoniness of peace.

The campaign was a power-play. At Little Rock, at Selma, at Oxford and many other places, the hearts of the oppressors did not melt. Victories were secured only when the greater power of America was brought to bear on local outrages, when the war between states and their people was transformed into a war between the United States and the most barbarous of its states. The lions would not lie down with lambs until humbled by hosts of the Prince of Peace, a role played reluctantly and provisionally by three presidents. The humbling of the lions would take place not over weeks and months but over years and decades, and is still incomplete. There are bullet-holes in Jackson’s monument; and the monument of James Chaney, murdered in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, is supported by a steel brace to keep it from being knocked over again.

There is another song, whose words were written by a woman of my faith. This song, during the time of our greatest influence in America, became an anthem for the end of slavery. It is a march, sung by soldiers as they went not to metaphorical war but to the actual slaughter of the Civil War, a war made necessary by the aggressive barbarism of slaveholders. It describes the coming of God into the world on behalf of the enslaved. The first twelve words of this song were the last twelve public words of Martin Luther King. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” he said, and stepped down from his last podium. In respect for King and for those whose hopes he expressed, in solidarity with the long liberation struggle of enslaved Americans, we might preserve that song and pass it on to the future. But the song is not in our hymnal. Are our stomachs too delicate to tolerate God’s participation in justice, by tenderness when possible but by power when necessary? If so, we are bowdlerizers of Dr. King.

Middle-class white folks like myself, half a century later, trying out our expressions of solidarity from seminar tables and from the multi-purpose rooms of churches which do not expect to be bombed or burned, must keep clearing our spectacles of romance. Though the people we commemorate were peaceful in their tactics, the terror did not stop through any softening of the oppressors’ hearts. As his sin was exposed to the world, Pharoah became more outrageous. The strategy of the non-violent campaign was to call in the cavalry before mass slaughter could occur. That was the great wager: no one could be sure, until it happened, that the cavalry would come. The movement was always aimed over the heads of the oppressors; we must rejoice that the leaders’ assessment of national character was correct. The oppressors only changed their minds when new laws were declared, and the nation’s powers and principalities showed themselves willing, on occasion at least, to enforce such law. We should feel remorse that our nation colluded with violence toward its people for so long; we should rejoice that our powers dismantled those systems of violence when they were brought so far into light. Our minds must contain both these passions.

Let us honor non-violence but not romanticize it. They didn’t stroll, or meander, or dally or hike from Selma to Montgomery. It wasn’t a peregrination, or a wandering, or a waltz on Washington. It was a march. They were soldiers. If we hope to be solid with them, we have to be OK with that.

*This is a station on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage (, which I followed from Sept. 21 to 28.

Friday, September 20, 2013

just war

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

-- Christopher McQuarrie, The Usual Suspects

It's obvious to me there is evil in the world. There are things at work --  or a beast at work with many heads -- that won't be contained in a catalogue of mistaken ideas, or misunderstandings, or errors of judgment. Srebrenica was not a colorful experiment in alternative politics, Wounded Knee was not a misspeaking, and Amritsar and Sharpeville were not good ideas badly executed. I am coming to believe that this beautiful world cannot be effectively described without the words evil and sin.

Because it is obvious to me there is evil, I cannot be a pacifist. Because violence is contagious, one must respond to evil with the least possible violence; and yet, because of evil’s nature, least possible may mean a considerable amount. Evil presents us with a menu of options that reek to heaven. Such a menu is before the president today, concerning a fabricated nation called Syria. Whatever his decision, innocent people will die because of it. Doing nothing is one of those choices, but is not categorically more pure than the others. It’s just one of the bloody alternatives.

In recent times we have seen sin forced to retreat without physical violence. The victories of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and of the Indian National Congress, are among those signal human achievements. Because of such victories we can make out in history’s long arc the silhouette of moral progress. The people who won those victories are prophets. The places where they put their lives in hock to mayhem and forced cruel gods to forgive the debt are holy.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Non-violent resistance takes its place on the continuum of warfare. We can measure its force in the enragement and accelerated violence of oppressors, relieved only by the intervention of greater powers. Innocent witness sometimes disarms a tyrant, but only after casualties, and much depends on the nature of the tyrant. King and Gandhi were shrewd warriors, betting their cause on fine appraisal of the oppressor’s character and its contradictions. They wagered many lives and their sacred honor on that analysis. There was something in British Imperial culture that, when forced to choose, would not condone (though it could not definitively condemn) a deliberate slaughter of innocents. There was something in the Constitution of America that, when forced in a theatrical moment to choose, could not place a seal of approval on abuse of children who asked (so politely) to go to school. The force of empire in one case, and of federal government in the other, was brought to bear at a specific moment for justice.

In both cases, tyrants of a simpler character would have responded very differently. The way of Assyrian emperors and Syrian presidents, European Fuehrers and Asian Great Leaders, tribal chiefs and bloody-minded barons, is to scorch those plots of earth where their power is disputed. The ancient function of armies, though not the last and best, is to terrorize the people. The general way of history is not to stop at dogs and fire-hoses. The great majority of tyrants, like Mao or Herod or Bashar al-Assad, are willing to kill until there is no one left to protest, or even to remember what was protested. They will keep it up until they have achieved their false version of peace; or until a greater and we hope more gracious power intervenes.

If an army arrives on the scene therefore, as in Little Rock in 1957, not to slaughter the innocents but to escort them into the schoolhouse, they commit a sacred aberration of history, a hiccup in the remorseless waltz of power. The infrastructure of justice is hard-won, recent and fragile, and every thug knows how to break it; and so we must memorialize such aberrations for future generations lest they forget.

There are just wars, but they are always tragic, because if we have to go to war it means that the peace has been lost and evil has, at least for a time, already triumphed. How many generations are we willing to condemn, in order to keep our own hands clean? We all want peace, but those who cry peace, peace when there is no peace are the false prophets.* Evil then compels us to do terrible things in the name of a better future.

Among the requirements of just war are: that it be waged to prevent a demonstrable evil, and by a governmental authority that allows for judgments about right and wrong; that there is a reasonable chance of success, and the struggle will stop when the objective has been attained; that violence will not be deliberately inflicted on the innocent.

Among the just wars waged by the government of the United States are the American Civil War and World War II. This is not to say we waged them innocently, for there is no innocence in warfare. This is not to say that they achieved their whole objective, for both left new regimes of injustice in place. This is not to say that they were morally safe, for in both cases our people sinned enormously, in an exponential coarsening of character that should make us grateful that neither conflict continued a day longer. There’s no telling, if we had fought for another few months, what we would have been willing to do in the name of peace. Nevertheless, but by a close margin, these were just wars that ended mighty regimes of violence.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Indian Liberation Struggle take their places in the catalogue of just warfare.  They are wars of liberation, and just ones. They achieved victories by unusual means, asking the troops to march into mortal danger without inflicting such danger on their enemies. These victories are modern events, possible because because humanity has created, here and there and not always in the United States, forces and institutions that expose and then restrain the natural rapacity and bloodlust of politicians. The British Empire was not the Assyrian Empire. The United States is not North Korea. The purpose of each engagement was to expose the violence inherent in the system. Words and images of that violence went out to the wider world, calling on higher and larger powers to countermand local corruptions. The grand strategy of peaceful protest is for scrutiny to domesticate, and armies when necessary to restrain, the feral instincts of politicians.

Real soldiers, having gone to war, do not wish to go again, and a moral nation goes to war, if it must do so, reluctantly. A civilized nation has capacity to distinguish, though it may fail to do so, between just and unjust wars; because in every war the soul of the nation is at risk, the danger growing with every day that passes. Colin Powell insisted that American troops never be committed without an exit strategy.** Caspar Weinberger insisted that, if the nation goes to war, it has a moral duty to win as quickly as possible.*** The campaign must have what wargamers call “victory conditions,” marking the completion and end of war. The generals must plan to bring the soldiers home, because the purpose of just war is peace -- a peace that, unlike false peace, can be lived with. An open-ended war is never a just war, and a war against a nebulous entity like “Terror” is a recipe for depravity.

It seems now that our Civil War never ended. Racism and its ally ignorance are raising regimental banners throughout the country, and particularly in states of the Confederacy. Our liberal anti-racist discourse, focussing on institutional as opposed to personal racism, has been caught off-guard; for the spectre we see now, rising from benches of Congress and from houses of state government, is personally and transparently hateful. A new aggression has been launched, and the voting rights of Americans are under attack. We must defend ourselves, our neighbors and our children. It is a just campaign. In the traditions of Powell and Weinberger, we must commit the forces necessary to win, and soon -- and then resume the peace.

The most powerful weapons we can bring to the field of contest are the ones we too often surrender to the enemy: the Christian Gospel, the Jewish Scripture and the founding documents of the United States. There are other works of literature, philosophy and spirituality, documents full of insight and inspiration. Each of us has the right to pick their personal favorite. But the Tea Party does not quail before the Bhagavad Gita or the Analects. They fear Matthew 25.

A proper campaign needs victory conditions and an exit strategy. We are here, like warriors of the previous Civil Rights Movement, to challenge and destroy corrupt laws, and to shame those in power who created and now defend them. Racism is however an amorphous term, changing its definition with time and place. Like Terror, Racism cannot be erased from the catalogue of human sinfulness, and our campaign, like all wars even just ones, will leave some things undone. If our objective is to end sin, we will never enjoy peace; but we can hope, like the warriors before us, to produce a peace that can be lived with. The veterans of fifty years ago know that, though the world is far from perfect, they were victorious.

We want to judge and be judged by our character. If white people sometimes “forget” that Oprah is black, isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t a lot of young black men, entering a store, hope that the detective forgets to say “There’s a black punk"? The one hope is already realized; the other lies still in the plan of march. To forget this purpose is to lose our way, as our nation lost its way struggling to protect the people from terrorism.  

There will come a day when Americans fear something else more than they fear Islamic suicide bombers, and there might come another day when a young black man has more pressing worries than whether some fool has prejudged him as a criminal. I have seen the daughter of a murdered civil rights worker,**** who never met her father, say that she has no hatred in her heart. I marvel that she has found peace, and I know that warriors of the present day must want peace if they are to win the war. We will have to define some big objectives, win some big victories, and then be prepared to stop. That’s what peace means.

*Jeremiah 6:14: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (NIV)

**Point 5 of eight in the “Powell Doctrine.”

***Point 2 of 6 in the “Weinberger Doctrine.”

****Angela Lewis, daughter of James Chaney

Thursday, August 1, 2013

not guilty

We the jury find George Zimmerman not guilty.

-- Sanford, Florida, July 13 2013

All men are created equal.

-- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 4 1776

My heart is broken. I haven't been so sick in my soul since the massacres of May, 1970, at Kent State University and Jackson State College, when America killed its children and cheered. We're still killing our kids, and particularly when they're black we cheer about it.

It's dangerous to be black in America. Particularly if you're a black man, the country is ready to beat you or kill you, and then give sanctuary to your attackers. There are plenty of out and out racists who will make sure the law protects the killers -- racists not in the institutional but in the good old fashioned biblical, personal and individual sense, their logic so warped by nasty folklore and cultivated hatred that they can't imagine what it's like to be hunted in your own neighborhood when you've done nothing out of the ordinary.

There are stories about getting a traffic ticket for the crime of Driving While Black. In New York our police officers have beaten or killed a series of innocent black men. In Florida they killed a young man for the crime of being Alive While Black.

It's been three weeks now and I can't get over it. I don't know what to say to a black parent. Van Jones wonders if his son has to wear a tuxedo to the store so that he won't be found suspicious; but I think a black man in a tuxedo in a convenience store might be taken as uppity, and many a black man has been killed in America for being uppity. Overdressing is not the answer.  

How can you live in a country that counts you as suspicious wherever you go, whatever you wear, whatever you do or don't do? that sends gunslingers to watch your neighborhood, hoodlums who pick fights but who don't know how to fight without deadly force? How can I tell my neighbors to be peaceable, when the law is at war with them? I have no standing to give such advice. There are many millions of racists in America, and they look like me. How can I live with such a country?

This should be the new and strangely simple test of our public officials, our lawyers, our pastors, teachers, our friends, our judges and our jurors. Anyone who thinks there is equivalence here, some subtle balance between the boy who was killed and the man who pursued him with a gun in order to use the gun against him -- any such persons stand in a long tradition of complicity. Such people are the heirs of Bull Connor and Orval Faubus and Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam and Byron De La Beckwith.

The judgment of reason is clear. The boy was where he had a right to be. He was unarmed. He is dead.  There is no justification for his death. No evidence was presented that he was doing anything wrong. He was pursued by an unidentified man with a gun. Perhaps he stood his ground, and was shot dead for doing so. This was not an unfortunate accident. It was not a tragedy. It was a malicious act of violence with racial motivation. Acquitting the killer completes a lynching.

Emmett Till (1941 - 1955)
Trayvon Martin (1995 - 2012)

So how indeed do people of my social location live with such a country? These days I do not know.

Many years ago, when television stations would sign off at night after the late late show, a network affiliate in the city where I lived closed its programming with images not of aircraft carriers and warplanes, but of mountains and rivers, forests and skylines. The music was not the national anthem but the song that ought to be the national anthem, and the singer was a black man. "Oh beautiful," Ray sang, "for heroes proved/in liberating strife,/who more than self their country loved/and mercy more than life." Later I learned that he made this recording with the death of heroes in mind -- of Martin and Malcolm, of Evers and Till and Chaney and Goodman and Schwerner and Liuzzo and Jackson and of my own church's James Reeb. "America, America! God shed his grace on thee." It occurred to me that the singer felt these deaths had mattered, had somehow made America beautiful, bringing good out of evil. "And crown thy good/with brotherhood!"

And nowadays I think that if Ray Charles loved the country so much that he found a way to sing about it, then perhaps I lack standing to abandon her. I don't fully understand his love. Or the love of those eight hundred men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry who made the Civil War a moral struggle against slavery. Or the love of those nine children in Little Rock in 1957 whose courage and moral dignity were so much more than we deserved. Or the love of those millions around me who live honorably in a nation that dishonors them, teaching responsibility to their children though the nation declares those children expendable. No, I don't understand such gifts.

But I'm old enough to know that I don't have to understand everything. We are blessed, and can't do a thing about it. The sun shines on the wicked and the righteous, and on the rest of us muddled in between.