All of us . . . believe some modes of existence are superior to others. But only the liberal, committed to a vision of harmonious communal pluralism, is unsettled by this truth.
-- Sam Tanenhouse, “Peace and War,” New York Times Book Review (August 29, 2010)
Though you cannot hear the underlying agreement in our inflamed discourse about poverty and violence, we all agree – liberal and conservative, black and white, separatist and integrationist – that there are a lot of young urban men who would be better off if they felt that reading, studying and getting good grades were a path to success. That’s because reading, studying and getting good grades really are a path to success. The bitch goddess basketball, on the other hand, disappoints most of her devotees and corrupts the rest.
We argue with malice and fury about who’s to blame and what the fix is. But everybody knows that learning to read is more liberating than basketball. Basketball has its place and can, like music or poetry or worship, save lives. But reading saves more lives, and our access to literacy is a crucial part of what we white folks mean when we talk about our white liberal privilege. Literacy is better than illiteracy; and those who would be free must become literate. Everybody knows this. Or rather, those who do not know it will never be free.
The liberation theologians say that we white liberals are privileged people – that we have, without entirely earning it, what oppressed people want. Now listen. Don’t just react defensively. Listen to their critique. We have what those less fortunate want. That is to say, the oppressed want what we have. They want, in some respects, to become like us. Why then do we despise ourselves? Why are we so desperate to go slumming, as if we could transform ourselves into people who themselves want to change their identity? What sort of solidarity is it that causes us to hate in ourselves that to which the oppressed aspire? Could it be that our feigned love for the culture of oppression is a way of fixing the oppressed in their place, in hope that they won’t enter our neighborhoods, compete for our jobs, or infiltrate our voluntary associations? The Delta troubadour who sings with a clanging guitar of whiskey, wandering and women, is not about to buy a Volvo and apply for that new position in the English Department. Or run for president. There are good reasons to listen to a Leadbelly record, but let’s not fool ourselves that we’re doing anything radical as we listen. Leadbelly is, for us, safe.
You see, there’s no innocent way forward, no systematically pure creed or discourse. No language policeman or process observer can do anything but seek the last word in an argument that never ends. But we have to step out of the circle. We have to go forward. We have to leave the argument behind.
I and Thou, my brother, my sister. Ich und du. That’s what it comes down to. There’s mystery in it. Frankly, I don’t understand how we get along at all. But we have to keep doing it. We have to keep getting along, and more than that, we have to proceed toward justice. And since the terrain of history obscures the way and we lack the requisite Mecca-finder, we adopt together and for now some provisional marker of justice, good enough orientation perhaps until we can get there and revise our purposes. And we must remember, when we get there, that the marker is not, never was, God Herself.
We do this, as we do every other important thing, with insufficient knowledge. My dearest friends, my children and my spouse are a mystery to me; so how could I ever claim, my brother, my sister, that I understand you? Or demand that you understand me? Across the gap a spark of agape must fly. This flame is not ours to command, and yet we must be ready for it. Ideologies of blame and rejected responsibility violate the requisite stillness. W. H. Auden said that “the essential aspect of prayer is not what we say but what we hear.”* Faith is the urgent silence in which we wait for love’s prompting.
Urgent silence is the skill of a chaplain. We do not hurl good news onto the porch like a paperboy, but wait for good news to be born in a parlor of grief. Our comfort for those who mourn is a comfort of their own, revealed and blessed. Standing in for the Shepherd, we walk with them through a dark valley toward the sunlit turning.
Those who feel they have a license to fix, to save and rescue, should not apply for this job. To give the mourners their freedom, we must honor their pain and protect it from meddlers. We give the mourners their freedom not because we lack a theology but because our theology demands their freedom. Chaplaincy is a theology of immanence. Blessed are those who mourn. They have the blessing. We can be midwives at its birth, but not its parents.
Liberal faith says truth has more than one voice. No scripture or bishop is beyond question. Not that there is nothing sacred, but that the sacred recedes as we institutionalize it. Christianity’s worst day, said my liberationist professor, was the day on which the Roman Empire adopted it. If God became flesh in Yeshua, then truth is in the body, its weakness and passion, sufferings and accidents.
And liberalism is not value-free. Wake up, comrades, the coffee’s getting stale. Some “modes of existence” are better than others, and some are downright wicked. Literacy is more liberating than basketball. We believe it, and it’s true. It’s a fact.
*quoted in Context (Vol. 42, No. 9, Part B)
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