Spring/Summer 2017 (Vol. 45, Nos. 1 & 2)

Harvard Divinity Bulletin Spring Summer 2017

Perspective

Bearing Witness by Stephanie Paulsell

A Look Back

A 'Christo-morphic' View of Religion by Richard R. Niebuhr

Dialogue

'Sick, and You Visited Me' by Donald W. Shriver
Visiting the sick helps to combat the loss of identity they experience in the hospital.
Practicing Entanglement by Elizabeth Aeschlimann
The work of justice cannot succeed without deep, authentic relationships.
Changing Hearts Opening Minds by Haley Rodgers
A grassroots movement is needed to build bridges and strengthen ties between the Muslim community and the greater public.
Beyond Resistance and Complicity by Mariam Durrani
It is important to call out anti-Muslim racism while also seeking to normalize Muslim cultural life in the United States.
Taking Back the Narrative by Nadeem Mazen
Our priorities must shift radically in proportion to the stark social need around us.

Featured

Old Souls, New World by Marilynne Robinson
Given their influential emphases on self-scrutiny, civil order, literacy, and the exalted mind, we need to give the Puritans their due.
‘Peace, Peace to Him Who is Far Off, and to Him Who is Near’ by Sarah Sentilles
Conversations with a World War II conscientious objector and a soldier who served in Iraq deepen the author’s understanding of pacifism.
No Rescue by Shane Snowdon
A crash that causes the death of a bicyclist haunts the driver for years and leads her to study Buddhism.
FOUR JOURNALISTS ON COVERING RELIGION EFFECTIVELY
A Dangerous Business by Debra L. Mason
The problem of religious literacy and journalism is urgent.
The 'Trump Effect' and Evangelicals by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
The 2016 election might be white Christian America’s last gasp.
A Movement with a Theology by Adelle M. Banks
How black churches relate to the Black Lives Matter movement is a complex and ever-evolving story.
Telling Uncovered Sides of the Story by Nathan Schneider
Black economic cooperation in the U.S. is the kind of narrative journalists need to cover more.

In Review

Righteousness as Commitment by Randy Rosenthal
In Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer takes a hard look at marriage and what it means to be religious.
Articulating a Different Future by Caroline Matas
A Q&A with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on her newest book, Congress of Wo/men: Religion, Gender, and Kyriarchal Power.
Fei Xiaotong’s Humanism Infuses From the Soil by Anna Sun
An appreciation of From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. A Translation of Fei Xiaotong’s Xiangtu Zhongguo
Lessons in Dignity and Divinity by Melissa Wood Bartholomew
We can glean much wisdom from The Life of Omar Ibn Said
A Heartwarming and Heartbreaking Exhibit by Robert Israel
"Syria: A Living History," a recent exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, focuses on the human context of art and artifacts.

Repose

People and Power detail of Ahmad Moualla's painting.

Poetry

Division Of by Andrea Cohen
Puglia by Michael Coppola
Soot by Kaveh Akbar

 

 

 

See also: Past Issue

'Peace, Peace to Him Who is Far Off, and to Him Who is Near'

Pacifism involves profound dilemmas and vast implications.

Sarah Sentilles

Book cover for Draw Your Weapons

From the Book: Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles.
© 2017 by Sarah Sentilles. Published by arrangement with
Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Pen literary awardDraw Your Weapon won the 2018 PEN America Literary Award for creative nonfiction.

Interviews & REviews: A Q&A with Sarah Sentilles on Signature, the Oprah.com recommendation of Draw Your Weapons, and “Drawn and Quartered,” a book review in Guernica.

 

 

 


 

As a child I wondered why political conflicts couldn’t be solved by playing a game instead of fighting wars. Why not chess? Football? Monopoly? Soccer? I grew up during the Cold War, and I’d imagine the Russians on one side and the Americans on the other, the players in their uniforms, the referee firing a gun in the air to start the match, the only shot fired.

 

I’ve called myself a pacifist for most of my life. I thought it let me off the hook somehow, as if being against the wars my country fights means they have nothing to do with me.

♦♦♦

I know it is futile to attempt to extricate myself from the evils in which we are involved, Howard Scott wrote in a letter to his wife, Ruane, from prison. A conscientious objector during World War II, Howard had worked in Civilian Public Service (CPS), fighting forest fires. Howard’s college roommate, Gordon Hirabayashi, and his family were ordered to internment camps, and when Gordon refused to go and was arrested and imprisoned, Howard decided being a conscientious objector was not protest enough. To resist war and conscription and internment, Howard walked out of the CPS work camp without permission. He, too, was arrested and imprisoned. I remain a part of the crimes committed by us. . . . And I do not wish to separate myself from society or my group. I need to intentionally make myself more a part of it.

♦♦♦

In high school, watching a documentary film about the Nuremberg trials, Howard’s daughter, Kayleen, vomited. Threw up again and again. She was sitting next to her friend Ruth.

Ruth’s grandparents had been made to run for their lives in a farm field in Germany, chased by a hay baler driven by Nazis, until the machine caught up with them and ran them over.

♦♦♦

Pacifism is a pathology of the privileged, Ward Churchill argued. It’s easy for those who are not oppressed to advocate nonviolence, easy for the powerful to use the ideology of pacifism as a tool with which to further oppress those who are unwilling to take up arms to defend human rights.1

The weaker parties in social conflict are forced by the stronger party to employ nonviolence, Herbert Marcuse insisted.2

♦♦♦

Most of Emmanuel Levinas’s family was killed in the Holocaust. A philosopher, Levinas wanted to create an ethical system that might make future genocide impossible. He started with the face of the other: The face as the extreme precariousness of the other. Peace as awakeness to the precariousness of the other.3

In class, to explain what he meant, I drew two stick figures on the whiteboard, facing each other—labeled one I, labeled one Other. For Levinas, when you encounter an other, you recognize your own vulnerability—the other could kill you—and you also recognize your power—you could kill the other. The impulse to kill must be resisted, he argued. I could kill you must be replaced with Thou shall not kill.

I drew lines from the head of the figure labeled Other on the whiteboard, as if the face were a sun, my lines its rays. From the face of the other shines that which makes one person unlike anyone else, I said—irreducible alterity, Levinas called it—an otherness that cannot be replaced, that cannot be understood or contained, that once lost can never be recovered. You are held hostage by that otherness, which you must protect at all costs, even at the cost of losing your own life, because, for Levinas, that otherness is God.

♦♦♦

Critics insist pacifism results from an internal contradiction: pacifists claim to be against using violence because they respect life, yet how can you claim that life is an absolute good and then be unwilling to defend lives threatened by aggression?4

But advocates of pacifism point out that pacifism is no more contradictory than the idea that you must kill life to defend life, that you have to destroy the village to save it.

♦♦♦

I still see those images from the films in my head, Kayleen told me. I still have nightmares.

After Kayleen saw the footage from the death camps, she asked her father, How could you not go to war?

I can’t kill because others are killing, Howard said.

But how could you not go to war?

All killing has to stop, he said. It is a sickness all over the earth.

♦♦♦

I projected a photograph of an Iraqi girl splattered with her parents’ blood onto the screen at the front of the classroom. The girl is young—five years old—and there is blood in her hair, on her hands, on her dress. Her mouth wide open, she screams.

She’d been riding in a car with her family to take her brother to the hospital when American soldiers at a checkpoint opened fire, killing her mother and father. I didn’t yet know the girl’s name (Samar Hasan), but I wanted my students to look at her. To look at her gray dress patterned with flowers as red as the blood on her body, on the concrete, on the toe of the boot of the soldier standing next to her, who is holding a gun and shining a light in the dark.

The students’ desks faced the screen onto which all semester I’d projected image after image of other people’s pain. Men lying facedown in the dirt next to a bus, hands cuffed behind them, shot in the head. A body floating in the water after Hurricane Katrina. A man falling headfirst out of the towers. A line of dead bodies, each partially covered by a white sheet. A skeletal child curled up on the ground, a vulture waiting. The girl in the flowered dress.

A student raised her hand. But what are we supposed to do? she asked.

Through the classroom window, blue sky, sunlight, palm trees, birds-of-paradise, succulents growing out of the university’s tiled rooftops. The sound of someone cutting the lawn in the quadrangle just out of sight. The smell of pepper trees, eucalyptus, ocean.

I don’t know, I said.

♦♦♦

A skeptical version of pacifism can develop from the worry that when we choose to kill in self-defense, we can never know whether this killing is in fact justifiable. At the level of personal violence, you can argue that an aggressor deserves the violence inflicted on them, but at the level of war, the personal element is lost. Masses of people are killed without any concern.5

♦♦♦

At Auschwitz, where the ashes of victims, scattered by the wind, are still part of the fields and rivers and ponds, there were six orchestras. There was music in those camps, prisoners forced to play while people marched to their death. They played for jam, for bread, for cigarettes. They played for their lives. The instruments’ f-holes, open to the sky, must have caught ashes falling like snow, becoming caskets, urns, tombs, the only burial given.

Years ago, Amnon Weinstein, an Israeli violin maker, was working in his shop when a man brought in an old instrument and told Weinstein it had been played at a death camp. When Weinstein separated the belly from the back, he found the wood inside black and lined with ash.

He and his son have restored more than sixty instruments from the camps. Each violin like that that you are going to play, Weinstein said in an interview, it’s for millions of people that are dead.6

♦♦♦

Transformational pacifism: a broad framework of cultural criticism that includes efforts to reform educational and cultural practices that tend to support violence and war. In the future, people will look back at war and violence as archaic remnants of a less civilized past.7

♦♦♦

I believe we can best witness for truth by transforming lives in the light of the truth we see, Howard wrote to Ruane. Of course, I must begin with myself.

Surely civilization will perish if we rely on war.

♦♦♦

My father went to prison for peace, Kayleen told me. He wanted to demonstrate with his life that taking up arms is the problem. If we continue to take up arms, how do we do anything but contribute to the Holocaust? For him it was a clear commandment: Thou shall not kill.

I still wrestle with my dad’s decision not to fight, Kayleen said. I am appalled by the annihilation perpetrated by the Nazis. It’s hard not to want to do the same thing to the people who do these things, she said. But I believe wholeheartedly that my dad’s stand was the right stand to take.

It would be my stand, she said, though I’m amazed at what it takes to make that stand heard, for it to have any impact at all.

♦♦♦

The religious discourse prior to all religious discourse is not dialogue, Levinas wrote. It is the “here I am,” said to the neighbor to whom I am given over, and in which I announce peace, that is, my responsibility for the other. . . . “Peace, peace to him who is far off, and to him who is near.”8

♦♦♦

I watched a video of Gordon Hirabayashi talking about his time in prison.9 His mother wrote him once a week, a half page of typed words, a summary of events at Tule Lake, where she was interned. In one letter she told this story: When she first arrived at Tule Lake and was unpacking, a knock came and she opened the door, and there stood two women, shoes dusty. They said, We heard that the family of the boy that’s in jail is arriving today, so we came out to welcome you and to say thank you for your son.

When Hirabayashi read these words in his mother’s letter, a weight left his shoulders that he hadn’t realized he was carrying. His mother had pleaded with him to go to Tule Lake with her. I admire what you’ve done, she’d said. I agree with you, but if we get separated now, we may never see each other again. If the government could do this sort of thing, they could keep us apart, so please come with us. Hirabayashi told her he couldn’t go with her.

I wouldn’t be the same person if I went now, he said. I took a stand and I can’t give it up. Even her tears couldn’t change his views, but he felt guilty. He had failed to respond as a dutiful son.

When he read the letter about the women visiting his mother, he said, I knew standing there next to her wouldn’t have given her the same kind of lift.

♦♦♦

Here I am, says every prophet called by God in the Bible, a phrase that is an English translation of the Hebrew word hineni, which means ready, a word the prophets speak before they know what they’re being asked to do.

♦♦♦

Will they send you a letter if you have to go back? I asked my student Miles when he told me he’d reenlisted in the army reserve. He’d been a soldier at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and now he was home.

They’ll just call me, he said and held up his phone.

Can you say no?

♦♦♦

Kill or be killed—some pacifists argue this is a false dilemma, insist there are nonviolent alternatives. Resorting to violence is a failure of imagination, they say. You abandon hope for more humane ways to solve conflict.10

♦♦♦

Our weapon is the smallest possible, Ruane wrote to Howard.11 Nobody can find it. Even with all their brainpower and ingenuity the task would be impossible. The effect of the weapon is visible and traceable, but the weapon itself is never found. In an age of swords, its effect is peace, joy, frankness, and faithfulness to what is holy. No other weapon can compare with it. It melts ice, spreads lift, brings warmth. It creates and alters, drives out doubt and despondency, and stands guard. It marches victoriously through locked gates, so that he who sits in prison finds consolation.

♦♦♦

In a greenhouse, scientists divided plants into two groups, lined them up along walls of glass and light. Assigned to the first group were volunteers whose job was to look at the plants with love for hours at a time; assigned to the second group were people told to watch the plants with indifference.

After a few weeks, researchers discovered the volunteers’ gazes had affected the structure of the plants’ cells. The plants looked at with love had strong cell walls, while the cell walls of the plants looked at with indifference had collapsed.

♦♦♦

I watched my father drown, Howard said. On the shore. Jumping up and down and waving.

We all have secrets inside, shame covering them like dirt.

When Ruane died, her body gave off so much heat we sang songs about snow, Howard said.

There’s more than one way to fight.

 

 

Notes:

  1. Andrew Fiala, “Pacifism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 6, 2006, revised August 14, 2014, plato.stanford.edu/entries/pacifism.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso, 2004), 128–51. For the line that begins the face as the extreme precariousness of the other, Butler is quoting Levinas’s essay “Peace and Proximity.”
  4. Fiala, “Pacifism.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Restoring Hope by Repairing Violins of the Holocaust,” PBS NewsHour, February 12, 2016.
  7. Fiala, “Pacifism.”
  8. Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford University Press, 1998), 75.
  9. See on Youtube, “Densho Oral History: Gordon Hirabayashi” and “Receiving Encouragement from Mother: Gordon Hirabayashi.”
  10. Fiala, “Pacifism.”
  11. Ruane is possibly quoting someone here (a letter? a book?), but in her own letter, she does not indicate what or who she is quoting, and I have not been able to locate the source.
 

Sarah Sentilles is the author of Breaking Up with God, A Church of Her Own, and Taught by America. Her next book, Draw Your Weapons, will be published in July 2017. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Divinity School, she lives in Idaho’s Wood River Valley.

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A Dangerous Business

What it takes to increase religious literacy in newsrooms.

Debra L. Mason


Last November, as the finality of Donald Trump’s win in the United States presidential election flashed on my cell phone, I was in Cape Town, South Africa. It was my turn to address twenty-four professional journalists from across sub-Saharan Africa, as part of a weeklong training fellowship on covering religion and LGBTQ issues.

The journalists traveled from the Gambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Zambia, Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, Namibia, Ghana—fifteen countries in all. They worked for international, regional, and specialty media.

Having just read about Trump’s win and readying myself to extol the standards of excellence in religion coverage, I suffered a meltdown I call PTSD—President Trump Stress Disorder.

Instead of lecturing, I started sobbing. I apologized on behalf of the United States and blathered on about being a privileged individual who believed in the virtues of democracy and the ideals that powered my identity as a U.S. citizen. I even sputtered that clichéd “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” business.

And in that instant, I realized my ridiculousness. To observers, I was a white, upper-middle-class citizen of one of the world’s richest economies who had the luxury of earning four college degrees.

My audience, in contrast, included one journalist who was exiled for nearly two years from his home in the Gambia. Most of the reporters lived in countries rife with government corruption. News media outlets in many regions were under heavy government influence. Some journalists had families decimated by AIDS or ethnic violence. The country where the training was held abolished Apartheid a mere twenty-five years ago.

I mention this embarrassing moment to give perspective to the difficult, although noble, task at hand: to improve the religious literacy of journalists and, by extension, the public. If the problem seems immense in the United States, consider its insurmountability across the globe.

Freedom of religion is restricted for three-fourths of the world’s population. Where religion is controlled—too often—so is freedom of speech and the press.

As Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero noted at an HDS symposium last fall, the world is a dangerous place for journalists and religious freedom advocates. Freedom of religion is restricted for three-fourths of the world’s population. Where religion is controlled—too often—so is freedom of speech and the press. Overt restrictions include the jailing of journalists in places such as Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia—the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 2016 brought a record in jailed journalists. Elsewhere, social hostilities encourage militia-style retributions, such as the hacking deaths of secularist bloggers in Bangladesh.

This problem of religious literacy and journalism is no less urgent in the United States. With religiously fueled hate speech spiking to record levels in recent years, the issue of religious literacy has renewed fervency in the United States; those whose concerns are piqued catch signals of interest from scholars, centers, foundations, donors, and NGOs. Such new energy toward an intransigent problem, however, collides with the crises found within major U.S. news media companies. Surveys show nearly four out of five people no longer trust “the media”—an imprecise term that conflates the likes of alt-right site Breitbart, entertainment gossip site TMZ, and reputable news companies such as The Boston Globe or NPR.

Indeed, assessments of the problem must first include an understanding of the devolution of daily journalism and its impact on the religion beat. What we used to call daily, weekly, and monthly print news outlets, news radio, public media, and educational television have all, for the most part, abandoned employing full-time specialists in religion news.

Although precision in tracking such things does not exist, metropolitan daily newspaper memberships have plummeted at the professional association for religion beat reporters, the Religion News Association. Newspapers and news companies in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Denver, Des Moines, Phoenix, San Diego, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Seattle, Milwaukee, and elsewhere have no one telling religion stories full time. At smaller media markets, the problem is worse. Although overall membership at the Religion News Association remains constant, its fastest growing membership category is among freelance journalists.

Abundant training and free resources already exist to mend the problem of journalistic illiteracy about faith and values. But systemic issues in today’s newsrooms—fewer journalists, little professional development support, and 24/7 news cycles that stretch staff thin—stunt a newsroom’s ability to produce faith and values content that meaningfully improves religious literacy.

This current lack of saliency for religion news was not always so. For example, the heyday of religion sections and content about religion was in the 1990s, more than one hundred years after their emergence following the American Civil War. By the 1920s, major newspapers usually had clearly identified religion sections. Even one hundred years ago, some journalists held the title “religion editor.”

Yet it wasn’t until the late 1980s through the early 2000s that religion sections thrived. In the 1990s especially, religion sections were glorious, with robust storytelling, engaging graphics, and diverse topics. Stories in these sections most often used non-conflict narrative frames and reflected diverse faiths and content. Complicated reasons exist as to why that moment in time spawned this unprecedented richness in journalistic attention and news hole space. But the primary reason, crass though it seems, is capitalism. News organizations are corporate entities, few of which are still family owned. The search for profits drives every decision on coverage and hiring.

In an era in which the Moral Majority brought evangelical Christianity more overtly into political discourse, the sections were a way to capture perceived audience interest in religion. But within two decades, publishers discovered that a religion section was no economic savior.

The problem of religious literacy is too big, too broad to ignore the profession of journalism. No medium reaches more people than news companies.

Advertisers, generally, failed to embrace religion sections—even advertisers such as Hobby Lobby, whose owners’ religious values are well known. For years, many newspaper corporate marketing directors didn’t ask seriously about religion news. Without such data or dollars, publishers had no choice but to begin killing religion sections and laying off staff. The decline in robust religion sections exacerbated both a bias of omission about religion in public life and a bias of simplistic frames honed on conflict. Perhaps most notably, when publishers began killing religion sections, few complained.

The religious illiteracy problem within newsrooms is further complicated by growing secularity in newsrooms themselves. The most reliable survey of the religiosity of nonsectarian journalists indicates more than one-third of all journalists view themselves as unaffiliated with a faith group—about twice the rate as the general U.S. population. Newsrooms also have far fewer journalists who identify as evangelical Christians than indicated in general public surveys.1 Reliable surveys are too small to measure the percentage of journalists among other faith traditions.

With nary a religion beat specialist in sight and growing secularity, religious illiteracy is as rampant in newsrooms as it is on city buses, in baseball stadiums, or in some university classrooms. Thus, it was a welcome surprise when New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet mentioned religion news in a wide-ranging Fresh Air radio interview following the 2016 election coverage.2

“I think that the New York–based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better,” Baquet told Fresh Air host Terry Gross.

Baquet’s musings were followed in the months since with queries for a handful of new religion specialists, including a position advertised at BuzzFeed to cover Muslim life. Yet even with this small recent uptick in religion beat journalists, there are not enough specialists seated in newsrooms.

Some believe creating nonprofit news organizations is the key to answering the problem of better-quality religion news, with scholars serving as core content producers. A number of sites, including The Immanent Frame, The Conversation, and Religion Dispatches, all rely on scholars to shoulder the heavy religious literacy work. The sites skew politically liberal and they reach primarily academic audiences, making them ineffective vehicles for broad-scale religious literacy efforts. For-profit religion-only sites such as Beliefnet and Patheos tried serious journalism and burned through millions of dollars in venture capital and earned revenue, only to ultimately fail. Today, the sites are outdated in design and busy with largely insignificant blog posts that help generate enough online revenue to keep them open.

Replacing journalists with scholars does not work on a large scale. The tenure and academic systems do not wholeheartedly support public commentary in ways that merit the time spent on such endeavors. Although a handful of academics have morphed into reputable and regular mass communicators, in most cases, they speak to elites. The problem of religious literacy is too big, too broad to ignore the profession of journalism. No medium reaches more people than news companies. Despite the inherent problems of religious illiteracy within the profession, we must work within journalism while seeking to improve religious illiteracy. This includes journalism produced by online-only news companies such as BuzzFeed, Vox, and Politico.

There are not enough resources and not enough money in the world to bring religious literacy to every journalist who needs it. However, it’s vital to have religion specialists in newsrooms who can flag gross inaccuracies. In the absence of economic or altruistic reasons to employ a religion specialist, the public, and religious scholars in particular, must plead the case with corporate news managers.

I further want to note the need for scholars of religion, politicians, NGOs, and other parties in the religious literacy arena to make sure journalists are included “in the room where it happens,” helping to collaborate on solutions to problems surrounding the public’s lack of religious knowledge. This is starting to occur at the American Academy of Religion, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in global forums countering violent rhetoric abroad, at Google, and within the U.S. State Department. These examples, however, are few and insufficient.

What we need are scholars, activists, and others who can elevate what’s exceptional from the swamp of information cluttering our feeds and in-boxes.

Related is the issue of case-study analysis itself. There are ample instances of the media’s failures. The sausage that is news journalism is messy in its making. What is not often done is to highlight and share examples of high-caliber journalism about religion, which does, in fact, exist. Every day you can find a story that includes context, history, empathy, and all the components of quality storytelling that serves to improve the public’s understanding of religion.3

At no time in our history have we had access to so much content about religion and so many resources to create quality content. But there’s a cacophony of content. What we need are scholars, activists, and others who can elevate what’s exceptional from the swamp of information cluttering our feeds and in-boxes. We need scholars to share where we get it right, so that great content can serve as models. These sorts of efforts have, to date, been insufficient and lacking.

Scholarship that looks at religious media or religious messaging and discourse is similarly sorely lacking in the profession. Religious media is not valued or respected as a serious scholarly pursuit. Students who wish to specialize in the topic in schools of journalism or mass communications are steered toward ethics or law or history as a more “viable” career goal.

Finally, scholars keen to impact the religious literacy of the public should be charitable toward journalists who seek them out for clarity on matters of religious practice and belief. The persistent dissing of journalists fails to fix the greater problem at hand: religious illiteracy. Scholars must know—and accept—that journalists looking for local or regional experts rarely grasp the intricate research specializations within religious studies or theology. Most journalists seek explication of simple concepts, a duty nearly any religious studies scholar can handle. And while the pace of academic publishing makes most daily journalism deadlines seem unreasonable to academics, it’s an urgency unlikely to change.

Challenges are inherent within the journalistic technique of information gathering, especially at local and regional news outlets. Mass communication is an imperfect art. But if the professional educators, who are best equipped to explain faith and belief to journalists, ridicule rather than inform them, how will the professional journalists who reach the largest mass audiences improve religious literacy themselves? Although acknowledging the imperfections of our professions is fair, the world is too dangerous and diverse for scholars and journalists not to partner together in this lofty quest for religious literacy.

 

Notes:

  1. Only about 5 percent of journalists call themselves evangelicals, compared to about one-quarter of the U.S. population who self-identify as evangelical.
  2. New York Times Executive Editor on the New Terrain of Covering Trump,” Fresh Air, National Public Radio, December 8, 2016.
  3. Stalwart religion scholar Martin Marty’s newsletter, Sightings, often riffs on such news.
 

Debra L. Mason is publisher emeritus of Religion News Service, and she directed the Religion News Association and its foundation for two decades. She is Professor of Journalism Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and director of its Center on Religion and the Professions. This is an edited version of a talk she delivered in the “Donald Trump and Evangelicals” panel during the “Religious Literacy and Journalism Symposium” held December 8–9, 2016, at HDS. The symposium was sponsored by the Religious Literacy Project, in collaboration with Boston University.

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A Heartwarming and Heartbreaking Exhibit

Robert Israel

In Review | Art Syria: A Living History, an exhibit previously at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, October 15, 2016–February 16, 2017.

Freedom Graffiti by Tammam Azzam

Tammam Azzam, Freedom Graffiti,2013 (Gustav Klimt, The Kiss). © Tammam Azzam.

 

In the Aga Khan Museum’s third-floor gallery, the exhibit Syria: A Living History channels five thousand years of history through a representative display of forty-eight works of art.

Latticed windows illuminate the rooms with muted sunlight, as in a house of worship. Of the items on display—artifacts, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, brassware, and textiles—many date from the birth of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, while many more hail from present-day, war-torn Syria. Two themes come to mind as I view the exhibit: timelessness and urgency.

Objects of art representing the three faiths, once confluent, are grouped by the entrance. A small object, circa 550 or 600 ce, catches my eye. It depicts St. Paul, known then as a Jew, Saul of Tarsus. Nearby is another, smaller object, made from gypsum, of an Eye Idol, circa 3200 BCE (page 86). Etched onto the idol are two sets of eyes, drawn close together, as if by a child, and their stares hold on me as I move about the gallery. I am reminded of my visit to Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, years ago, when a vendor near the Stations of the Cross sold me a similar Evil Eye, this one made of pressed copper. After thousands of years, a talisman that wards off evil spirits still captivates.

The exhibit’s accentuation of timelessness transports me to a landscape of burnt sienna and heat, evidenced by a small dedicatory stele depicting worshippers—an undated fragment of orange-red rock found on the scorched earth during a nineteenth-century excavation of a ruined temple. It represents a time when pilgrims journeyed there for faith and fellowship.

In juxtaposition to the grouping of these artifacts are those that celebrate an era of peace and abundance. Syria was once such a place. A digitally recreated Samaritan house transports me to Damascus, when Syria’s capitol city was a bastion of wealth. During the Mamluk period (1250–1517 CE), scholars throughout the Islamic world gathered in Damascus. Jews thrived there, too, and their homes were similarly proportioned. Peering inside a recreated home, I marvel at intricately engraved brassware and resplendent silken and woolen robes. Just beyond is a finely crafted wooden backgammon or chess box that sparkles with inlays of mother-of-pearl.

The intention of these historic groupings is to communicate the conjoining of humankind, faith, and landscape. Collectively, they provide a reflective perspective and invite viewers to consider them in contrast with the more contemporary objects positioned just beyond.

It is this next group, located within eyeshot, where the exhibit shifts focus from timelessness to urgency. It includes contemporary sculptures, paintings, and collages produced by Syrian artists currently working under perilous conditions to express their creative spirits.

Eye Idol

Eye Idol, Syria. Gypsum, carved, circa 3200 BCE. Royal Ontario Museum, 959.91.50.

 

The work of contemporary Syrian artists, whose obdurate spirits defy the country’s current repressive government and the endless conflicts, is corroborated by the pulse of today’s headlines. Two days before my visit, I read a dispatch in The New York Times by correspondent Anne Barnard, who described a surrealistic “moonscape of war” as she gazed from her hotel window in embattled Aleppo.

“I walked into the room and drew the curtains,” Barnard wrote, “and I saw beautiful Aleppo, and in the distance this huge plume of smoke. It was the battlefront where rebels outside the city were trying to break the siege of eastern Aleppo.”1

Barnard visited Aleppo just before it fell. Since her visit, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, built in 715 ce, has been reduced to rubble. The Al-Madina Souq, the largest covered market in the world, dating from the fourteenth century, has also been destroyed. And while it is true that Syria has endured countless battles, going back from before and during the time of conquerors like Alexander the Great to the Crusades, no battles before this current war have been as devastating.

Perhaps this is the reason a photographic collage—hung full-length and encompassing an entire wall of the exhibit—that shows a bombed-out Aleppo facade with an image of Gustav Klimt’s sparklingly gilded Kiss superimposed onto it, a creation of contemporary artist Tammam Azzam, arrests my attention. The effect is jolting because it is so unexpected, so assaultive to the eye and to the sensibilities. To see an image of a modern edifice with a sensually entwined couple barely concealing the dark granite craters is to witness obliteration, the banishment of love, and the end of civilization.

Even though Syria’s history may be a place of centuries-long religious and internecine conflicts, by choosing to title the exhibit a “living history,” the curators envisage Syria as a nation that rises from the ashes. In fact, they declare, in a note to the exhibit, history has shown us that no destruction is final, even if it “takes another generation” for Syrians to reclaim and rebuild their ravaged land.

“This is precisely why we named the exhibit ‘a living history,’ ” insists Syrian-born co-curator Nasser Rabbat, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We want to counter the pervasive images from the media and elsewhere that the entire country is a ‘moonscape,’ and to dispel the rumors of the obliteration of all cultural and religious artifacts in Syria
today. This is just not so. This is why the exhibit provides a long historical perspective. Syria has been destroyed dozens of times and has been rebuilt over and over again by the determination of the Syrian people. We want to remind viewers that Syria is a human civilization. What we are saying is that we are concerned about the Syrian people. To simply focus on artifacts alone, without placing them within the human context, is obscene.”2

With the human context in mind, consider an eyewitness account from Aleppo. Omair Shaaban, a former student at the University of Aleppo, wrote for The Washington Post:

The war here has been going on for more than four years. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, and thousands more are dead, including many of my friends. . . .

If you aren’t killed by airstrikes or shells, your big worry will be food. . . . But now a lot of poor people don’t have enough money to buy food, because there aren’t jobs anymore, so every neighborhood has young volunteers whose responsibility is to get food and other supplies for their communities.3

By Shaaban’s account, Aleppo right now is a living hell.


The Aga Khan Museum, which opened to the public in 2014 on a seventeen-acre site on the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario, serves as a home to an extensive, private collection showcasing Islamic and Muslim arts. Its Brazilian granite exterior rises above an expansive, welcoming courtyard with pristinely landscaped gardens, reflecting pools, and flowering trees. Though within earshot of the Don Mills superhighway just beyond its perimeter, once you are inside the building, the distractions of the outside world vanish. The museum encloses visitors in a relaxing atmosphere of calm, sensuality, and contemplation.

This is by design. The museum’s namesake and benefactor, His Highness the Aga Khan Shah Karim, the forty-ninth imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims (a dynasty that dates back to the 1800s), acquired the Toronto site in 2007. Soon after, he hired Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki to undertake the museum’s design. Maki’s mandate was to make the building pay homage to the concept of light, “to direct and to diffuse light into the building in ingenious ways,” according to the museum’s website, which adds that the building should be “positioned 45 degrees to solar north to ensure that all exterior surfaces receive natural light over the course of the day.”

The museum’s embrace of light illuminates a time in our history when civilization in Syria teeters on extinction. Syria: A Living History illustrates this fragility in a region that has seen so many ground battles and airstrikes that thousands of acres of wasteland have been created.4

If this destruction were not tragic enough, the world looked on in horror when, in March 2016, televised images from Mosul, Iraq, showed black-hooded members of the Islamic State, or ISIS, as they ransacked museums, toppled ancient statues, and demolished artwork across Syria and Iraq.

Marina Gabriel, a research assistant at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) at Boston University, admits that not all the information ASOR collects from Syria is reliable. Yet ASOR remains steadfast in its mission to monitor the specific sites that have been damaged or destroyed and to document the looting of religious and cultural artifacts out of a commitment to provide accurate reports to the global community.

“We rely on satellite images,” Gabriel says, “and we rely on reports we gather from a network of contacts on the ground. These contacts send us smart phone images and cell phone videos documenting what’s happening. We post these on our website. We also have alliances with other groups in Syria and elsewhere who are engaged in similar efforts.”5

“The destruction is on a scale the world hasn’t seen since World War II, and it’s accelerating,” Boston University archaeologist Michael D. Danti told me. “It’s certainly the gravest cultural emergency of our times.”6

Danti presently teams with a cadre of art historians and members of the U.S. State Department to document the wanton looting of artifacts and artwork in the Middle East by recording images of these pilfered items and posting them on the Internet in hopes of derailing efforts by black marketers hell-bent on hawking them to the highest bidders. But time is running out.

“For anyone who cares about humanity’s cultural heritage,” Danti said, “it’s heartbreaking.”

Amr Al-Azm, former head of the Centre for Archaeological Research at the University of Damascus, works closely with ASOR, providing them with updates on religious and cultural sites under siege in his native Syria. He is now an associate professor at Shawnee University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

“I left Syria when there was a dramatic increase in conflicts that turned a once civil society into a warzone,” Al-Azm says. “Since that time I have built up a network of connections within the country to document the increase of destruction there.”

Al-Azm, together with representatives of religious, educational, and cultural institutions, founded The Day After: Heritage Protection Initiative to “help to raise the profile in the global community to preserve the cultural heritage” of the war-torn nation. The Day After has received grants from the United Nations and the Smithsonian to carry out its work.

“It is clear the Islamic terrorists are profiting from the looting of religious and cultural sites,” Al-Azm says. “We are here to thwart them and to remind the world that they cannot succeed.”7

The Last Supper by Fateh al-Moudarres
Fateh al-Moudarres, The Last Supper, oil on canvas, 1964. The Atassi Foundation.

 

There is much that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking in this exhibit. Take, for example, a page on exhibit behind a Lucite case of a copy of the Qur’an dating back several thousands of years ago: its gilded pages shine as if they had been etched yesterday as they recount Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to the farthest mosque in Jerusalem. Positioned nearby is an equally vivid mosaic panel from the seventeenth century that includes images of the Prophet’s sandals to illustrate his wanderings.

Yet, what I find most arresting is a painting by one of the contemporary Syrian artists, Fateh al-Moudarres, completed in 1964.8 It shows Jesus with black hair and dark skin, a man who is a native of the Middle East, raising his goblet to bless those joining him at the table (page 85). I see al-Moudarres as an artist who has absorbed his nation’s ancestry, who has embraced the myths and the miracles. The vibrancy of his colors gives the viewer a sense of the heat and light of a nation where creative fertility has existed for centuries. And it speaks of the reverence for faith that is at the core of the endangered Syrian culture.

Near the exit, space is reserved for visitors to express their written responses to the artwork by affixing slips of paper to a wall. The cards attest to the power of the images to move viewers.

“Syrian Lives Matter” is scrawled on one card. “We Are Syria!” is printed in block letters on another.

Leaving the Aga Khan Museum, I walk across its bright alabaster courtyard under a cloudless sky. In my mind’s eye, I revisit the images displayed behind Lucite and glass and reflect on how these contrasted with the heartrending images of destruction, captured by the contemporary artists who show us what is occurring in the country today.

The urgency of Omair Shaaban’s words come back to me as I make my way, unharmed and footloose, in a flourishing and welcoming Toronto.

“People here are suffering because we want freedom,” this young man from Aleppo wrote. “Before the war started, I joined a demonstration against [President] Assad’s regime—and I was arrested, beaten and detained in a tiny cell for five days for it. . . . I want to live in a free Aleppo. I want to stay here, where I was born, all my life. It’s my right.”

 

Notes:

  1. Anne Barnard, “My Journey into Aleppo: Watching Moonscape of War Turn into a Functioning City,” The New York Times, November 8, 2016.
  2. Interview with Nasser Rabbat, January 2017.
  3. Omair Shaaban, “We Live in Aleppo. Here’s How We Survive,” The Washington Post, October 21, 2016.
  4. See Hilary Howard, “Satellite Images from Syria,” The New York Times, March 2, 2012.
  5. Interview with Marina Gabriel, January 2017.
  6. Interview with Michael D. Danti, January 2017.
  7. Interview with Amr Al-Azm, January 2017. The Day After: Heritage Protection Initiative web address is hpi.tda-sy.org/en.
  8. Fateh al-Moudarres (1922–1999) was born in Aleppo, studied in Rome and Paris, and became an influential teacher at the University of Damascus. He was considered an important leader in Syria’s modern and surrealist art movements, culling forms from Assyrian antiquity, as well as from Christian and Muslim symbolism.
 

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor whose last piece for the Bulletin, “Growing into Faith” (Summer/Autumn 2016), described coming of age among his exiled immigrant Russian-Jewish forebears.

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See also: Arts and Music

A Movement with a Theology

Churches take many paths to address Black Lives Matter.

Adelle M. Banks

Protesters at a 2014 rally against police shootings and racism.

Protesters march against police shootings and racism during a rally in Washington, DC, on December 13, 2014. Rena Schild / shutterstock.com

 


As a religion reporter and as a journalist in general, I’m a big believer in expanding people’s religious literacy and, when possible, bashing specific stereotypes.

I have been interested in the question of the role, or lack thereof, of the so-called black church in the Black Lives Matter movement. I moderated a panel on that topic at the Religion News Association meeting in September, and I have reflected on Emma Green’s article in The Atlantic on just this topic.1

In general, I think it’s important to ask questions about Black Lives Matter that haven’t been asked, or to highlight answers that clarify it more fully so that people might understand the extent of religious reaction to it or involvement in it.

What I have seen is that there is not one approach, but many, to the movement on the part of black churches.

There is a general assumption out there that black churches have shunned, ignored, or even disrespected the Black Lives Matter movement. There certainly are instances where there has been some distance, as reported by Angel Jennings in the Los Angeles Times.2 There have also been statements and special emphases, such as Black Lives Matter Sunday in 2014, in some circles. And, as Emma Green pointed out in her Atlantic piece, there have been some charges of exploitation where some ministers have used the movement to their advantage.

Just because the church has not been in the lead does not mean the Black Lives Matter movement is free of religion or spirituality.

But as the movement has gained stature since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, some black church leaders have acknowledged they have been grappling with how to address it. Now there are some church leaders that are supportive. Last weekend in Long Island, there was an incident where a black former corrections officer was reported to have been beaten by white police officers who mistook him for a thief, and one of the protesters you saw on the news was a minister with a megaphone. So there definitely are clergy who are involved in the movement.

Leaders of historically black churches, some of whom were involved, or whose forebears were involved, in the civil rights movement, say they’ve long been about “black lives matter.” The history of historically black churches include black congregants being lifted from their knees when praying, or otherwise disrespected or segregated from white congregants, which is what led to many of them leaving denominations and starting their own churches. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is an example of that.3 A little bit of a history lesson can be key to connecting the past with the present—and such historical context is important for religion journalism, as well as other newswriting.

In a story I wrote recently about the involvement of seminarians in studying Black Lives Matter, I was able to point out that there is not always an intergenerational disconnect between the protesters of today and their elders in the civil rights movement.4

In an interview with Dean Emilie Townes of Vanderbilt Divinity School earlier this year, I learned that an alumna of her school was instrumental in starting the Nashville chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement. And that alumna, D. J. Hudson, in turn, told me that it was a civil rights veteran—the Reverend James Lawson—who instructed her and inspired her as she prepared for that Black Lives Matter activism in Tennessee. Lawson was integrally involved in instructing students who led the sit-ins of the 1960s.

Another assumption is that the Black Lives Matter movement is not religious but is solely secular. Just because the church has not been in the lead does not mean the Black Lives Matter movement is free of religion or spirituality.

Those involved and supporting the movement may not be in the church, but many consider themselves spiritual.

People of a variety of religious expressions found themselves looking to their faith, leaning on their faith to determine what can be considered a Black Lives Matter theology. The Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a St. Louis–born theologian, succinctly stated during a 2015 panel discussion, “Ferguson & Faith in the 21st Century”: “If ‘Black Lives Matters’ is a word, then Ferguson is a word made flesh.”

Inspired by the Bible’s story of David and Goliath, Christian activist Bree Newsome felt moved to climb up a flagpole and take down the Confederate flag after the deaths of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Jan Willis, a religious studies professor at Agnes Scott College, drew on Buddhist meditations that focus on compassion and equality.

As Hebah Farrag pointed out in a Religion Dispatches article, one of the founders of the movement, Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, grew up a Jehovah’s Witness but is now a practitioner of Ifa, a religious tradition from Nigeria.

Leah Gunning Francis, dean at Christian Theological Seminary, has written a book called Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, which looks at how clergy of a variety of faiths realized they had to step out and join young protesters rather than wait for the protesters to darken their doors. That book is part of a curriculum this semester at New York Theological Seminary, whose course offerings include a Black Lives Matter class.

One of the frequent responses we hear to “Black Lives Matter” is the retort “All lives matter.” Some of my sources would say that those two statements are not mutually exclusive. One seminarian I recently interviewed said she engages in a debate about those two phrases with her colleagues. And, as a number of us—including Ellen Ishkanian of The Boston Globe—reported, sometimes that debate extends to the physical destruction or defacing of church signs that say “Black Lives Matter.”

Whether they use those specific three words or not, some denominations, as pointed out in Rachel Zoll’s AP story, have in recent years issued statements rejecting racism. Her report also drew connections from the past to the present, such as the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island’s plans to house a museum inside its now-closed cathedral about the church’s involvement in the slave trade.

While some religiously affiliated people are considering whether to use the words “Black Lives Matter,” others are moving even further and using the phrase “white privilege.”

Like the New York Theological Seminary class that is looking at the country’s history of slavery, brutality against African Americans, and “white privilege,” others are looking back and finding and unearthing the truth of the past.

While some religiously affiliated people are considering whether to use the words “Black Lives Matter,” others are moving even further and using the phrase “white privilege,” which is something I did not hear many churches talking about in the past. Some church communities are making sure that people understand what that term means—not experiencing or not knowing the unfair treatment that has been endured by nonwhites. There are examples of a church in Washington, DC, that had a “white ally” class, a church in the middle of the country that focused on the topic “Cracking the Shell of Whiteness,” and conferences where people have held discussions about white privilege, white power, and racism.

In general, there are more instances of churches deciding that they can’t just check off their racial justice to-do list by saying that they’ve had a Black History Month event.

Others, who fully acknowledge the country’s fraught history on race relations, say that using the term “white privilege” will stop rather than start discussions.

One minister I have interviewed, Alan Cross, said: “In the South, amongst conservative evangelicals, that would be a nonstarter to use that language.” Cross has written a book on racism and Southern evangelicals.5 He told me, “If you step back, a lot of people would agree if we talk about what we mean instead of just using the term.”

As we explore the issue of religious literacy and journalism, especially as it relates to African Americans, I think it’s important for us to look back even as we look ahead. And it’s important to explore which words people use, which they won’t use, and what all of the terms really mean.

As a footnote—which I don’t usually get to do in journalism—I wanted to point out that to do this kind of substantive coverage takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of money, and, if possible, it takes travel, which a lot of journalists can’t afford to do anymore. That’s a big challenge for journalism in general right now, and for religion journalism.

I want to reiterate what Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times said [in this symposium’s keynote address] about the importance of scholars talking with us. Reporters do not know everything. We need to talk to the people who know more than us to write good stories. So I implore scholars to return our calls—please.

I also want to stress the need for there to be a variety of resources out there for reporters; one model is ReligionLink, put out by the Religion News Foundation. It includes a source guide on Black Lives Matter that lists links for reporters—and other interested people—to get background on this subject and to learn about scholars across the country doing work on this topic.

 

Notes:

  1. Emma Green, “Black Activism, Unchurched,” The Atlantic, March 22, 2016.
  2. Angel Jennings, “Why the Bedrocks of L.A.’s Civil Rights Movements Won’t Embrace Black Lives Matter,” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2016.
  3. The official website of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) explains: “The AMEC grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church pulled blacks off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans. Hence, these members of St. George’s made plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation.”
  4. Adelle M. Banks, “Seminaries Start Black Lives Matter Courses,” Religion News Service, December 7, 2016.
  5. Alan Cross, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth Books, 2014).
 

Adelle M. Banks is production editor and a national reporter for Religion News Service. This is an edited version of a presentation she delivered in a “Black Lives Matter” panel during the “Religious Literacy and Journalism Symposium” held December 8-9, 2016, at HDS.

A ‘Christo-morphic’ View of Religion


Longtime Harvard Divinity School professor Richard Reinhold Niebuhr, Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus, passed away on February 26, 2017, at the age of 90. Niebuhr was a renowned theologian, researcher, and scholar, as well as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He began teaching at HDS in 1956. To honor him, we reprint here an excerpt from “Religion and the Finality of Christianity,” a lecture he delivered at the 1963 Ministers’ Institute. It was published in the April 1963 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
 

Richard Reinhold Niebuhr
Richard Reinhold Niebuhr

The mistake of Barthianism is that it has misunderstood revelation. Revelation, which is not a word that occurs with any great frequency in the New Testament in any case, is not the impartation of knowledge of God primarily. The word, revelation, is a noun, in itself an abstract concept, which becomes concrete and significant when it is coupled to the historical figure of Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth, in turn, as the New Testament depicts him, is a man who fully is a man of his times. He moves among his disciples and countrymen as one who has an authority greater than that of the prophets or Moses and who claims that the power of the rule of God is present in himself. He makes messianic claims for himself, and in this sense he is without equal. At the same time, however, he enters into the sphere of human religion. He initiates quarrels with the professional religious men of his time, for example the Pharisees, and chastises them, not because they are religious men, but because their religion has become distorted and alienated from the spirit of the faith of Abraham and the prophets. He meets the woman of Samaria, whom he obviously treats as one already related to God, and reprimands her; he greets the gentile Roman centurion who sends for him to heal his slave and says, “Truly not in all Israel have I found such faith.” These and other similar incidents stud the basic gospel narrative of the ministry, suffering, dying and rising of Jesus of Nazereth.

In the light of such pericopes as these (and in the light of Paul’s missionary activities including his preaching on Mars’ Hill in Athens) it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to resist the conclusion that Jesus himself, as the early Church recalled him, took human religion very seriously; and insofar as we can attach to him the title of revealer of God or describe his mission and history as divine revelation, we must be careful to perceive and remember that the content of the word, revelation, is Jesus of Nazareth, descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection. The content of revelation is the history of Jesus, and the history of Jesus is the history of a messiah who came preaching repentance (metanoia) or change of mind. Thus, insofar as Jesus was dealing with humanity, he was not imparting new doctrine about God but exhorting and effecting change of mind and heart toward God. He was moving among and confronting a humanity already related to God, a religious humanity, and transforming that religious humanity through metanoia. Consequently, we should have to say that revelation is not the contradiction of homo religiosus but rather the renewal and transformation of religion. . . .

. . . Insofar as I have any understanding of Christ, he is not the abolition of my religion, nor does he teach me that my religiousness is my sin. Neither does he transport me above the vicissitudes and ambiguities and vanities of human history and hence of religion. Rather, he throws me back upon my sheer humanity and—to borrow a phrase from Schleiermacher—upon my absolute dependence on God. Therefore, if he brings me peace, he brings it with a sword, but he can bring me neither except insofar as I am a religious being. . . . It is not simply Christ that I see—my religion has not become a religion of Christ. He is not the center of my world and I am not a Christo-centric man. Rather, it is with and through Christ that I see, so that he has become the form, the exemplar, through which the distortions of humanity are laid bare and the destiny of man is adumbrated. My religion has become not Christo-centric now but rather Christo-morphic. And insofar as the ultimate religion of the Bible is contained in the Psalmist’s words: “My times are in thy hand,” I recognize that henceforth all time for me will be informed and conformed and reformed by the image of Christ.

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Articulating a Different Future

An interview with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

Caroline Matas

In Review | Books Congress of Wo/men: Religion, Gender, and Kyriarchal Power by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Feminist Studies in Religion Books, 190 pages, $18.95 paper.

Congress of Wo/men book cover

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has taught at Harvard Divinity School as the Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity since 1988. She is a co-founder of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Her newest book, Congress of Wo/men: Religion, Gender, and Kyriarchal Power, is the first in a series by Feminist Studies in Religion, Inc.1 Caroline Matas, a former student, recently sat down with Schüssler Fiorenza to discuss the book’s vision and implications for feminist activism.

Your new book, Congress of Wo/men, envisions a transnational feminist movement that responds to the problem of neoliberal capitalism. How did that idea get its start?

I’ve been arguing in my theological work for a feminist political biblical interpretation and theology of liberation. This book is one more mosaic stone in my theological landscape and endeavors. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist works weren’t published—now publishers are interested in gender studies. However, they then sell books at such high prices that students and general readers can’t afford to purchase them. Hence, FSR.inc, the organization I am chairing, decided to start a series of affordable books on feminist studies in religion. I volunteered to submit a manuscript to open the series and to work out the publishing process. To that end, I decided to work through and revise a series of lectures which had been published in Spanish in Costa Rica. That’s how this book got started. As I had done when working on my book Democratizing Biblical Studies, I decided to teach a seminar, Feminist Theory and The*logy, and to use the manuscript in the seminar as a teaching tool and in order to get critical feedback. A great, diverse group of students enrolled, whose work and reflections are collected in the last chapter of the book.

This resulted in a “metalogue,” which gave room to those students’ written reflections on the topic at hand.

Such an intellectual working out of theory with students is very satisfactory, because students who take my classes are usually concerned with articulating different religious visions—which is what we tried to do in the seminar and to gather in this book. The roundtable metalogue thus seeks to serve as prologue to the discussion with the reader.

Something that’s distinctive about this work is your commitment to a unifying, transnational vision of the “congress of wo/men,” which seems to come into tension with the increasing focus on identity politics in feminist discourses. I wonder if you can speak more to how—or whether—identity politics contribute to or work alongside your transnational vision.

There is much discussion about identity politics in feminist theology, be it sexual, racial, or cultural identity, but very little problematization of “American-U.S.” identity common to the various identities. As you know, I come from a German experience and background. I have grown up after the war and Nazism; I was a refugee during the war and grew up with the vision of Europe (at the time there was no feminist analysis of the sexist “myth of Europa”) as the antidote to nationalism and Nazism. I remember a youth congress where all the participants sang their national anthems, but the German participants
refused to stand up and sing our national anthem when it was played. This experiential, political background informs my vision of the congress of wo/men.

The image of the congress of wo/men is a cosmopolitan image, and not a national image stressing borders and borderlands. It must be seen in relation to my key image of the ekklēsia of wo/men. Ekklēsia originally does not mean church but denotes the democratic decision-making assembly of full citizens responsible for the kosmopolis of wo/men that encompasses the whole of creation. The imaginary of the ekklēsia/kosmopolis of wo/men signifies not only all-encompassing inclusivity, but also dynamic multiplicity and the convergence of many different voices. In Christian terms, it is foreshadowed in the image of Pentecost, where people from different regions and cultures could understand the Spirit in their own languages, an image that invites Christian wo/men together with wo/men from other religions and persuasions to struggle for the realization of the kosmopolis of wo/men, as God’s alternative world of justice and well-being. Thus, the kosmopolis of wo/men is the counterimage to the exploitation of neoliberal globalization.

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.
Photo: Miriam Schüssler Fiorenza
Your book heavily critiques neoliberal globalization. What made you focus on that particular concept?

The manuscript was finished and submitted before Trump was elected president and before “Trumpism,” with its encryption of neoliberal politics and exploitation, took dangerous hold of the national body politic. In this U.S. context, I was concerned that feminists were seeking to distinguish and divide themselves in terms of identity politics, while neoliberalism became increasingly a unifying negative force of exploitation. Hence, I am arguing in the book that, because of neoliberalism, the biggest dividing line is now between the 5 to 10 percent of the world population who have enough to live and all the other people, who are relegated to becoming cogs or “disposables” in the global neoliberal economic system of exploitation.

For instance, we talk about “third” and “first” world wo/men, but if you go to the Philippines or you go to India, you see the same thing that you see here—the enclaves of the rich, on the one hand, and more and more people without housing living on the streets, on the other hand. In Europe in the 1970s, that was not the case, but it is more and more the case today in Europe and in the United States, where the social net is being cut down. Widespread poverty, in contrast with the wealth of the 1 percent, exists all over the world now. It’s just that the United States and Europe do not yet have such blatant poverty, as is the case in so-called second or third world countries.

And you see neoliberalism exacerbating this process?

What’s so clear now, and what analysts of neoliberalism have argued for years, is that politicians are becoming more and more “salesmen.” With the presidency of Trump and the Republican takeover of the government, it becomes increasingly obvious that the United States is going to cut down the social net more and more and resort to undemocratic means to do so. It’s obvious that all civil rights are in jeopardy, since neoliberalism goes hand in hand with the abolishing of civil rights. Hence, my book argues that we need a different feminist religious vision that can inspire resistance to neoliberal exploitation.

You coined the term “kyriarchy” in your earlier work. How does that speak to the forces of neoliberal capitalism that you see at work in the world today?

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists used the term “patriarchy,” but it became increasingly clear that this term was not adequate, because it didn’t express issues of race, class, nationality, and so on. And so I was looking for a new, more adequate term. In German you have the term Herrschaft (the domination of the Lord), and in my religious background “Kyrie eleison” is a well-known phrase. Kyrios in Greek means lord, father, elite male, head of household, and head of state or empire. And archein means ruling. So the term kyriarchy means rule of the kyrios, the emperor, lord, elite, educated, propertied head of household. I suggest the word kyriarchy is more appropriate than patriarchy, because it does not simply mean male domination but elite, propertied domination.

In your book, you mention Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. I’m curious how you see that book’s themes asserting themselves in this cultural moment, and how you see your book interacting with those concerns.

What is striking to me is the religious mind control of wo/men and the implication of wo/men in it. Neoliberal Trumpism is focused on the control of wo/men. It may be acted out differently in reality than in The Handmaid’s Tale—I mean, women aren’t necessarily being closed into certain spaces and controlled in that way—but what’s going on is really the universalization of the control of women through sexual control and poverty. And, I tried to show how religion is used to keep wo/men under control.

What role do you think theology can play in on-the-ground feminist movements fighting those forces?

I see the major task of theology and religion as creating and sustaining a different vision of hope in the face of the dehumanization and exploitation of neoliberalism. Creating a vision of a different world of justice, care, and well-being is the task of religion. What I’m trying to do here is to name how religious traditions can help make sure that people understand themselves as—and this is the language of my tradition—daughters and sons of God, representing the divine and, as such, called to care for their neighbors and all of creation.

Do you see your work as being rooted in the Christian faith or the Catholic tradition? Do you anticipate there being any barriers to women of other or no faiths in seeing this text as inclusive of them?

I am clearly rooted in the Catholic tradition—not the Roman Catholic tradition, but the Catholic tradition. For me, religion is not just an area of study, but also a language of vision, love, and justice. For me, religion and scripture are always relating to and within a community context. Hence, religion is not restricted to biblical religions. I think the vision of the book is open to all feminists in religion. When Judith Plaskow and I founded the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion more than twenty years ago, the editorial board had a big debate: Should we call the journal feminist studies of religion or feminist studies in religion? We did not want to objectify religion but saw religion as a place of struggle and inspiration for wo/men. Since my training is in practical theology and biblical studies, the book speaks probably more to wo/men in Christian traditions, or to a Christian cultural context. That does not mean that a Buddhist or Jewish or Muslim woman can’t connect with my vision. Rather, it means that they would have to translate it into their cultural-religious idiom.

In one chapter of your book, you target “essentializing femininities” promoted by some of the Religious Right and the Roman Catholic Church. Do you think conservative Christians will be receptive to the critique?

I don’t know. I think Catholic readers will be. I don’t know how to convince evangelicals. To give you an example: Maybe five or six years ago, I was giving a talk at a small evangelical college. In the workshop following the talk, there was a young woman who was convinced that the gospel of femininity was what made her mother a great example for her own life. She saw the household codes as very positive texts. I tried my best to convince her otherwise, but it was clear that she could not hear my arguments, because, for her, my attack of the biblical texts of submission was an attack on the life-choices of her mother.

In terms of my own community, the Catholic wo/men’s community, I have tried for years to say we need to strategize differently. The Vatican, and especially John Paul II, have developed a romantic kind of theological universe arguing theologically for the idealization of woman as legitimization for the second-class citizenship of wo/men. The result, I think, is that more and more young wo/men are no longer identifying with Catholicism anymore, or are not interested in engaging the Christian tradition any longer. I think we need to have a feminist conversation about the religious ideological underpinnings of “femininity.” And I would love to have an interreligious conversation on this topic to explore the structures of femininity in different religious traditions. It seems to me that most conservative strains within religions are maintaining the control of wo/men as essential to their identities.

I know that you—and certainly others—have described your work as hopeful. Do you think of yourself as a hopeful person?

No, and according to my partner, Francis, and anyone else who knows me, I’m the “pessimist” in the family.

But your work is pretty hopeful for a different future. Do you think that’s possible at this point?

It’s just that this is the only thing I can do—articulate hope for a different future in order to bring it about. I don’t know how else to resist the dehumanizations of Trumpism. As a theologian, I need to critique the oppressive systems in politics and religion, and I need to try to articulate an alternative vision.

How about the feminist movement broadly? Do you have hope for the direction it’s been going in recent years?

It is interesting to note that in recent years feminism has become publicly present again. There were some years when you couldn’t mention the word “feminist” at Harvard, but now it’s in all the newspapers again—especially with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But the campaign also showed that feminists still have a lot of work to do.

You end your book with a “metalogue” of young feminist voices. I know your colleagues have praised that as a model of radical feminist praxis—using your platform to invite more voices and ideas to the table. But outside the context of a seminar at a university, what kind of forms do you imagine this metalogue taking? Book clubs? Online groups?

All of them would be great. As long as you don’t ask me to engage with Twitter, because I’m still not on Twitter.

Fair enough.

Twitter is an instrument of Trumpism that is undermining any ability to perform critical analysis. And it’s preparing people for slogans. So I don’t think it’s innocent—but a neoliberal tool.

 

 

Notes:

  1. Schüssler Fiorenza uses the spelling wo/men to call attention to the problem of essentializing language. In her usage, the term wo/men refers both to women and to men who experience oppression in any form. To indicate “the brokenness and inadequacy of human language to name the divine,” she has adopted the spelling of G*d, in analogy to the orthodox Jewish spelling of G-d. Since theology means speaking about G*d, she also writes it with an asterisk, the*logy, to call attention to masculine G*d language. The Bulletin employs the spellings “God” and “theology” but asks readers to keep in mind the constraints of androcentric language that Schüssler Fiorenza addresses in her work.
 

Caroline Matas received her master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School in spring 2017. She will begin doctoral work at Princeton University in fall 2017

Bearing Witness

Stephanie Paulsell
 

Stephanie Paulsell
Stephanie Paulsell. Photo: Justin Knight

By tomorrow afternoon, you will all be Harvard Divinity School graduates. What does this mean? The world outside the walls of divinity schools is not always able to say. But rest assured, anytime you’ve gathered for a meal with others, and someone in the group wants that meal blessed, all heads will turn toward you. Trying to get out of this by saying, “But I didn’t do an MDiv,” or “I mainly studied critical theory,” will only slow things down and annoy the people who want to eat before the food gets cold. So my first bit of advice for you is: no matter what degree you did or what your area of focus was, keep a blessing in your pocket. Then you’ll always be ready. Or keep Kerry Maloney on speed dial. She will always have a prayer for you when you need it.

Graduation is always such a bittersweet moment for teachers, because it reminds us of the cyclical nature of our vocation. We are forever saying goodbye to our beloved students, forever being reminded that, as you step out into new spaces, new communities, we will remain here and soon get ready to start again, with a new group of students, to whom we will also one day bid farewell.

But this year, I feel that we, your teachers, are not just watching you from the sidelines with pride but standing alongside you, at our own threshold. This is our bicentennial year, after all. With two hundred years behind us, it is time for us also to get ready to step into the future.

This moment in history makes a claim on us all.

It’s not just the long history behind us, though, that makes me feel this way, but the intersection of that history with our present moment. If you are graduating tomorrow with an MDiv, then you most likely began your first semester of study at Harvard Divinity School just a few weeks after Michael Brown, unarmed, was shot to death by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. And all of you began your last semester of study at HDS the day after the inauguration of a new president whose administration has been busy ever since throwing the fragile beginnings of a reform of our criminal justice system into reverse; breaking up families caught in the widening dragnets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and proposing a budget that is spectacular in its cruelty toward the most vulnerable people in our society. In this perilous time, the distinctions between teacher and student, your work and our work have seemed more fluid than usual. This moment in history makes a claim on us all.

The novelist Virginia Woolf once wrote that, even with war coming, writing still seemed to her to be the work that was “far more necessary than anything else.” You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the work that you feel is most necessary to do in these days as you’ve chosen your classes and your field education sites and the topics for your dissertations and your senior papers. This is a question we heard a lot from you: Am I doing the work that is most necessary to do? Am I putting my best energies where they can be of most use? Am I being true to my commitments? To where I came from? To what matters most to me? Is my work the act of resistance that I want it to be?

One of the things I will remember most about you, Class of 2017, is that you not only posed these questions to yourselves, you posed them also to us. Certainly you posed them to us institutionally, asking how HDS would respond to the senseless killings of black people by the police, or to the Trump regime’s travel ban, or its threats of increased deportation. But you also asked us personally. Especially in the wake of the presidential election, I found myself, in office hours, not only talking with you about your vocations, but also being asked by you about my own. How are you thinking about your work in the wake of this election, you asked. Will it change what you teach or how you teach, what you write about, and how you write it? What is the work that you think is most necessary to do?

I remember reading an interview with Tim DeChristopher, a soon-to-be MDiv graduate of HDS, just before he began his studies. Tim was already a well-known climate change activist, had already served two years in a federal prison for an act of civil disobedience, was already the subject of a documentary about that act. He was asked in this interview: Why is going to divinity school your next step? And he answered: Because the question for me is starting to shift from how do we reverse climate change to how do we remain human as these changes overtake us. Tim’s answer has stayed with me, and it shapes the answer I am groping toward to the question of the work that I feel is most necessary to do as a teacher and a student of religion in these days: to bear witness to the multiple and radical possibilities that our humanity holds.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed Harvard Divinity graduates in 1838, he urged them to “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.” What he seems to have meant by this memorable phrase is that he wanted those graduates to be so human in their interactions with other people that they opened a space for others to stretch out into their full humanity—to coax out what he called their “timid aspirations” and “trampled instincts.” To “let their doubts know that you have doubted, and their wonder feel that you have wondered.” Everyone, Emerson believed, longed for “a few real hours of life.” Everyone, he said, loves to be heard, loves to be “caught up into the vision of principles.” So listen, and offer a vision, he urged those long-ago graduates sitting in the Divinity Hall chapel. It is the responsibility of those who have the word “divinity” trailing along behind them to make room in the world for encounters that are real, that touch down on the things that matter most, that draw out the most radical possibilities of our humanity.

We are living in a time of trampled instincts about what it means to be human. We see those trampled instincts in the executive orders that sort people by religion and nationality. We see them in the decision by United Airlines to use state power to drag Dr. David Dao out of his seat and down the aisle of their plane, leaving him bloody and concussed, so that they could seat their own employees. We hear those trampled instincts in Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony about why he shot Michael Brown, in which he described the young man as a “demon” who seemed to be “bulking up to run through” the bullets, like a character in a comic book. Human beings can’t run through bullets unharmed. If we think they can, there is something dangerously wrong in our understanding of human being.

All of the religions we study at HDS have cultivated ways of understanding what it means to be human that resist these warped views. This is not to say that religions themselves aren’t capable of diminishing the human—of course they are perfectly capable of doing so. But I think it’s hard to study religion and have your understanding of humanity narrowed. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I do think you would have to work at it. Because studying religion requires us to do things like learn a new language (or two or three), which quickly shows us the limitations of our familiar ways of speaking about the world and sometimes illuminates dimensions of life that our own language has obscured. It requires us to think comparatively, which illuminates both the family resemblances between religions and the distinctive differences in the ways in which human beings become “acquainted with Deity” or with reality or with the mysteries of their existence. Studying religion requires us to think historically about the rituals and practices that people pass down from generation to generation that render sacred the ordinary things we do by virtue of being human: eating and drinking, bathing, resting, working, dying. It requires us to think ethically about what we owe one another. It requires us to think theologically, even mystically—to feel our way along the edges of human existence and to wonder with others from many times and places what might be beyond those edges, just out of our line of sight, and what a life that integrates the known and the unknown might look like. Studying religion opens a window on the endlessly diverse ways we humans have of inhabiting our humanity.

This has certainly been visible in your work at HDS, Class of 2017. I think of Kenny Rice’s senior paper on the theological underpinnings of mass incarceration, in which he insisted on the lively diversity of black life, something that must be narrated and brought to life over and over and over again in a nation in which white supremacy has depended upon a static, monolithic account. I think of Cora McCold’s work on the body, grounded in the mystery that we both are our bodies and also more than our bodies. I think of Ali Jablonsky’s study of the ways human beings find and cultivate sacred space—in their bedrooms, in their gardens, in the stairwells of hospitals, in coffee shops. Or Jahdiel Perez’s work on laughter and how it works like a jackhammer on our tired old notions and awakens our bodies to new ways of being. Or Karlene Griffiths Sekou’s exploration of the sacred text of black lives in ritual, in protest, in art. Or River Olsen’s cultivation of a new form for her ecstatic, erotic transfeminist theology. Or Eric Ogi’s work on how we might risk reading scripture together in an ekklesia of many voices.

Through your work, Class of 2017, I have become a little more acquainted with Deity, by which I mean you have coaxed out my own timid aspirations and reawakened some of my trampled instincts. You have given me a “a few real hours of life” by inviting me into your vision for a while. You have reminded me that the study of religion can be a way of loving the world, a way of bearing witness to all that we are and all that we might yet become.

All of my colleagues can tell a similar story. In fact, in more than one faculty meeting this year, and as recently as yesterday, when we have been discussing some difficult issue or other, a faculty member has raised a hand to remind us that we have a lot of wisdom and expertise on the issue at hand within our student body, and we should look to our students for guidance.

At the end of this service, we, your proud teachers, are going to meet you on the threshold of this church. We will line up on either side and clap and cheer as you walk through the middle of us. We will be teachers and students, one more time. But then we’re all going to walk back together over to HDS for a party—all of us indistinguishable, as the poet Fanny Howe once put it, beneath an undiscriminating sky.

 

Editor’s Note: When Stephanie Paulsell sent along the text of her address, I was already struggling with what I could write that would adequately respond to the essays in this issue and speak to the present moment. As it turns out, Paulsell’s address beautifully ties up our bicentennial year at HDS, while it also (fortuitously) echoes many of the themes in this issue: bearing witness, remaining human, being present, thinking comparatively and historically and theologically (even mystically, as she puts it). Thank you to Stephanie for these words of wisdom, and for agreeing to let us publish them as the Perspective.

Stephanie Paulsell is Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School. She delivered this address during the Multireligious Commencement Service on May 24, 2017, held at the Memorial Church of Harvard University.

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Beyond Resistance and Complicity

Mariam Durrani

Illustration of Muslim community members

Illustration by Saffa Khan

 

For difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.
—Audre Lorde1

To begin, I want to address the dilemma that arises when we construct two separate categories: one, resistance; and two, complicity. If we see them as mutually exclusive, we can get into the problem of having to identify our decisions and actions either as a form of resistance to or as a form of complicity with the structures of power that hinge on hierarchies that perpetuate or exacerbate ongoing systems of inequality.

Let me give an example that implicates many of us affiliated with Harvard (whether in the past or present). Harvard University has a $37.6 billion endowment, the largest of any academic institution in the world. This figure is, literally, greater than the gross domestic product figures for many formerly colonized and occupied nations. Are we all complicit in or are we condoning this accumulation of capital? Or, are we resisting the historical legacies of native genocide, slavery, and American imperialism by calling attention to how we can use this space to talk explicitly and to deliberately critique Empire? The answer isn’t quite so simple.

To give another example: Last week I facilitated a workshop for a group of parents and teachers at my daughter’s elementary school here in Cambridge about race and equity in the school. The school has primarily white teachers and predominantly African American students. In this environment, it is perhaps inevitable that teachers and staff—white, black, or otherwise—will inadvertently perpetuate a racist educational system, even if they aspire not to be racist in their daily practice. Again, it’s not a matter of being resistant or complicit but being cognizant of how we are doing both, reflecting on this simultaneity and actively moving toward liberation for everyone, especially for the most marginalized among us.

For myself, I try to think about how I can cultivate a method of praxis, which I define as an iterative method of action and reflection about systems of power and inequality. How have I, as a South Asian immigrant, benefited from the struggles of the civil rights movement or the legacies of the ongoing feminist movement? And what am I doing to contribute, or not, to the legacy of systemic inequality in my classroom, in my institution, in my publications, in my family, in my everyday communication? What do I call attention to, and why? How do I amplify the voices of people who have been historically marginalized or oppressed?

Even as I reflect on these issues, I understand that I am always complicit in a great many evils, even if it’s simply by paying taxes and contributing to the military industrial complex, or by living in a corporate apartment building, or by using Apple products for which the raw materials are acquired through unethical business practices. I think about the Chinese factory workers who manufactured my iPhone and Macbook.2 I’ve heard people say things like “too much education is dangerous,” especially when I, as a woman, have the “audacity” to be critical. But what is most dangerous is a sense of complacency. Submission to a structure of power and hierarchy, without critical reflection and action, however minor in the grand scheme of things, is problematic. And so I try to enact a method of praxis in my daily life and remember that I am complicit, but I am also resisting, simultaneously, whenever I change my practices through reflection.

I enact praxis in my academic work by questioning and dismantling certain categories of normative discourse. My doctoral research project consisted of an ethnography with Muslim students in Lahore, Pakistan, and in New York City. At the center of my work was hearing the stories of these students and trying to understand the reasons behind their academic and professional decisions. As an anthropologist, you spend time with people day in and day out for months, and then you come up with your research questions. The main question I was led to ask was: How do young people experience this process of change, whether we’re talking about physical migration or different kinds of cultural or social mobility, or trying to access financial or class mobility?

Oftentimes, within the scholarly literature or in public conversations about migration, migrants are pathologized, as if they are somehow atypical or outside the norm. In this construct, the norm is people who “never move” and who stay in the same place their entire life. So, when I approached my interpretive work, I acknowledged that there is this sedentarist bias within migration scholarship and public discourse. I also realized that by constantly seeing international migration as the only way we orient around this topic, we are not seeing many important things—for example, we are missing the fact that internal migration can be just as significant, and even traumatic, if not more, in terms of the change you encounter. Think of moving within the United States from the Midwest to New York City, which can be a huge culture shock, even when one is not crossing a national boundary.

Another aspect of my research was to question the normative discourse around migrant youth, and specifically Muslim youth. When we talk about youth, there are two conflicting narratives. One is that our youth are the future, so we should invest in them, and therefore the future will be brighter. But the other involves the possibility of deviance—that youth could go in a dangerous direction and that we need somehow to curtail or control them. With Muslim youth, it’s become more and more the case that, for example in schools, they are seen as guilty of something before they’ve even had the opportunity to grow up and take responsibility for their actions.

This is not exclusive to Muslim youth in the United States, of course. Obviously, anti-Black, anti-Native, and anti-Latinx racism pervades our educational systems, with security officers routinely caught using brute force against our children. Now Muslim youth have been subsumed within this problematic practice. This has become another category I want to dismantle: How are Muslim youth seen by the broader public, by the state, by the education system? And then I try to understand: How are young people responding to these perceptions? How are they trying to resist, or how are they finding other ways of owning their narratives?

Speaking to this issue, we must reflect on how the term Islamophobia is problematic. When we call something a “phobia,” we create a medicalized, individualized way of understanding some kind of socialized fear. Some people might be afraid of spiders, while others are not. But fearing Muslims is not the same thing. When anti-Muslim racism is not fully understood or is seen as a medicalized phobia, it’s partially because we’re not calling it what it is—a kind of racism that builds on other forms of racism that have been around for a long time. By calling it Islamophobia, we put it into a different kind of category, like if a person is afraid of spiders! That is doing a disservice to the substance and severity of this problem.

What are some of the rhetorical strategies we can use to call out what the issue actually is and to seek to normalize Muslim
cultural life in relation to all the other ways that people are existing and living in the United States? When I speak specifically to teachers, I suggest that part of the issue in educational settings is that teachers tend to do their one lesson or one day on Islam. If there is only one day or one lesson to discuss Islam, it is as if it is unique or set apart in some way. Instead, teachers could incorporate teaching about Islam and Muslims in many different ways and adapt it for different age levels.

For example, if you’re going to talk about nutrition with second- or third-graders, you can talk about halal in relation to talking about kosher food in Jewish communities, or about how some people have to be gluten-free or have decided to be vegan. The lesson doesn’t have to be taught as if halal is this Muslim thing, and everyone else eats everything. I’ve found that kids and young people are able to understand this; they have an easier time with this way of thinking than adults. Moving forward, I sincerely believe that educating our young people not to be complicit in inequality is essential. If young people are taught in a way that normalizes being Muslim, or any other minority identity in the spectrum of being American, they won’t perpetuate the antiquated ideas of seeing difference as scary. Rather, we can help them see how difference is the norm and that it is one of our most important resources.3

 

Notes:

  1. Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 2007), 111.
  2. After fourteen workers killed themselves at Apple’s biggest supplier, Foxconn, in 2010, many news outlets covered the inhumane treatment of Apple’s Chinese workers. See Gethin Chamberlain, “Apple’s Chinese Workers Treated ‘Inhumanely, like Machines,’ ” The Guardian, April 30, 2011; and Richard Bilton, “Apple ‘Failing to Protect Chinese Factory Workers,’ ” BBC One Panorama, December 18, 2014.
  3. This is an edited version of Durrani’s presentation in the panel “Resistance and Complicity to Empire through Political Movements,” during the “Beyond Bans, Beyond Walls: Women, Gender, and Islam Symposium” held at Harvard Divinity School on April 7, 2017.
 

Mariam Durrani is an assistant professor of anthropology at Hamilton College. Previously, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She can be reached at mdurrani@gmail.com.

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Changing Hearts, Opening Minds

Haley Rodgers

Illustration of Muslim community members

Illustration by Saffa Khan


I work for CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, an organization that is one of many on the front lines of the fight to promote and protect the civil liberties of the American Muslim community. In doing so, we are constantly walking a line of complicity and resistance, in that we must do two things at the same time: First, maintain credibility and engage with a system that exists, which is oppressive toward American Muslims and other minority communities; and second, defend our rights and community.

The Massachusetts chapter of CAIR, the largest Muslim advocacy organization in the United States, was established in June 2015 after a call from the community to address the needs of American Muslims. After beginning operations in 2016, we are now a four-person team based in Boston. Our role is to build bridges and strengthen relationships between the Muslim community and the greater public and to ensure the Muslim voice is included in public discourse.

One major challenge that we face in the field right now is the normalization of Islamophobic rhetoric, which, more often than not, is translated into violent action against or oppression of the Muslim community or those who are perceived to be Muslim. Ben Carson, a former presidential candidate and now a major player in the current administration, publicly stated that Islam is not conducive to America and to democracy. This increasingly common ideology has a long-term, detrimental impact on American Muslims. Frankly, this ideology is not based on any truth, but the fact that it is becoming the normal thought process for too many people is incredibly dangerous.

We have children as young as eight years old being called terrorists in classrooms.

Islamophobic rhetoric has even trickled down to our schools. At CAIR, we have been astounded by the faith-based bullying that is occurring in our school systems, which has only increased in recent months. We have children as young as eight years old being called terrorists in classrooms. How are these children going to have the confidence to stand up in front of people and fight for their community, if, before they even have the ability to fully understand and practice their own religion, they are being told by their classmates that it is inherently bad?

At the same time, we are doing our best to have a strong presence in the media, to change the way that Islam is portrayed to the public. National statistics suggest 65 percent of Americans believe they have never met a Muslim. A former intern recently did a study that showed approximately 80 percent of the stories about Muslims published in one of Boston’s largest newspapers portrayed them in a negative and violent context. When you consider these two statistics together, it is wholly unsurprising that many Americans perceive Muslims to be bad, violent, and inherently against democracy and American values. So CAIR works tirelessly to change this dialogue by interacting directly with journalists to change the way we portray Muslims and to encourage unbiased and balanced perceptions of Muslims in the media.

By far our greatest challenge is in being proactive, as we are constantly forced to react to unprecedented political action against our community. The best way to develop proactive strategies for resistance is through alliances with like-minded groups and individuals. Since Donald Trump was elected president, CAIR has had an overwhelming response from allies in the nonprofit and private sectors, people in education and in public office. People have been showing us so much support, reaching out to say that they want to work with us to make the world a safer place, to encourage dialogue between parties who could benefit from it, and to promote the understanding of Islam.

This raises challenges, too, because at the end of the day, we end up with a lot of allies who do not yet understand the full extent of Islamophobia. Moreover, rather than allowing us, as an oppressed population, to come up with long-term solutions organically and from a grassroots level, we are sometimes told what to do by people on the periphery of the issue.

We have found that the best way to encourage allies and supporters of our organization is to teach them about Islamophobia, particularly regarding the financial and political interest in funding and propagating Islamophobic rhetoric and misinformation. Education better equips allies to defend our mission and understand the issues at hand.

Fortunately, through this job, I have the opportunity to meet many well-intentioned people from outside our community looking to support us, and my appreciation for their solidarity is inexpressible. I try to encourage them to be good allies by learning more about the challenges our community faces. At the same time, members of the Muslim community must also take responsibility to ensure that they are being presented in a fair, unbiased, and accurate way.

The fact that merely being a political organization that serves Muslims subjects you to being perceived as a dangerous organization is discouraging.

One indicator that CAIR-MA is succeeding in its mission is that we have become a constant target of hate groups, which are ever motivated to slander our name and our cause. I do feel frustrated that nearly every time I forge a new partnership, I first must defend our organization against inaccurate misinformation. The fact that merely being a political organization that serves Muslims subjects you to being perceived as a dangerous organization is discouraging. At the same time, I feel encouraged that people are motivated to better understand our cause, that they are open-minded enough to second-guess something they see or hear, whether it’s an individual being smeared or an entire organization being attacked.

My perspective is unique in a way, because I am a Muslim convert. I had been living out of the United States for seven years, working as a humanitarian aid worker. During this time abroad, I converted to Islam. When I chose to convert, I did so out of personal experience and contemplation, not because I was recruited over Twitter while sitting home alone. Throughout my conversion, I never considered Islam to be incompatible with liberal ideology. I am to some extent proof that it is not: I am a liberal, white lady from the North Shore. However, I didn’t experience what it’s like to be a Muslim, and to be a female Muslim, in the United States until recently.

In this sense, I stand on the fringe of American Muslim society. I must exercise humility and modesty and understand the challenges of others, while recognizing my own privilege in that I am an American citizen and I speak English as a first language. Because of my privilege, I feel that it’s my duty to take on risks that other people wouldn’t feel comfortable with, because they may be green-card holders or migrants to this country.

For me, Islam is justice, especially for women. My hope is that, as times change, we are fostering young people—including young Muslim women—to take leadership positions within their communities. And as we give them the capacity to mobilize and to lead, I hope that hearts and minds will change. I hope that academics in this city and state and country and professionals of all kinds—in the nonprofit sector, too—can be a driving force behind this. Open-mindedness is the key, both within our own community and among those who wish to be allies. As I see it, building this kind of grassroots movement is the only way the American Muslim community can successfully resist the system we must work within.1

 

Notes:

  1. This is an edited version of a presentation Rodgers delivered in the panel “Resistance and Complicity to Empire through Political Movements,” during the “Beyond Bans, Beyond Walls: Women, Gender, and Islam Symposium” held at Harvard Divinity School on April 7, 2017.
 

Haley Rodgers is dedicated to serving marginalized populations around the world. After spending six years abroad working in Kenya, Jordan, and Iraq on various development efforts and humanitarian emergencies, she returned to her home city of Boston to work as development director for CAIR-MA. She holds a master’s degree in development practice from Sciences Po in Paris, France, and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from American University, Washington, DC.

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Division Of

by Andrea Cohen
 

You took the painting
of the girl on the stair.

You left the stair.
You took the nail

on which the girl
in a pink haze hung.

You left the hole
in horsehair plaster—

and the crumbling
that comes after.

 

 

Andrea Cohen’s most recent book is Unfathoming (Four Way Books, 2017). She directs the Writers House at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, and the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge.

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Fei Xiaotong’s Humanism Infuses "From the Soil"

Anna Sun

In Review | Books From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. A Translation of Fei Xiaotong’s Xiangtu Zhongguo, trans., with an introduction and epilogue, by Gary G. Hamilton and Wang Zheng. University of California Press, 176 pages, $26.95 paper.

 

Fei Xiaotong

Fei Xiaotong as a young scholar.

I always travel light when I am in China doing research on religion and culture. I have been conducting surveys, as well as ethnographic fieldwork, on religious life there for more than a decade, and there are a few things I never fail to carry with me: my notebook, my gadgets for taking photos and recording interviews, and a copy of a small book in Chinese, 鄉土中國—barely 120 pages, first published in 1947. The title in English is From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society (the translation, published in 1992, is available from the University of California Press).

The man who wrote the book was Fei Xiaotong, a pioneer Chinese anthropologist and sociologist. He was from a small, prosperous southern town known both for its silk production and for its long tradition of Confucian education. He was born in 1910, barely a year before the republican revolution dethroned the last emperor in the Forbidden City. Educated during the era of China’s transition from traditional society to modernity, Fei was schooled in the classical Chinese canon and in the Western scientific curriculum. As a young man, he studied anthropology and sociology at Peking University and conducted fieldwork in rural southwest China. In 1936, he went to the London School of Economics to study with Bronisław Malinowski, returning to China in 1938, where he had a long and distinguished career as scholar, teacher, and public intellectual.

In his essay “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline” (2000), Bernard Williams argues “that philosophy should get rid of scientistic illusions, that it should not try to behave like an extension of the natural sciences (except in the special cases where that is what it is), that it should think of itself as part of a wider humanistic enterprise of making sense of ourselves and of our activities, and that in order to answer many of its questions it needs to attend to other parts of that enterprise, in particular to history.” Fei had the same humanistic motive as a social scientist for whom learning about others was part of “making sense of ourselves.”

However long ago they live, people like Fei are our sources of light as we advance along the path ahead. They illuminate us in a world that without them would have been a still darker, perhaps an unbearably dark, place. But what exactly is the source of their illuminating power? I shall try to answer that question using the example of Fei Xiaotong.

When Fei died in 2005, The Guardian ran a glowing obituary:

Professor Fei Xiaotong, who has died aged 94, was one of China’s finest anthropologists. His book Peasant Life in China (1939) made him famous in the English-speaking world, but he will be remembered in China for his role in advising the economic reformers in the post-Mao era, when the policy of rural industrialisation, which he had advocated since the late 1930s, flourished. No anthropologist or sociologist, anywhere, has been so politically prominent. Yet Fei had, inevitably, been caught up in China’s political turmoil: he escaped death by the Nationalists during the civil war, and, later, during the years of Mao Zedong was sentenced to hard labour and banned from teaching or publishing for 20 years.

This story is well known to Chinese intellectuals: Fei made a triumphant return to academic life in 1980, at the beginning of the reform era, and led the reestablishment of sociology and anthropology in major Chinese universities. Several generations of students have read his books with close attention. In addition to Peasant Life in China, they include such classics as Earthbound China, China’s Gentry, and Small Towns in China. He reached the pinnacle of influence and esteem by the time he died, his name synonymous with rigorous social science research and political integrity among Chinese intellectuals. It is necessary to note that, for us, there is always the shadow cast by the tension between Fei’s thought and the constant engagement with the socialist policies that he and his generation of Chinese scholars could not escape—trying to be “politically correct in the current official party line,” as stated by Andrew Abbott in his insightful 2013 reassessment of Fei’s work (in a review, under the nom de plume Barbara Celarent, in the American Journal of Sociology 118, no. 4 [January 2013]:1153–1160).

I think Fei himself would not refrain from acknowledging this tension. He was fully aware of the often-unavoidable fate of intellectuals being committed actors in history rather than detached observers, especially during periods of great turmoil. Fei was ready to be politically engaged even before the Communists took power. It is true that his later political prominence might have affected his intellectual views in complex ways, but he was not a scholar who subordinated his mind to the power of the state. However, neither was he someone who believed in value-free social science. Indeed, for him, terms such as “useful” and “practical” would be welcome descriptions of a social scientist’s work. The connection between Fei and John Dewey, as Abbott articulated it, is well taken, especially given that Fei’s work was produced under much less propitious conditions.

For me, and for many others, however, it is his profound understanding of the cultural foundation of Chinese society that makes Fei a seminal figure in Chinese intellectual life. This foundation consists of the essential ideas, values, and traditions that hold a society together, not only in times of peace, but also in times of war and revolution. Such a foundation likewise persists, as it does today, in periods of dramatic social change brought on by economic and technological transformation.

This foundation is what Fei called “the soil of China.” Out of his own visceral and intimate knowledge of this soil, Fei produced his celebrated works on peasant life and village economy. It was also out of this lived and experienced knowledge that he wrote the slender volume that, during my frequent research trips to China, has been my constant companion.

What makes this book special? Although he was trained in the West and absorbed its standards of empirical research in the social sciences, Fei nevertheless spoke in a voice that transcended empirical data. From the Soil reads like a volume of lyrical essays about everyday life in China, although we know that the book is built upon years of demanding fieldwork, including the perilous and ultimately tragic journey in his youth, during which he lost his wife to a fatal injury in a ravine in rural Guangxi province, only a few months after their wedding. He had himself been caught in a tiger trap, and his wife fell to her death while running for help.

As I study social and religious rituals in the Confucian tradition, practices still followed by ordinary people in China today, I am continually reminded of the following passage from Fei’s chapter “Rule of Ritual”:

A ritual (li) is not something that is carried out by an exterior force. Rituals work through the feeling of respect and of obedience that people themselves have cultivated. People conform to rituals on their own initiative. In fact, people can simply enjoy rituals. . . .

On the surface, “a rule of rituals” seems like a self-generated form of social order in which people’s actions are unrestrained by laws. Actually, “self-generated” is the wrong word here, because a rule of rituals implies that one uses one’s own initiative to follow conventional rules. Confucius often used the words restrain (ke) and bind (yue) to describe the process of ritual cultivation. These words suggest that “a rule of rituals” does not occur in the absence of society, does not stem from natural human instincts, and does not depend on directions from heaven. (From the Soil, 99–100)

In the chapter “Society without Litigation,” Fei gives a vivid social account of the “rule of rituals”:

A system of control based on rituals means adherence to traditional rules. All aspects of life and human relationships are governed by specific rules. All the actors in this society have been familiar with the rules since childhood, and they take those rules for granted. Their long education since childhood has turned these exterior rules into interior habits. The force to maintain rituals comes not from the outside but from the inside, from one’s own conscience. Therefore, this social order pays a great deal of attention to self-cultivation and self-restraint. Ideally, in a society ruled through rituals, everyone will abide by the rules voluntarily, so that all exterior supervision is unnecessary. A person who surreptitiously breaks the rules for selfish reasons will be considered the scum of the earth. Understanding the rituals is everyone’s responsibility. This society assumes that everyone will understand them, and it is this society’s responsibility to make sure that everyone does understand them. Therefore, as we often say, “If the son is not taught, the fault lies with the father.” In rural society, that is why the relatives of an offender—and even his teachers—are also punished. The assumption is that if he were taught in a serious way, then, as a son or as a student, he would be unable to misbehave. Therefore, any litigation is shameful, because it indicates a lack of proper education. (103)

Although the teacher of someone who committed legal infractions was indeed sometimes persecuted in imperial China, especially if the cases involved high-ranking officials accused of serious crimes such as treason, the practice has long ceased to exist. (Harvard professors may here breathe a sigh of relief.) But the ideas behind the importance of moral education in the family and in the community continue to influence the way people think and act. Indeed, the emphasis on ritual traditions, both social and religious, continues to be an essential part of everyday life for ordinary people.

In my fieldwork on ritual activities in urban China today, I am repeatedly reminded how ritual tradition is sustained through the concrete actions of prayer, of offerings to the dead, and of the gathering of family members on significant dates in what I call the “Chinese ritual calendar,” an analogy to the Roman fasti. These continual actions maintain the strength of the bonds of family, clan, and community.

But, how to explain the enduring appeal of this book among scholars of Chinese society? This is a question I have had the pleasure of discussing with Roger Ames, a philosopher who has devoted his life to the study of Confucianism. We marveled together at the depth, beneath its graceful surface, of Fei’s work. Certainly Fei’s reflections about the working of a society bring to mind the works of other social theorists, from Durkheim to Foucault and Bourdieu. What is enduring about Fei’s insights, however, is that he came to them by distilling his extensive fieldwork experience and synthesizing it with his profound knowledge of Chinese culture and history. As a result, these insights have a luminosity and organic energy that most abstract theories about China do not.

There is always something more in Fei’s work beyond academic objectivity. When he speaks of the “concentric circles” of social relations that define the self for a Chinese person, or when he speaks of the different forms of power in Chinese village life, influenced by Confucian ideals, he is not speaking only as a social scientist. Instead of treating rural people as “ignorant,” “feudal,” and “superstitious,” in the style of the modernity-obsessed scholars of his own generation, he strove to understand them on their own terms, patiently and respectfully listening to their histories and seriously entertaining the thoughts that guided them in life and inspired them. What always comes through in his writing is the sense he had that it was a privilege to know the people in this way. It was this caring respect, so evident in the simple elegance of his prose, that allowed him to see better and farther than other scholars.

 

Anna Sun was a Berggruen Fellow at Harvard Divinity School in spring 2017. She is Associate Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon College and author of Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities (winner of the 2014 Best First Book in the History of Religions Award, American Academy of Religion).

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Introduction to Ingersoll Lecturer Marilynne Robinson

Michelle C. Sanchez
April 27, 2017

 

Read more: Old Souls, New World, the 2017 Ingersoll Lecture delivered by Marilynne Robinson.
Thank you, first to Dean Hempton for the introduction, and also to my colleagues for allowing me the great honor and delight of introducing tonight’s Ingersoll lecturer. Marilynne Robinson’s accomplishments, awards, and accolades are too many to name. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Brown University and her PhD at the University of Washington, where she wrote a dissertation on William Shakespeare. She has spent many years as a beloved teacher at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she is now professor emeritus; and she has also held a range of positions at many colleges and universities, including several here in Massachusetts.

 

For those of us not lucky enough to sit in her classrooms, Marilynne Robinson teaches through her published writing. She has given the world five collections of essays, with the most recent being The Givenness of Things in 2015.
And, of course, there’s her four stunning works of fiction. First, in 1980, there was Housekeeping. At the time, the reviewer for The New York Times wrote that the novel seemed to “break through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieve a kind of transfiguration . . . a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt.” These words of praise are just as true of her more recent novels: three books that trace the lives of three very different human beings whose souls are nevertheless intertwined in and through the small town of Gilead, Iowa.

Gilead, Home, and Lila have each earned a number of important prizes, including a Pulitzer, an Orange Award, and a National Book Critics Award. But more importantly, they are now intertwined more broadly in the souls of readers who love and are challenged by them—including our former president, Barack Obama. In 2015, he awarded Robinson the National Humanities Medal for her “grace and intelligence in writing.” He also conducted a remarkable interview with her for The New York Review of Books. (You should check it out if you haven’t read it.)

As the current scholar of John Calvin at Harvard Divinity School, I cross paths with a lot of people who care about religion, as well as with a truly shocking number of Presbyterian pastors: male and female, older and younger, gay and straight. So before I’d even read Marilynne Robinson’s work, it came to me as big news that there was a novelist out there who talks about Calvin—and actually seems to like the guy. I’ve had several young ministers ask me, in a kind of cautious whisper, whether I think Calvin is all that Robinson says he is. Could it be so?

Michelle C. Sanchez introducing Marilynne Robinson
Michelle C. Sanchez.

Still, in preparation for this event, I wanted to get a better sense for how Marilynne Robinson’s work is viewed by the wider public. So I pored over a slightly embarrassing number of media pieces. And I was struck that the points of interest were in fact much the same: people are downright fascinated by a novelist, with widespread influence, who also deeply cares about religious thought and life.

One of my favorite lines, in fact, came from none other than Vogue magazine’s coverage of the Robinson-Obama conversation. The author expressed astonishment at how the president of the United States engaged in “an uncontrived, non-primetime, philosophical, even theological meeting of the minds with a public figure he reveres.”
Yes, even theological. And from Vogue to the London Telegraph to Wikipedia, it remains particularly Robinson’s outspoken affection for one John Calvin that always seems to rise to the byline.

Perhaps this is because, like any good story, it establishes a puzzle: What could this liberal-minded author—such a purveyor of beauty, of humanism, of the divine image in every human life—see in a five-hundred-year-old figure often depicted, in her words, as an “apostle of gloom dominating a gloomy city”?

Well, first, I have no doubt that she would quickly assert that the glories of human life on the stage of a dazzling creation were themes very much on Calvin’s mind. (I’d gladly back her up.)

But there is another dimension to this puzzling relationship that I take to be crucial, and that is the sense in which Calvin and Robinson share a deep love and respect for the act of writing itself.

Careful readers of Calvin will know that he signs his last edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion not with his own name but with a citation of Augustine that reads as follows: “I count myself among those who write as they learn and learn as they write.”

Calvin displays deep affection for the power of narrative—not only to exercise the imagination but also to trigger our memory and clarify our perception of the things around us. For Calvin, words and things don’t exist in two separate domains; things give, carry, and share narratives like a fine web. They are there to persuade us, not only of the limits of what we think or see, but also of the mysterious depths that we have yet to think or see.

There are many such moments in Marilynne Robinson’s narratives: the ashy biscuit that John Ames receives from his father in the rain that recasts his entire sense of what his life has meant; those sweaters and coats of Ames’s that signify more to Lila than she can claim. This is all very much in keeping with how Calvin frames the significance not only of the bread and wine shared in church, but fingernails, clouds, even the fleshy humanity of Christ himself. What is key, for the searchers of writing and learning, is that strings of words don’t mean without the weightiness and details of those bodies that give, resist, and transform them.

At one point, Lila’s inner reflection offers what might be the best working definition of theology that I’ve ever read: she recalls that “when the Reverend talked about angels . . . the notion helped her to think about certain things.” The notion helped her to think about certain things: to begin to perceive the fine webs of relationships that surround the things that happen; to remember the force of things overlooked; and even to gently veil those things too sacred to be uttered without care.

To boldly reclaim the inheritance of someone like Calvin as a writer strikes me as being different from merely reclaiming him as a kind of figurehead. Nostalgia wants to reassert some lost identity between words and bodies. The memory of the writer wants something different: it wants to remember the metaphors—the distances and collisions between things present and things lost.

This is what I’ve learned from the puzzle of Marilynne Robinson’s fandom: she is such an insightful reader of Calvin precisely because she reads Calvin as a writer for whom writing never stops being learning. In so doing, she helps many of us to think about certain things . . . things uncontrived, non-primetime, philosophical, and, yes, even theological.

Please join me in welcoming Marilynne Robinson.

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Lessons in Dignity and Divinity

Melissa Wood Bartholomew

In Review | Books The Life of Omar Ibn Said, Written by Himself, in A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said, by Omar ibn Said, trans. and ed. by Ala Alryyes. University of Wisconsin Press, 216 pages, $19.95 paper.
 

I reside in our country here because of the great harm. The infidels took me unjustly and sold me into the hands of the Christian man (Nasrani) who bought me. We sailed on the big sea for a month and a half to a place called Charleston in the Christian language. I fell into the hands of a small, weak, and wicked man who did not fear Allah at all, nor did he read nor pray. I was afraid to stay with such a wicked man who committed many evil deeds so I escaped. After a month, Allah our Lord presented us into the hands of a righteous man who fears Allah, and who loves to do good deeds and whose name is General Jim Owen and whose brother is called Colonel John Owen. (Omar ibn Said, The Life, 77)

 
Omar Ibn Said daguerreotype
Omar ibn Said, ambrotype daguerreotype,
by unknown photographer. Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection, Beinecke Rare Book Manuscript Library, Yale University

Our country has never been a place without conflict. The size or scale of the struggle has varied across time, but its existence has always been apparent if one has eyes that see. One of the persistent challenges of a nation that emerged out of overwhelming human suffering (the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans) is that it still struggles with unresolved, complex human dilemmas. Painful periods along the trajectory of our nation have caused some to struggle not to lose their faith in humanity. Opposing views and polarizing positions can lead, and have led, many to develop feelings of disconnection from an individual, a people, or a political party whose views and positions they find troubling and even frightening. Yet I believe such moments of fear and disconnection give value to religion and its ability to create a framework that can reorient us to a place of reconnection with each other.

We would do well to look back in history at examples of people in our country who have used religion as a strategy to enable them to hold on to their humanity and to their belief in the humanity of others, even their oppressors, while living under inhumane conditions. One group we can draw wisdom from is enslaved Africans, brought to this country or born here, who used their own brand of religion to help maintain their dignity and divinity. Theologian Howard Thurman absorbed these lessons from his grandmother, a former enslaved person, who received the teachings from a “slave minister” who would hold secret religious gatherings with other enslaved people. His grandmother repeatedly relayed the minister’s message that they were not slaves; they were children of God. According to Thurman, “This established for them the ground of personal dignity. . . .”1 Like Thurman’s grandmother, many enslaved people harnessed their spiritual power to transcend oppression and to negotiate their way through life enslaved. Another enslaved person whose life illustrates these qualities is Omar ibn Said.

Omar ibn Said was an African Muslim who was captured as an adult from West Africa and sold into slavery in the United States around 1807.2 His autobiography, written in Arabic, reveals his commitment to Islam and to Christianity.3 On the same page that contains a prayer request for his heart to be open to the path of Jesus Christ—he notes that his slave masters read from the Bible—he also asserts that his religion is the religion of Muhammad, the prophet of Allah:

Jim with his brother read from the Bible (Ingeel) that Allah is our Lord, our Creator, and our Owner and the restorer of our condition, health and wealth by grace and not duty. [According?] to my ability, open my heart to the right path, to the path of Jesus Christ, to a great light.

Before I came to the Christian country, my religion was/is the religion of Mohammad, the prophet of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. I used to walk to the mosque (masjid) before dawn, and to wash my face, head, hands, feet. I [also] used to hold the noon prayers, the afternoon prayers, the sunset prayers, the night prayers.

I used to give alms (zakat) every year in gold, silver, harvest, cattle, sheep, goats, rice, wheat and barley—all I used to give in alms. (67, 69)

A couple of pages later, Said asserts his love for the Qur’an before he mentions the Bible. He uses the same language such that this passage serves to bookend the earlier one:

I am Omar, I love to read the book, the Great Qur’an.

General Jim Owen and his wife used to read the Bible, they used to read the Bible to me a lot. Allah is our Lord, our Creator, and our Owner and the restorer of our condition, health and wealth by grace and not duty. [According?] to my ability, open my heart to the Bible, to the path of righteousness. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of Worlds, many thanks for he grants bounty in abundance. (73)

Said converted to Christianity from Islam while enslaved, but his autobiography reveals that he retained elements of his Muslim faith. For example, he presents the Islamic prayer, the al-Fatiha, together with the Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, one of several scholars who has interpreted Said’s autobiography, explains that “By presenting them as interchangeable practices of Islam and Christianity, ‘Umar did not syncretize these two religions; rather, he established a poly-religious common ground that maintained the distinctness of each religion while at the same time allowing him to step in and out of both.” According to GhaneaBassiri, Said’s autobiography reveals that Said viewed the Qur’an and the Gospels as “functional equivalents” from the same divine source and that Said moved in and out of the Muslim and Christian worlds by maintaining a shared concept of God as Lord of all. He contends that while Said was aware of the differences between the two religions, his embrace of their commonality provided the space he needed to be able to enter into a “communal relation of sorts” with his slave masters.4 This is an example of the extraordinary things that happen when people commit to a shared concept of God.

GhaneaBassiri describes one of the compelling features of Said’s autobiography and what he believes it reveals about the power of Said’s religion:

The first four pages of ‘Umar’s thirteen-page autobiography is a more-or-less accurate transcription of the 67th chapter of the Qur’an, al-Mulk. Mulk means “possession” or “property” in Arabic, and when applied to God’s relation with the world, it also refers to divine providence. Theologically, this chapter of the Qur’an underscores God’s sovereignty over every aspect of life and warns those who ignore divine guidance or who assume that God is not aware of their every thought and action and that God is the All-knowing and vigilant judge of humanity. . . . Neither theology nor magic could alone explain why a slave would begin his autobiography by citing God’s own words on divine providence. Here again we see how the polyvalence of Islam helped Muslims form relations with others, including those who legally possessed their body and labor. On the one hand, ‘Umar denied his human master’s power over him by acknowledging God’s power over all things. By placing his life in God’s hands he also avails himself of divine protection. Divine providence also softens the inhumanity of slavery, which allows us to fathom why ‘Umar would have regarded the Owens, whose chattel he was, as “righteous men.” While Christian slavers evoked divine providence to justify slavery, ‘Umar invoked God’s mulk to endure slavery. The slave and the slaver met on the plain of providence and held each other accountable before God.5

Here, GhaneaBassiri illuminates how Said demonstrated the transformative power of religion, a power that is evident when a beholder utilizes his or her religious faith to connect to God and allows God’s power to move through him or her and shape his or her way of being in the world. Islam was a shelter for Said and protected him from the inhumanity of enslavement. He allowed the concept of mulk (possession or property) to help him cope with his harsh reality as another man’s property, but never to justify it. Consider this poetic line from his transcription of al-Mulk:

Do they not see the birds above their heads, spreading their wings and closing them? None save the Merciful sustains them. He observes all things. (55)

As the birds are sustained and observed by a merciful God, so are the humans on the ground. Said’s testimony reveals that although enslavement was his physical position, it was subject to his spiritual condition as one possessed and controlled by God. God’s power superseded the power of his slave master and was his shield of protection. It also stabilized him and reminded him of the humanity of those who enslaved him. It is the commonality of belief in the power of God that allows Said to call Jim Owen “a righteous man who fears Allah” (but note that he uses the words and framework of his own faith here, not those of his enslaver’s religion). Said’s understanding of mulk as God’s providential presence gave him the ability to see beyond his enslaver’s acts of oppression and to meet him “on the plain of providence” in the presence of God.

This is the miracle of Islam—and of any religion—which serves as a vehicle for one to see God, and humanity, in one’s oppressor. In Said’s life, Islam and Christianity worked together to enhance his spiritual capacity, allowing him to maintain his relationship and commitment to God and to refrain from being consumed by hate and revenge. His spiritual power enabled him to recognize his slave master as his equal before God.

Said’s life sustained through religion is just one example of the way religion can serve as a spiritual resource for us, enabling us to see the humanity in those we disagree with or who even oppress us. His ability to meet his enslaver on the plain of providence in the presence of God is a reminder to us that we have the capacity to do the same, and that we do not have to rely on our human efforts alone. Through connecting with God’s divine providence and protection, we can meet our opponents, even our oppressors, where they are and never lose sight of their humanity. I believe that this is the strategy that those of us who are people of faith must employ to resolve our enduring conflicts and move our nation forward.

 

Notes:

  1. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Beacon Press, 1949), 50.
  2. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, A History of Islam in America (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 18. In the text, Said describes his birthplace as “Fut Tur, between the two rivers [or seas],” which scholar Michael A. Gomez has noted is the “middle Senegal valley” area, which lies between the Senegal and the Gambia Rivers in western Africa. Michael A. Gomez’s essay, “Muslims in Early America,” Journal of Southern History 60, no. 4 (November 1994), is reproduced in A Muslim American Slave.
  3. Omar ibn Said’s life story, composed in 1831, is the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic.
  4. GhaneaBassiri, History of Islam in America, 85–87.
  5. Ibid., 89–90.
 

Melissa Wood Bartholomew, MDiv ’15, is a Christian minister, lawyer, and mediator. She is a PhD student at Boston College School of Social Work. Her research explores the impact of racism and historical racial trauma on the descendants of Africans enslaved in America and the role of faith and forgiveness in their healing and resilience. She recently had a chapter published in Trouble the Water: A Christian Resource for the Work of Racial Justice (Nurturing Faith, Inc., 2017).

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No Rescue

Grieving and groping for meaning after a fatal collision.

Shane Snowdon

Calfornia Highway 1

California Highway 1. Karel Triska / Shutterstock

 

On December 15, 1997, I was driving from San Francisco south to Santa Cruz on California’s fabled coastal Highway 1, enjoying what I considered the world’s greatest commute. I’d just spent a blissful pre-Christmas weekend in the city with my partner and seven-year-old stepson, and I was heading down to the tiny cabin I rented for my weekday job at the University of California Santa Cruz.

I had jumped at the job two years earlier, at 39, even though it was ninety miles from home. I loved the idea of helping students struggling to enter and finish college, a struggle I remembered well. And the Santa Cruz campus was reaching out to the children of California farmworkers, whose battle for economic justice I’d proudly supported from age nine, when I’d heard César Chávez talk on TV about their grape boycott and immediately stopped eating my favorite fruit. I also loved the idea of earning a university pension, since I’d taken previous jobs to save lives, not money.

All my life, I’d longed to be a rescuer. As a little girl, I’d gotten to sleep by imagining myself gallantly saving people from burning buildings and sinking ships. At 19, I’d taken the name of the mysterious hero who materializes to rescue a farming community in the novel Shane. And in the years since, I’d thrown myself into what I only half-jokingly called my “save the world” work, leading organizations devoted to battered women, ex-prisoners, people with cancer, environmental protection.

So my Santa Cruz job was a dream come true. And my two-hour commute—down on Monday, back on Friday—was an additional pleasure. I treasured every mile of it: the sheer oceanside cliffs, the old farmtowns, the lush fields, the pristine beaches, the famous seals of Año Nuevo State Park.

At 5:30 on that dry, clear December night, I’d been on the road for ninety minutes, and I was in the rural part of my drive. The last town was well behind me, the two-lane highway was bordered by artichoke fields, and other cars were few and far between.

I was driving the speed limit, I wasn’t drunk or high, and I wasn’t listening to my radio or CDs. My clunky cellphone was stashed in my backpack—coverage was spotty on Highway 1. Night had just fallen and there were no streetlights, so my eyes were on the road.

I had rounded a curve to the right and was driving straight ahead, lights on, when I suddenly heard and felt—a heavy thud. An earthquake? No. Something large was rising toward me over my hood. A deer? No. A man was staring at me through my windshield—a young man, with a baseball cap and long, dark hair. He shattered the glass, then flew over my roof.

I pounded my brakes and skidded to a stop. A man? What had he been doing in the road? How had I hit him? Where was he? How was he?

I pounded my brakes and skidded to a stop. A man? What had he been doing in the road? How had I hit him? Where was he? How was he? I buried my head in my hands and began to cry—then stopped myself. I had to get calm. I had to stay. I had to find him right away. I threw open my door and ran up the road.

I could see the highway under the rising moon, but I couldn’t see a dark shape anywhere. Where was he? I pushed into the artichoke field by the shoulder, parting the stocky three-foot plants, peering between them. But he wasn’t there, either. Where was he? Could he possibly have walked away?

I stood absolutely still, listening. I heard nothing, no sounds at all. I shouted into the night, my voice as loud and steady as I could make it. “Hello? Can you hear me? Where are you? Are you okay?”

Nothing. No sounds at all. Wherever he was, he wasn’t okay. Oh, no. Oh, no. My eyes were filling with tears. I was starting to shake. I had to get help.

I ran back to my car and pulled out my phone. Only one signal bar was visible, and it was flickering. I called 911 for the CHP, the California Highway Patrol. I pounded the three numbers again and again, only to hear the beep of a dropped call. Finally, I heard a woman’s voice.

“I’m on Highway 1, near Año Nuevo. I hit a man—I think he’s hurt, really hurt.” Then I heard the beep.

I called back, over and over. Finally, finally, I heard the woman’s voice again.

“Did you hear me? From Highway 1, Año Nuevo?”

“Yes,” she said. “Where are you?”

“I don’t know exactly, but I’m a little north of Año Nuevo. If they start there, they’ll find me. Us. I hit a man. He’s really hurt.”

“Is there anything nearby?”

“No, just fields.”

“Is anyone with you?”

“No, it’s just me. And the man I hit.”

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know. But he’s here. And he’s really hurt.”

“We don’t have a unit near you. I’ll call police and fire, but it will be awhile.”

“We really need someone. He might be dying!” I was shouting, breathing hard. “We really, really need someone.”

She took my number, and I was giving her my name when we got cut off. I called her back, but kept getting the dropped-call beep. I should stay off the phone, I thought, so she can reach me. And, I realized, I should get out of the middle of the road. I maneuvered my car to the shoulder, the front tires grinding against the smashed bumper, bits of the shattered windshield falling into my lap. Then I ran back up the road, clutching my phone.

I looked again for a dark shape, but saw nothing. I stood listening again, still and silent. But I heard nothing at all.

Yet I didn’t feel alone. I couldn’t see him, I couldn’t hear him, but I felt him nearby. “Please live, please live, please live,” I said to him. Then I envisioned a young man with long, dark hair, paralyzed in a hospital bed, a breathing tube in his neck. “Please be all right,” I whispered. “Please be all right.”

I kept feeling him near me in the deep quiet. But I began to feel him not below me, lying on pavement or ground, but above me, floating between me and the moon. He’s dead, I thought. He’s dead.

By now, a few drivers had sped by. I was wondering if I should stop someone when a car pulled over. A middle-aged man stepped out and asked if something was wrong.

“I hit someone, but I can’t find him. I don’t know where he is.”

The man looked around, then back at me. “I don’t see anyone,” he said, and got back in his car, slamming the door. I know I sound crazy, I thought. I wish I were imagining this. But I really hit someone.

Long moments passed, then another car stopped. Two young women who looked like they could be students of mine came over. “I had an accident,” I said, this time pointing to my car down the road. “I hit someone. He’s really hurt, and he’s somewhere near here. But I can’t find him in this light.”

One of them ducked into their car, retrieved a flashlight, and motioned to her friend to walk up the shoulder with her. “He might be in the plants,” I shouted after them, and they started aiming their flashlight into the artichokes. I kept looking for him where they’d stopped.

Then I heard a shout. They were running back to me. “We found him! He’s in the field.”

“How is he? Is he—”

“You can see.”

We ran back up the shoulder together as they swung their flashlight over the field. Then, well beyond where I’d looked earlier, I saw a slightly arched body lying face-down in the plants. A crumpled bicycle lay a few feet away.

The man in the field was wearing a blue windbreaker and gray jeans. I saw no injuries, no blood. But he was utterly motionless, utterly soundless. He looked lifelike, but he was not alive. Definitely not alive.

The two women started to cry. I said, “You can go—the CHP is coming,” and touched one of them lightly on the arm. She pulled away from me. They walked back to their car, got in, and pushed down the door locks, waiting for the police.

I walked toward the man lying in the field and stopped a few feet away. I wasn’t sure how close his killer was allowed to get. I looked at him intently and clasped my hands tightly, but no words came. For eight years, I’d attended chapel services daily at my proudly Protestant school. But we’d never said any prayers for the dead.

I slowly turned, walked back to my car, climbed in. My head bowed, I rocked back and forth, sobbing. “Oh, no, oh, no,” I moaned. “He’s dead. He’s dead.”

I saw the ambulance’s revolving red light, but no running, no stretcher, no urgency. He is dead, I thought.

The CHP, an ambulance, the county police, and a fire truck arrived soon after. A policeman knocked on my window, asked for my license and registration, told me to tell him what had happened. As I answered, I felt him growing impatient and noticed he wasn’t taking any notes. After hearing the basics, he opened my door, told me to get out, looked around my front seat.

“Walk a few feet, then come on back.” He watched me, then bent over to smell my breath.

“You have anything to drink today? I don’t smell anything.”

I told him I didn’t drink or do drugs, wondering if he’d believe me. But he seemed satisfied, and asked if I’d eaten anything in the last few hours. I mentioned the Big Mac I’d had for lunch. “Well,” he said, “the onions in a Big Mac can show up just like a drink on a Breathalyzer.”

I was stricken. “Really?”

He rolled his eyes. “Of course not. I’m joking.”

Joking? He left to join what looked to be a dozen uniformed people nearby, setting up floodlights, peering at skid marks, drawing out measuring tapes, spray-painting the road, talking in small groups.

I looked up the road toward the man in the field. I saw the ambulance’s revolving red light, but no running, no stretcher, no urgency. He is dead, I thought.

I started toward the uniformed groups, looking for the policeman who’d just talked with me, realizing I’d been too nervous to ask him what the EMTs had found out. But another officer shouted at me to get in my car.

I sat and watched all the activity, trying to hear what was being said, understand what was going on. Whenever people passed my car, I willed them to stop and talk to me, but no one did. What did that mean?

The ambulance I’d seen up the road pulled into the floodlit area. Two EMTs got out and chatted with the police. Then, one of them—a woman, tall, blonde, fortyish—strode over to my car, put her hand on my door, leaned in.

“It’s not your fault, you know. Remember that. It’s not your fault.”

“Is he dead?”

“Yes—but it was an accident. An accident.”

She turned and headed back to her ambulance. I started to cry again, grateful for her kindness, but not sure I deserved it. Could I believe her? I desperately wanted to. But did she really know what had happened?

Did I? I closed my eyes and made myself think about the moment of impact and the minutes before. I remembered driving in my lane, being undistracted, looking straight ahead, sensing nothing unusual until the awful thud. But had I glanced away from the road, strayed deep into thought, gotten sleepy, even blacked out?

I forced myself back to the moment of impact again and again, interrogating myself as fiercely as I could. But my memories of it remained the same. Although I felt ready to accept blame for the terrible crash up the road, I realized it might be what the EMT had called it. An accident.

But, I realized, the police and courts might not agree. Well, I said to myself, I’ll accept any punishment I receive for this, even if I’m not at fault. It will be penance for everything I really have done wrong, all the regrets of a 41-year lifetime.

A new policeman came over. “We’ve got all your information. We’ll contact you for a statement. His brother’s coming—you need to get out of here. Is there someone who can pick you up?”

I used his phone to call the man who rented me my cabin and lived next door. “I had an accident just north of Año Nuevo—I hit a bicyclist—he’s dead.”

“How in the world did that happen?”

“I don’t know—it just—I just—”

“So you need a ride home?” His voice was cool.

How could I ask for a ride? How could I ask for anything? “Well, if—if—”

“My wife’ll come get you.”

She pulled up twenty minutes later, right behind the coroner’s van. I walked over to her car, then called out to the officers gathering around the van. “Is it okay for me to leave?”

No one turned, so I got into her front seat. I was afraid to look at her, but, when I did, I saw she was crying and opening her arms to me. As we drove home, I kept repeating, “I can’t believe it—I can’t believe I killed someone.”

“I’m so sorry,” she kept murmuring.

When we got to my cabin, she asked if I’d be okay. I decided to say yes. Somehow, it was nine o’clock, and I knew she needed to be at work early in the morning. I dreaded the night ahead, and every night to come, but I knew I had to start facing Life After.


In the days after, I talked at length with the police and my insurance company. I answered their questions as fully as I could, unsure what the legal and financial consequences might be but feeling ready to accept them. When all the interviews were over, I phoned my insurance company’s investigator, who’d seemed sympathetic, to ask if she knew anything about the man I’d hit. She shared what she’d learned from the police.

His name was Roberto González. He was 18, from Mexico. Several months before the crash, he’d crossed the border to join his older brother, who had immigrated earlier and found farmwork in California’s Central Valley.

I hung up and started crying. His name was Roberto. And he was a farmworker—I’d thought so.

The brother told the police through an interpreter that he, Roberto, and their fellow crewmembers finished up in the artichoke fields a little before dark. Then, everyone except Roberto jumped on the old bikes stockpiled on the farm for carless workers. Roberto said he’d join them after a bathroom break, and they told him to meet them down Highway 1, at a farmhouse near Año Nuevo.

The brother guessed that, when done, Roberto had grabbed a bike and sped down the farm road to the highway, anxious to catch up with the others. The brother also guessed that Roberto hadn’t stopped to check for traffic before starting across Highway 1: it probably looked rural and lightly traveled to him, not like a roadway with traffic doing sixty miles an hour.

But that’s how fast I was driving as I came around the curve to Roberto’s right. The old bike he was riding had no lights or reflectors, and I hit him broadside. He landed in a field well behind the point of impact, and even farther behind where I screeched to a stop. Helmetless, he died almost immediately, the coroner determined, from massive internal injuries.

I hung up and started crying. His name was Roberto. And he was a farmworker—I’d thought so. Remembering his windbreaker and jeans, I’d realized he wasn’t a hardcore cyclist in spandex, or a T-shirted Santa Cruz student on a long ride up from campus. I’d wondered if he was one of the homeless men who pedal slowly along Highway 1 with all their possessions, but his bike had been bare, and he’d looked clean-shaven in my windshield.

I had tried for years to support the families of farmworkers, and now I knew I had devastated a farmworker family. And now I knew that Roberto had been only 18 when he died. I cried and cried.


A month after the crash, the insurance investigator called to tell me that the police had closed my case and declared me officially not at fault. “And there’s no way there’s going to be a civil suit,” she assured me. “You were in your lane going straight, you weren’t speeding, you stopped right away, you weren’t under the influence, you have a good driving record.”

“Well, if everything’s over,” I asked, “could you or the police tell me how to reach Roberto’s brother? Or his name, or where he works? I know some Spanish, so I could talk with him, if he wants. And I could offer to help with the funeral expenses and—”

She cut me off, the warmth in her voice gone. “No, no, no. You’re absolutely not going to contact him. I shouldn’t have told you about him.”

“But it seems like it’s all over legally—”

“Let sleeping dogs lie. You’re not at fault.”

“But if I’m not at fault—”

“Let me be clear. You absolutely must not contact him. You never know how words will be used. Don’t even think of saying something. We could both get in trouble, and I’m not interested in losing my job.”

“But—”

“Tell me you will not contact him.”

I agreed, taken aback by her sudden anger. And scared, for both of us.

“Great,” she said, warm again. “And, hey, I see your car’s ready.”

This was not good news. I hated the thought of being reunited with my car. I delayed my trip to the body shop as long as I could.

When I finally made my way there, the cashier detected my nervousness. “Don’t worry,” she said, “you’d never know it hit a deer. They can do a lot of damage, but it’s good as new now.”

“Oh, no,” I blurted, “it wasn’t a deer.”

She noticed the tears in my eyes. “Oh, I see,” she mumbled. We finished the paperwork in silence. She hesitated before handing me the key, and I hesitated before taking it and walking to my car.

I opened the driver’s door slowly, and sank into the seat reluctantly. Deathmobile, I thought. Deathmobile.

That word came to me every time I got into the car, which I kept until it fell apart years later—I didn’t want to burden an innocent buyer with it. In fact, I began thinking of all cars as deathmobiles, though I kept this thought to myself.


In the first few months after the crash, I was awash in pain and grief. Time alone or unfilled was torment, so I went back to my job, commuting on an inland route. But nothing I did felt worthwhile in the wake of Roberto’s death. In fact, all the “save the world” work I’d ever done seemed meaningless.

Before the crash, I’d been known for my high energy and fierce concentration, my frequent jokes and avid conversation. Now even minor activities exhausted me. And I couldn’t focus, as my mind turned and returned to the crash or to—nothing at all. I didn’t smile or laugh, because I didn’t feel stirrings of amusement or happiness. When I wasn’t at work, I seldom spoke.

My partner and my closest friends urged me to talk about the crash as often and as much as I needed. But I just kept asking, “How could this have happened? How can I go on? What should I do?” They offered answers, but I was beyond reach. I could only repeat my questions.

Worried about wearing out my loved ones, I asked myself if I’d ever known anyone who’d been a driver in a fatal collision, someone I could call. But I couldn’t think of a soul.

What about books? Had anyone ever written a memoir about a crash like mine? Library catalogs showed nothing, and the Internet, then in its early years, returned no results.

Then I had an idea. Years before, I’d read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Now I wanted to reread it, though I wasn’t sure why. I found the book on my shelves and finished it in one sitting.

Fussell movingly describes the loss of innocence among World War I’s first wave of Allied soldiers, who marched off to war amid rhetoric about nobility and invincibility. Many imagined they wouldn’t have to fire a shot, yet found themselves becoming killers amid chaos, terror, and blood.

I didn’t for a second equate my experience on Highway 1 with the Great War. But I found myself resonating with the soldiers’ shock and disillusionment. Ever since childhood, I’d wanted to save lives, yet I had become a killer.

The book made me feel less alone. But soon, I started bleeding, in a mammoth, continuous menstrual flow. Anemic after a few weeks, I went to see a gynecologist. She took my history and suggested an antidepressant when I told her about the crash. “No, thanks,” I said. “It isn’t really something I want a prescription for.” I wanted her to fix my bleeding, not my suffering.

Highway lights

Light trails on a highway at night. Greg Pease / Getty Images


Four months after the crash, my bleeding finally over, I felt I had to do something to regain life force, to rejoin the world. I was neglecting my family, my job, my friends. I didn’t want to put the crash behind me—that felt disrespectful. So did the idea of healing—I hadn’t been the person hit. But I did want somehow to move into the crash, explore its meaning.

I realized I should try therapy. But this felt daunting—“taking a life” was not a condition that appeared in psychotherapist listings. My partner saw that I was overwhelmed by the challenge of finding a match and made a suggestion. My repeated questions had reminded her of a teacher she’d gotten to know while training to become a career counselor: David Lerner.

A career counselor? Work issues were far from my mind. And I was unimpressed by the couple of details she’d mentioned about David over the years: his grand passion for hamburgers and his mixed experience with hair transplants. But I made an appointment with him.

David’s home, where he saw clients, was in a suburban condo complex that looked like a converted motel. His downstairs office smelled of mold and featured a green shag rug, tilted lampshades, and heaped piles of dusty books and magazines. And David himself? His comb-over and baggy khakis brought Woody Allen to mind.

I lowered myself carefully onto his worn plaid couch, having decided against the beanbag chair next to it. Opposite me, he smiled warmly and asked how I was doing. There was something about him—I started to cry. And cry. And cry some more.

Tears had never come easily to me, especially with men. But in my first meetings with David, all I did was cry and repeat the same questions: “How could this have happened? How can I go on? What should I do?”

“I don’t know,” he always answered, quietly, patiently. “But I really want to talk about all of this with you.”

No, you don’t, I thought. I was trapped in pain and grief, and I was afraid I’d trap him in tedium. I decided to tell him at our next meeting that it would be our last.

But as soon as we sat down, he pulled out a paperback he said he’d just bought: The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, by Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. “I have no idea what this title means, but I saw it and thought of you.”

Like him, I’d never heard of the book or its author. But I surprised myself by saying that I knew what the title meant, at least to me. “I don’t want to escape the crash, David. I want to go into it, not around it. I don’t know if that’s wise, but it’s right for me.”

I kept on crying with him, but I also started talking more, feeling as if we had all the time in the world. “I can’t believe the crash was just an accident. I know what I remember, and I know what the police report says, but I must’ve done something to cause it. It couldn’t have just happened.”

“Well,” David said gently, “it sounds like Roberto just happened to bike across your path.”

“Things don’t just ‘happen.’ How do I know I didn’t check my mirror right then?”

“You don’t know. But what if you did? Are you going to stop checking your mirror?”

I didn’t know how someone determined to save the world could have found herself killing someone. I didn’t know how I could go on, or what I should do.

We had this exchange several times before I realized that sometimes things just happen—that, despite what I’d believed all my life, not everything can be explained, much less controlled.

“But,” I said to David, “this means that anything can happen.”

“Yes,” he said softly. “You’re someone who really knows that.”

I did know it. And I didn’t like it. “So anything can happen,” I said grimly. “You just never know.”

“Yes,” he said again, tears in his eyes. “Anything can happen. You just never know.”

When he repeated my words, they felt different to me. They felt comforting. Sheepishly, I asked him to write them down—and I looked at the stained, torn scrap of paper many times before our next meeting. “You know,” I told him then, “I think these are words to live by. At least, I’m going to try to live by them.”

I didn’t know why death had come to Roberto at the start of adulthood, rather than to me in middle age, and I didn’t know what I could do to balance the loss of his life. I didn’t know how someone determined to save the world could have found herself killing someone. I didn’t know how I could go on, or what I should do. But I was willing to wait, with David, for answers to come. Or not.

After several months of conversation with David, I noticed that I was smiling, even laughing, from time to time. I was able to concentrate on what most needed my attention. I was doing more and more, with less and less fatigue. I was even driving more. In my first road trip since the crash, I managed a week-long visit to a retreat center that involved eight hours of driving, much of it coastal. And there I welcomed solitude for the first time since the crash.

I came home eager to tell David about my retreat. But it was several weeks before he responded to my voicemail about meeting times, and his return message said he couldn’t schedule any appointments: he’d learned he had an aggressive cancer, and he was starting a long-shot treatment during which he’d be unreachable. It was the last time I heard his voice. Soon after, his girlfriend wrote to say he had died, at 46.


David and I hadn’t had all the time in the world. But his sudden, heartbreaking death didn’t keep me from hearing his words, feeling his presence, and wanting, at last, to heal. I decided to read that Pema Chödrön book whose title we’d pondered together—and soon I found myself studying Buddhism avidly.

I discovered many wonderful teachers, but I was most drawn to the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose talks and books made a point of offering “loving kindness” to people who had caused injury or death, including veterans of the war that had devastated his homeland. I carefully saved up vacation days to attend his retreats, where he listened raptly and responded tenderly to distraught Vietnam vets and former prisoners. Ohhhh, I thought, feeling my heart open to them and to myself—this is what he means by loving kindness.

So I phoned one of his students, a ritual creator, when I wanted to mark the fifth anniversary of my crash by building a small altar at the scene. She helped me decide what to put on it, what to say over it. Then she asked if I did loving kindness meditation around the crash.

“Of course,” I said. “I never meditate without offering Roberto loving kindness. It’s very important to me.”

“But do you offer yourself loving kindness?”

“I don’t deserve—I mean, I don’t need it,” I started to protest. Then I stopped, startled by what I’d said.

A few days later, I drove from San Francisco down Highway 1 for the first time since the crash. I parked across from the farm road, took a deep breath, and walked slowly up the highway to where I remembered Roberto lying among the artichokes. I knelt where the shoulder met the field. Then, my hands trembling, I carefully laid out an altar for the 18-year-old I had met there but had never known. I softly read the poems I’d chosen for him. And I silently offered loving kindness to us both.

After creating the roadside altar, I began talking more often about the crash, remembering an exchange I’d had with David. “I can’t just bring it up whenever I feel like it,” I’d told him. “Are you sure?” he’d replied. And so I started mentioning the crash to people when the time felt right—and they responded with compassion that touched and amazed me.

My father surprised me most of all. I had learned over a lifetime not to expect sympathy from him for my woes. So I hadn’t mentioned the crash to him when, six years later, he called to tell me that his church book club had just discussed a short story by Andre Dubus.

“I thought of you because it’s about a father and daughter. He covers up for her after she kills someone in a car accident and leaves the scene. Pretty interesting.”

I was stunned. Had I told him about my crash? No, definitely not. Should I mention it? Was I old enough and sturdy enough to handle his reaction? Was fate nudging me to take a chance? I decided to tell him.

When I finished, I heard him crying. I had never known him even to tear up over someone else’s pain.

“I can’t believe you went through that, honey,” he said hoarsely. “You should have told me.”

Aha, I thought, bracing myself. Now we’ll discuss my failure to inform him about an experience he’ll end up minimizing.

But no. “Are you okay now? That must’ve been horrible. I feel bad for you.”

I’d never heard those five words from him. And he never said them again: he lived for only a year more. But they stayed with me that whole year, softening my heart and bringing us closer.


As I studied Buddhism and talked more openly about the crash, my waking hours became more peaceful. Although I shuddered and teared up whenever I encountered a collision onscreen or in real life, my crash no longer dominated my days. But my nights were another story. I fell asleep easily, but I often woke up suddenly, shivering and anxious. I never remembered my nightmares in detail, but they always brought the same message: We’re not done yet.

I didn’t know what to do about my haunting dreams, or whether I should do anything about them. Maybe, I thought, I should go on losing sleep—Roberto had lost his life. Then I remembered an article I’d read years before, about a self-exploratory process called holotropic breath work. “Alternative healing” had always made me nervous, but I decided to make an appointment with a breath-work practitioner who, reassuringly, was also a nurse.

She greeted me warmly, then unrolled a foam pad and told me to lie down. After covering me with blankets, she demonstrated what she wanted me to do: breathe faster and faster, deeper and deeper, without ever holding my breath. Then she gave me headphones, explaining that I’d be hearing dramatic music from the CD player she put next to me. I closed my eyes and began breathing as she’d shown me.

With classical music in my ears, I felt at first like I was just meditating. But then I heard the low, resonant chants of Tibetan monks. As I quickened my breathing, their rumbling voices began to feel ominous, even frightening.

I’ve come to appreciate my shudders and tears: they remind me to stop and offer a blessing for drivers, bicyclists, passengers, pedestrians, responders.

My body tensed, I wanted to tear off the headphones—and then I found myself floating at twilight above a highway winding through farm fields. On one side, the fields gave way to ocean. On the other, they were divided by a small road that joined the highway in a T. As I watched, a car appeared on the highway and a bicyclist on the side road. They were converging on the T. Neither one was slowing. They met.

Suddenly I was much higher, in a night sky, among stars. Someone was with me, but we didn’t look at each other or speak. We floated for a long time together, gazing down at the green-blue earth far below, our meeting-place now too distant to be visible. Then I felt him start to move away. “Thank you,” I whispered. “Thank you for coming.”

I never had another nightmare about the crash.


The breath work didn’t keep me from shuddering when I heard sirens, from crying when I saw a car crash, from thinking about Roberto when driving, daydreaming, drifting to sleep. But I’ve come to appreciate my shudders and tears: they remind me to stop and offer a blessing for drivers, bicyclists, passengers, pedestrians, responders. Besides, I never want to push Roberto away: he is always welcome in my mind and heart. Every day I whisper to his mother: “Your son is real to me—I think of the baby you held in your arms, the boy who ran home to you after soccer, the father he never got to be.” And every day I tell Roberto, “I will never forget you, as long as I live.”

 

Shane Snowdon, who holds a master’s degree from Starr King School for the Ministry, was a special student at Harvard Divinity School from 2014 to 2016. A longtime public health advocate, she is writing a book about fatal auto crashes. In this piece, names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

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Old Souls, New World

Marilynne Robinson

Illustration for Old Souls, New World

Illustration by Jörn Kaspuhl

This essay will appear in What Are We Doing Here?, forthcoming from Farrar, Staus and Giroux in February 2018. © 2017 Marilynne Robinson.

 

The long-prevalent belief that what is proposed as truth or reason can only be credited in the degree that it is consistent with the strata of physical reality by any means available to our experience is mistaken. It is mistaken in its conception of the nature of the physical, and, therefore, in the nature of everything else. It has insisted that what it offers as the sole model of reality is exhaustively pertinent to every meaningful question about reality, dismissing as not meaningful every question to which it is not pertinent. But, for some time now, science has been fetching back strange reports, about the radical apparent discontinuity between volatile reality at the subatomic level and the stolid lawfulness of reality at the scale of our experience, for example. The fathomless anomalies of the infinitesimal present as any ordinary day, any transient thought. We know now that physical being as we experience it is wildly untypical in cosmic terms. Reality as we know it now does not yield or legitimize a narrow or prejudicial vocabulary. Science has given us grounds for a liberating humility. We need not continue to encumber our thinking with strictures it has long since put aside.

We should instead be finding language that is capable, capacious, and responsive. The expectations induced by any fixed approach should be relaxed, in pondering history as surely as in considering human nature or the depths of physical reality. Ideology has been a terrible mistake, theory another one. Both mimic positivism in their stringencies and exclusions. There is no writer, and so on. Why should any given thing have happened? No theory, no convention or prejudice, should take precedence over the fact that, if it did happen, it arose out of the endless complexity of human life, human lives. The Puritan Thomas Shepard, generally credited with founding Harvard, remarked that a man with a wooden leg could trim his foot to fit his shoe, but in the case of a living limb this would not be advisable. Those who think about history should avoid such trimming, since they deal with living flesh, specifically those human swarms whose passage through the world is the sum and substance of history.

We have not yet absorbed the fact that history has fallen into our laps now. We hardly know what it is, let alone what we should do with it. We have been busy destroying the landmarks that might otherwise help us orient ourselves. We have impoverished ourselves of every sense of how, over time, a society emerged that we and most of the world have considered decent and fortunate. Could we save this good order from a present threat? If it collapsed, could we rebuild it? These are real questions.

The stringencies and inadequacies of positivism in all its forms have sent me to the literature of early modern, pre-positivist thought, where its attritions were not yet felt. I have been reading some old sermons and treatises by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and Anglo-Americans. I have been reading the Puritans. I confess to being drawn to orphan figures, movements, and periods. My reward is in the discovery of their frequently remarkable value and significance. It was no doubt inevitable that I would come finally to the Puritans, among the most effectively dismissed of all historically consequential movements. They are seldom mentioned except as a pernicious influence on our civilization, both early and abiding. Few grounds are offered to support this view of them, and those that are offered are ill-informed. That name “Puritan,” affixed to them polemically, has singled them out for a particular dislike which we have learned to share. Arthur Golding, in the Epistle Dedicatorie to his translation of Calvin’s commentary on Galatians (1574), remarks wistfully that there are those who “are in the eyes of some persons not only to be despised but also blamed; verily as who should say it were a fault to endeavor to be faultless.” It is curious that the desire to live a scrupulous life should be anyone else’s business. And what were the transgressions of which Puritans were particularly aware? Errors in their own thinking. Hypocrisies and idolatries. They are supposed to have frowned upon the joys of life, to have had a special, dark obsession with sexuality, to have hated all things beautiful. None of this is true.

Puritans
Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans.
US History Images.

There is a strong tradition of piety in Europe, reaching back to the twelfth century at least, that is always denounced in just these terms whenever it becomes visible enough to seem to authorities to pose a challenge. Notably, these groups were the Albigensians or Cathars and the Waldensians in southern France and northern Italy and Spain, the Lollards in England, and after them the English Puritans. The earlier groups were all seen as heretics. They were violently suppressed. The writings of the Cathars were burned, and what records we have of them are testimonies made under torture, so it is difficult to know much about them. We do know that they were the civilization of the troubadour poets and the courts of love. Oddly, they and the other groups were and are all associated with an aversion to sex. Considering the struggles the dominant traditions themselves have had with this aspect of human nature, it is strange that this notion about dissenter groups should serve as an aspersion against them. Nevertheless, it was and is employed consistently and effectively against supposed heresies, despite every change of moral climate. Where the aversion to sexuality is strong, the status of women is generally low, particularly in matters of religion. Albigensian teachers and clergy were male and female indifferently. Lollards denounced priestly celibacy as a disparagement of women. Puritans idealized marriage and educated their daughters. I have looked farther into the matter than most people, and I have found no evidence of special anxiety on this subject, in fact very little mention of it at all. Puritans had a serious interest in sin, and they also had their own definition of it. From what I have seen, the great sin in the Puritan understanding is religious hypocrisy within their own churches and within their own minds—evangelical hypocrisy, in the words of Thomas Shepard. Their rigors were felt inwardly, among themselves and within themselves. Self-scrutiny was mastered as a discipline.

The association of Puritanism with sexual repression in Anglo-American cultural history has significant effects. Any writer who is a little salacious now and then, or who translated Ovid, say, could not have been a Puritan, even though that translator, Arthur Golding, also put many of the Latin and French works of John Calvin into English. In fact, in his preface to Calvin’s commentary on the book of Daniel, Golding says of him: “As I do profess myselfe to be one of his scholers, and do prayse God for the same more than any earthly matter: so do I not of arrogance alter or change any thing in his writings.” Golding was making his translations in the 1570s and 1580s. Since his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a major source for his plays, there is no reason to assume Shakespeare would not have picked up others of Golding’s books. The commentary on Daniel deals at length with a question of great interest to Shakespeare and his period: what a ruler’s legitimacy consists in, and why and how it can be lost. The imposing of an inappropriate test on the vast literary output of the English Renaissance, which was also the English Reformation and which encompassed the rise of Puritanism, very effectively minimizes the influence of the movement and mischaracterizes its focus, its temper and worldview.

There is a stigma attached to this influential strain of early modern thought that generally forecloses the possibility of interest in it or respectful attention to it. It is no help at all to say Puritans were Calvinists, since every aspersion cast on them is cast on him as well, on no better grounds. These stigmas have created dead zones in British and American historical thought—around Geneva, around the English Civil Wars, around early New England, and even around the English Renaissance, a period celebrated and pondered endlessly—within limits that seem unaccountably narrow unless the power of stigma is taken into account. The influence of Geneva as a republic governed by elected councils, the importance of the English Civil Wars, which, in crucial respects, were a model for the French Revolution, and the formative first century and more of our own civilization all tend to be badly dealt with or effectively ignored. Even great Shakespeare has been caught in these snares.

English Civil War woodcut

“A dialogue, or, Rather a parley betweene Prince Ruperts dogge whose name is Puddle, and Tobies dog whose name is Pepper.” Woodcut from a pamphlet published in early 1643, one year into the English Civil Wars (1642–1651). The image portrays the feather-capped, long-haired, spur-wearing cavaliers (the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and his son Charles II) contrasted with the plain-hatted roundheads (supporters of the Parliament of England). A detailed description of the pamphlet can be found on Nick Poyntz’s blog Mercurius Politicus.

 

I have been using the word “Puritan” without defining it. There was no church or institution by that name, no membership in any formal sense. The word in England was applied to nonconformist or dissenting Protestants—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and anyone else—who did not accept the legitimacy, or the claims to exclusive legitimacy, of the newly created Church of England. The affinity of these groups is demonstrated in their years of military effectiveness and in their sustaining a parliamentary government for a decade, more or less, until Oliver Cromwell died, leaving no competent successor. Before battle, or when there were important decisions to be made, their soldiers would separate according to their various sects to pray, then come together again to plan or to debate. The unity among them was not untroubled—the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists fought two major battles against each other around the issue of monarchy, which was less acceptable to Congregationalists than to Presbyterians. But over the course of years of warfare, the population did divide along the lines of Puritan or Parliamentarian and Anglican or Royalist. This division justifies the use of terms that by themselves do not do justice to the complexity of either side. The best of the Puritan writers are now claimed for the Anglicans, which can be confusing. But if they were forbidden to preach, jailed, forbidden to come within five miles of a city, or inclined to making long stays in Rotterdam, or if they emigrated to New England or thought about it, it’s safe to say they were Puritans.

The stream of Puritanism that landed in New England and flourished here, and was greatly supplemented by the arrival of refugees fleeing the consequences of the collapse of the revolutionary government and the restoration of monarchy in England, had a highly characteristic intellectual culture. Its theological stronghold was Cambridge University. It was based on the paramount authority of scripture, for them understood as an ancient text in three ancient languages, counting Aramaic. Their clergy were trained in these languages, as well as in Latin, so that they would be competent interpreters of a text that was never definitively rendered in any translation. This by itself marks a great difference between their religious consciousness and that of all our modern supposed literalists. There was a great, treasured difficulty at the center of Puritan culture that enlisted them in the study of history, of antiquity in general, and of the natural sciences, which by their lights gave insight into the nature of God as Creator and as Presence. For all these reasons they needed a Harvard, and a Yale, a Princeton and Dartmouth, a Grinnell and Oberlin and Mount Holyoke, and, while their influence lasted, scores of other schools, private and public. We can and do dismiss this intellectualism as elitist, congratulating ourselves for the distinct modesty of our own aspirations. But the American Puritans maintained a historically high level of literacy in their population. In England and Europe their immediate forebears had struggled and died to create a Bible in English, which could be understood by the unlearned. This became the basis of all later Bibles in English, including the Authorized (King James) Version.

Engraving of Puritans

Hand-colored engraving depicting Puritans about to emigrate from England, 14th century. World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.


From the time of Wycliffe forward, England had a population they called the unlearned, who were literate in English or knew someone who was. Learnedness meant competence in Latin and French, later perhaps in Greek and Hebrew. When the press made books relatively cheap, translators made history and theological and classical literature accessible to readers of English, removing an important cultural barrier. Golding omitted Calvin’s occasional brooding over a word in Greek or Hebrew out of consideration for what he called the unlearned reader, assuming at the same time that the reader would be interested in a work of theology. Writers in this period often quote passages in Latin, and then, unfailingly, they translate them. This was the period of the chronicle histories, a narrative of national life which could be read by the literate unlearned. Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s use of translated classics and of histories written in English might be thought of as a part of all this, offering Aeneas and Antony, Edward II and Richard II to audiences avid for a kind of aesthetic and intellectual experience that had always before been closed to them.

The lessons and sermons of Puritan preachers propagated the kind of learning required of their clergy and were printed and circulated in Britain and America. Again, their learnedness might have been welcomed because it was also a breaking down of these same exclusions. Perry Miller describes a Puritan sermon as a “closely knit, carefully reasoned, and solidly organized disquisition.” The preacher “argues his way step by step, inexorably disposing of point after point, quoting Biblical verses, citing authorities, watching for fallacies in logic, drawing upon the sciences for analogies, utilizing any information that seems pertinent.” Miller says, writing in 1939, “[The Puritan preacher] demands a degree of close attention that would seem staggering to modern audiences and is not to be paralleled in modern churches.”1 Or, I would say, in modern universities. The rigor the preacher demanded of himself, like the brilliance Shakespeare allowed himself, reflected confidence in his hearers, and deep respect for them. The pious would take away a meaningful education from their hours in church. There were no women in the universities, but there were women in the pews. In the Wycliffite manner, the Puritan elite worked to close the gap between themselves and people at large.

Woodcut of first worship in New Haven

Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration of Puritans, led by John Davenport, as they celebrate their first Sunday at New Haven, Connecticut, 1630s. North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo.


Let us say that their early culture in America assumed the appropriateness of educating the general population ambitiously. Granted, their instruction was always fundamentally religious, as it would have been anywhere in the Western world. I know that early New England is very usually described as “theocratic.” So is Calvin’s Geneva. What this can have meant at the time, when rulers in England and throughout Europe felt justified in imposing religious conformity by means of the most extreme violence, I have never understood. The norms of the West then certainly made New Englanders liable to practices that we might consider oppressive, though at the moment we seem to be tending away from enlightenment ourselves. Still, the word “theocratic” is applied to them as if tolerance flourished elsewhere and they alone resisted its sweet influence. This is profoundly at odds with history.

Meaningful comparisons are available. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 is largely a list of protections, of citizens of the colony, notably those who are accused or convicted of crimes. It forbids double jeopardy, provides for representation and appeal, and forbids “bodily punishments” that are “inhumane, barbarous or cruel.” It includes protections of women, children, servants, foreigners and strangers, and animals, forbidding “any tyranny or cruelty toward any brute creatures which are usually kept for man’s use.” And it concludes with a list of twelve capital crimes, with the biblical verses cited that permit and/or require this punishment. This code is attributed to the American Puritan minister Nathaniel Ward. It was revised seven years later, in 1648, in the somewhat more pedestrian and punitive Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts.

Dale’s Laws, named for the governor of Virginia in 1611, when the code was approved by the colonial council in England and enacted in that colony, is a very different thing. It begins with a list of infractions to be punished by death, beyond those commanded by Moses, which are there also. These capital offenses include: speaking impiously or maliciously against the Holy Trinity or any of its Persons, blaspheming the name of God a third time, speaking traitorous words against the king’s person or authority, speaking derisively of God’s holy word, being absent three times from twice-daily divine service, stealing from a church, speaking derisively a third time of the king’s council that governed this “pious and Christian plantation,” taking food from a garden, or, surely the most understandable of crimes, running off to the Indians. Newcomers were to present themselves to a minister to give an account of their faith, to be instructed if necessary, and to be flogged each time they failed to submit to instruction. Notably missing from the Virginia laws is the slightest legal protection for people vulnerable to even extreme punishments. Notably missing from the Massachusetts laws are compulsory church attendance and compulsory religious instruction, or laws against disrespect of clergy or of scripture. In other words, these ungodly and unbiblical laws imposed on the Virginians from London were “theocratic” as the word is usually understood. The laws of the Puritans, with their insistence on two or three witnesses in capital cases, their restraints on the severity of punishments, their protections of servants and widows, derive very largely from the Old Testament. The verses that authorize them could as well be cited, as are those that authorize capital punishment. So I suppose these laws might appropriately be called theocratic, if the word were ever used with a little precision.

1641 woodcut

A 1641 woodcut in a tract which shows the godliness of the Puritan, at left, holding his Bible, contrasting with the superstitions preached by William Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury) and his fellow bishops.World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.


Severity is so utterly associated with Puritanism that I feel compelled to emphasize my point here. Dale’s Laws are Anglican. The church whose doctrines are enforced in them by flogging is the Church of England. The Puritans and the Church of England were adversaries, within years of engaging as adversaries in two wars that would destroy a larger percentage of the British population than any other war the British have engaged in. So it is with civil wars. In any case, I have learned from my attempts to do them a little historical justice that when I so much as mention harshness or oppression, people will hear the word Puritan, or, possibly, Calvinist. Those who comment on the Massachusetts codes always remark on how closely they anticipate the American Bill of Rights, how modern they are. I’ve gone looking for that English common law they are often supposed to have been based on. Fortescue, More, Coke—no luck at all. Advice would be appreciated. Oddly, there seems never to be any mention of Moses.

Be that as it may. There are problems with the comparison of these two codes. Dale’s Laws is older by a crucial generation or two, pre-Revolutionary, while the Massachusetts laws were formulated during the period of the Commonwealth and rule by Parliament. This fact would have meant both that England was engrossed in its own struggles, giving the colonies new latitude, and that the tendency of society away from the monarchical order would encourage a more local, communitarian ethos. The Laws and Liberties begins: “To our Beloved Brethren and Neighbors the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts.” The preface to Dale’s Laws says that they reflect the king’s interest in advancing “true religion” and “the glory of God.” There is a stated intent to bring the light of the Gospel to those barbarous Indians.

The Virginia colony struggled bitterly, though it was considered to be in a much more favorable location than Massachusetts. It approached starvation and anarchy. This would account in some part for the seemingly desperate severity of these laws. At the same time, the severity of the laws might have stood in the way of any sense of a common interest. Winthrop’s speech on the importance of mutual charity to the survival and success of his settlement appears to have been borne out. Also, there was an unusual degree of consensus among the Massachusetts colonists to support civic order, while Virginia had the advantage and misfortune of a military presence to enforce submission.


Certain peculiarities in the long moment of American Puritanism must be considered. It was, so to speak, a branch that fell from the trunk of Anglo-European civilization during the storms of religious contention and societal disruption. That is to say, it was a culture already formed around certain ideals and practices, and already preoccupied by matters meaningful in the context of the old civilization. The conflicts that severed them were longstanding, a fact which accounts for the maturity and stability of Puritan institutions. New Englanders did not grope for a new social ethos or order. They knew who they were. American Puritanism did not simply come into being ex nihilo, or as if spontaneously generated by the contact of certain somber English persons with a remarkably frigid shore, though history tends to treat it this way. It was in its general outlines an old presence in English life, long suppressed, briefly dominant, then suppressed again. Under Queen Mary particularly, dissenters had fled to Europe, where there were cities, in Germany, France, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Bohemia, and elsewhere, which had already organized themselves in accordance with Reformed social thought and which Reformed English saw as models. Puritanism is an English name for the local expression of a movement that was in fact actively international. The term has been effective in creating the impression that people to whom it was applied were narrow, eccentric, and naïve, though they printed and translated each other’s books, studied and taught in each other’s universities, afforded each other shelter in times of persecution, and fought in each other’s wars, as many English did on behalf of the Dutch Republic. Colonial Puritans traveled to Britain and involved themselves deeply in British affairs, including the Civil War and the Commonwealth government.

Woodcut - burning at stake
“The Burning of Katherine Cawches and her two Daughters in the Isle of Garnsey,” etching from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Circa 1710–67. The British Museum.

The English Puritans were so prone to writing and printing that there is no special difficulty in reconstructing their forgotten history, once one is aware of their forgotten literature. One vast work, highly popular in England and America, is sufficient by itself to demonstrate their understanding of themselves and their origins. This is The Acts and Monuments of the Martyrs, by John Foxe, which covers, in truly incredible detail, the history of the church—in his view the true church—from its earliest origins in the beginning of the Christian era to the time in which Foxe wrote. The true and primitive church, for him, is the dissenting tradition.

This might seem a naïve undertaking. But Foxe’s book is in fact heavily documented, with early treatises in Greek and Latin and their translations, letters to and from popes, disputations on theological subjects which are long dialogues in Latin and then English. Golding, in translating Calvin, uses the word “historiography,” which otherwise I might have considered an anachronism in this context. Foxe’s work, which grew to three huge volumes, is by far the most sophisticated historiography I have encountered—ever, I suppose. Obviously it is not without bias. Nothing of the kind could be. I am in no position to authenticate the hundreds of documents the volumes contain, though I have seen nothing—in the letters of Mary Tudor to her half-brother Edward VI, for example—that is at odds with what I have seen elsewhere. The theological disputations stand on their own, without tendentious interpretations. There is careful attention to the reigns of kings, including those who figure in Shakespeare’s plays. The chronicle histories draw on Foxe. Where in the world all this material could have come from I have no idea. The books were printed, meticulously, by John Day, an important publisher of dissenting works. They are illustrated with engravings famous for their depictions of martyrdoms, and more appropriately famous for their quality. I have read that Foxe’s adherence to the truth has been questioned in some particulars. Clearly, I am the last person in the world to believe in the infallibility of any history. But, granting that there surely are errors in such an enormous work, not to mention questionable assumptions and interpretations, and that it was produced to champion one side in a passionate debate, it can nevertheless tell us a great deal about who the Puritans believed they were and about the legacy they embraced.

Illustration from Foxes Book of Martyrs

“Death of [Archbishop Thomas] Cranmer,” by Joseph Martin Kronheim, a German-born lithographer and wood engraver, 1887, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Puritans felt they were in a line of descent of defenders of an original Christianity, by which they meant those who lived before, or rejected what they took to be historical accretions: the papacy, the Sacrifice of the Mass, transubstantiation and communion in one kind, priestly celibacy and celibacy of women religious, auricular confession, purgatory and prayers for the dead, pilgrimages and crusades, and the use of icons, among them. From what we can know about earlier suppressed movements in England, in all these things they did anticipate the Reformation. Over years and generations there was a furtive traffic in forbidden texts that is demonstrated by the punishments of those found in possession of them.

I will argue that Puritanism in Anglo-American tradition took a distinctive character from a particular constellation of events of the fourteenth century—the brief flourishing of a high literature in English, the Black Death, John Wycliffe’s career as a professor at Oxford, the translation by him or under his influence of the whole Bible from Latin into English, and the rise of Lollardy. I know I am entering contested territory here. It is usual to say that English Protestants retrojected Protestantism onto this moment opportunistically. Protestantism is an inexact word here. Puritanism would be much better. In any case, ideas have origins, and influences are real and constitute a lineage of true legitimacy and importance. Historical figures are historical because they set in motion change they themselves could not anticipate and might not endorse in every particular. These writers whom it is supposedly wrong to regard as Proto-Puritan articulated ideas that could only have shaped Puritanism in the very fact of their appropriation, even if it were granted that there is no more direct relationship among them. I will note here that stigma is again a factor in all this. “Lollard” is usually said to refer to slurred speech, associating this movement with the lower classes. According to the OED, its first meaning is: “A name of contempt given in the 14th c. to certain heretics, who were either followers of Wyclif or held opinions similar to his.” A great part of the work of bad history is done by these terms of contempt. In light of this scorn, it might seem odd that Puritans’ claim to this “heretical” movement should be rejected. But, as it happened, the first great period in English literature was somehow associated with it. Geoffrey Chaucer was, like Wycliffe, a friend of John of Gaunt, uncle to King Richard the Second. William Langland may have been a Lollard himself. John Gower, a friend of Chaucer, was active at the time, writing his odd, didactic poetry. Wycliffe is ranked among these great early writers in English, for his prose. So there is enormous prestige attached to it all, however uneasily.

An interesting and remarkable thing about Lollardy, or Wycliffism, is that the movement had impeccable intellectual origins and, in its early phase, attracted the support of people of rank. This is true at the same time that it was essentially a movement meant to liberate and elevate the impoverished and oppressed by giving them a Bible in their own language as well as sending out poor priests to instruct them in understanding it. John Wycliffe was a man of good family, a scholar, philosopher, and preacher of very high standing, known and admired by the powerful figures of the period, enjoying the loyalty of his colleagues. According to the article about him in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the essence of his teaching was “the immediate dependence of the individual Christian upon God, a relation which needs no mediation of any priest, and to which the very sacraments of the Church, however desirable, are not essentially necessary. . . . [He] divorces the idea of the Church from any connexion with its official or formal constitution, and conceives it as consisting exclusively of the righteous.”2 Radical as all this was at the time, Wycliffe is most remarkable for his having sponsored, at least, the creation of his Bible in English, its first version completed in 1382. To that time, of course, Latin and French were the languages of the upper classes, universities, government, and church. Sigmund Freud called Americans Lollards, intending no compliment. Still, he might have had a point. There was, in New England, a virtual aristocracy of learning and at the same time a commitment to making learning general that structured their institutions—churches, schools, and press. This looks more like Lollardy than like other social order of its time. By comparison, neither public education nor printing were characteristic of the Anglican South, in the colonial period or after it. The high populism of the Wycliffites, who after 1400 were burned for their efforts, their writings burned as well, put knowledge, and therefore autonomy of a kind, into the hands of ordinary people, the peasant, the plowman.

John Wycliffe portrait

Portrait of John Wycliffe by Thomas Kirby, 1827. Balliol College, University Of Oxford.

In 1348 the Black Death had struck England, diminishing the population of laborers so abruptly and severely that those who remained were able to negotiate for better wages or to travel to find better employment. Their standard of living rose, landowners took harsh steps to reverse these gains, and finally, in 1381, a powerful insurrection broke out called the Peasants’ War. Wycliffe and his teachings were blamed for this uprising. That he did inspire it in some degree is not unlikely. He provided a vivid instance of that intuition broadly shared by religions, and at times even by the religious, that human beings are sacred by nature. In this case as in many others, human sanctity is taken to imply basic human equality, or at least a basic right to fairness and respect.

Wycliffe wrote his thoughts on social conditions in language that could be understood by those who suffered under them. And he was furious. He said lords “should know God’s law and study and maintain it, and destroy wrong and maintain poor men in their right to live in rest, peace and charity, and suffer no men [under their authority] to do extortions, beat men, and hold poor men out of right by strength of lordships.” Instead, lords, prelates, and rich men “despise [poor men] and sometime beat them when they ask their pay. And thus lords devour poor mens goods in gluttony and waste and pride, and they perish for [hardship], and hunger and thirst and cold, and their children also; and if their rent be not readily paid . . . they [are] pursued without mercy, though they be never so poor and needy and overcharged with age, feebleness and loss of [possessions] and with many children.” These lords do not help a poor man to his right, “but rather withhold poor men their hire, for which they have spent their flesh and their blood. And so in a manner they eat poor men’s flesh and blood and are man killers. . . . Wherefore God says by the Prophet Isaiah, that such lords are the fellows of thieves and their hands are full of blood.”3

Wycliffe’s writings were seized and burned for more than two centuries, and yet I can read to you from a stout volume of his English works. His tradition never was successfully suppressed. In 1523, when Luther’s writings had begun to appear in England, Bishop Tunstall wrote to Erasmus that “It is no question of pernicious novelty, it is only that new arms are being added to the great band of Wycliffite heretics.”4 The similarity is more than coincidence, since Wycliffe’s Latin writings circulated widely in Europe. If Lollardy was indeed a part of the identity and memory the Puritans brought with them to America, the evidence is clearest in the nature of their spirituality—Lollards said, “Lord, our belief is that thine house is man’s soul.”5

Types of London Tradesmen

These tradesman are preachers in the city of London, 1647.” Broadside in British Museum. Timewatch Images / Alamy Stock Photo.


Another piece of evidence is again a difference between colonial Massachusetts and the colonial South. Even after the Restoration, London seems to have had relatively little interest in New England. The South was another matter. The king, Charles II, commissioned John Locke, of all people, to produce a document called The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, at the time a general name for the South. “Out of his grace and bounty” the king granted these laws so that “we may avoid erecting a numerous democracy.” Presumably this is a comment on the recently ended Commonwealth period, New England, or both. The Constitutions are meant to erect instead a land-based aristocracy with descending ranks of narrowing privilege, a hereditary nobility owning by inheritance land they cannot divide among heirs or otherwise alienate, so that the ranks and orders will remain as they are forever. These ranks have fanciful names: the palatine; beneath him landgraves, from the German; beneath him caziques, from the Haitian. Baronies figure somehow. Seldom mentioned are the leet-men, but conclusions can be drawn. Item 22 specifies that leet-men are subject to their particular lord without appeal, “Nor shall any leet-man or leet-woman have liberty to go off from the land of their particular lord and live anywhere else, without license obtained from their said lord, under hand and seal.” Here is item 23: “All the children of leet-men shall be leet-men, and so to all generations.” This model was not realized, but the fact that the royal government would have been supportive of a colonial neo-feudalism through all the years that passed between Charles II and George III, from 1669 to 1775, can be assumed to have had an effect. In light of this, the distinctiveness, indeed the radicalism, of the Massachusetts codes and social order can be seen as highly intentional. Item 110 of the Carolina Constitutions says, “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever”—in other words, Christian or not. The Massachusetts Liberties says: “There shall never be any bond slavery, villienage, or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawful Captives taken in just warres,” or people who are indentured. These are regrettable exceptions, but the code specifies that “these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require.” Again we see the liberalizing influence of Moses.

Title page of Johbn Eliot's Bible in Algonquin
Eliot Bible, in the Algonquin language, 1663.

With all respect to the great Southerners who contributed so much wisdom and eloquence to independent America, New England had already made a long experiment with liberty and equality—by the standards of the world at the time. The impositions of the royal government being limited in their case, they were relatively free to honor the old Lollard passion for ordinary people—first of all, as any good Wycliffites would do, by providing for their education. When John Eliot made his translation of the Bible into the Algonquin language, published in 1663, he was attempting to do what Wycliffe did when he put it into English.

I have not addressed every accusation made against the Puritans. Many have no basis in fact, or they fail to take into account English and European standards of the time, which very often make their severities seem mild. And the polemic against the Puritans has simply been done to death, a cultural tic which is mindless yet full of consequence because it leaves us without any sense of the origins of elements of our culture that we should be aware of, so that they can be valued and perpetuated, and so that the impetus behind them can be understood. It is true that the laws passed in the Southern colonial assemblies—when they were allowed to meet—were more rational and humane than those imposed on them from London. Still, they are no model for a free society. We need to give the Puritans their due.

New England was a long moment, an accident of history. The earliest immigrants meant to land in Virginia. If they had succeeded, no doubt many things would have been different, for them and for us. That some of them did make it through the first winter in New England and the disasters that followed seems again almost accidental. But they did, and they became a small but growing society. They were very strongly shaped by events, past and present, on the other side of the ocean—the Thirty Years’ War and then the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, and its collapse, which brought a flood of refugees of just the kind to reinforce an identity already formed. This is a singular history. If New England in the nineteenth century did not rise to what we considered—just a few months ago—to be civilized standards in its response to immigration, it is fair to consider the standards of those times, and our own vulnerability to the appeal of nativism—for which, as an exercise in honesty, we should shoulder the blame ourselves. In any case, the influx of people with very different histories, together with the pull of the opening continent, brought the Puritan moment to an end.

This does not mean that its influence has ended. There is still some point in speaking about this country in terms of its Puritan origins. They originated an understanding of law that made it a system of liberties rather than of prohibitions. They educated one another and themselves fervently and wrote and printed with a passion to be expected of people whose ancestors might once have been accused of heresy for knowing the Ten Commandments. We still educate very broadly, though we seem to be forgetting where this impulse came from, that it was at its source a sharing out of the riches of civilization, prompted by that old belief that the mind was meant to be God’s dwelling place. Education was, and I would say it still is, by far the most generous approach that can be made to the mysteries of mind, self, and soul, all of which know themselves as they create themselves. I approach tautology here, but this seems to be in the nature of the subject.

George Whitfield preaching

George Whitefield preaching in Moorfields, London, 1742. North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo.

 

Recently, I wrote an essay on Jonathan Edwards’s Treatise on the Religious Affections, that is, on the inward experience of religion. I was struck by how suspicious he was of these affections, how prone the religious were—in his opinion, and no doubt in his own experience as well—to self-deception, arrogance, and hypocrisy. By itself, this treatise might read as profound alienation from or disillusionment with his tradition and community. But Edwards provides lengthy footnotes, which cite great Puritan writers of the previous century, most of them English. They and he take the same view of the matter. The discipline of the mind to avoid presumption or any other abuse of the capacity to enjoy the knowledge of God is a great subject among them, before, during, and after their Revolution. So far from expressing alienation, Edwards was invoking classic Puritanism and also carrying the tradition forward. No doubt, his cautionary severity was called up by the passions of the Great Awakening, but he had major authorities ready to hand to second him in his warnings, which address tendencies in the human mind toward self-deception, hypocrisy, and the rest. It would be a crude reading of all this to assume that Puritans must have been more inclined to these faults than the generality of Christians. Since these faults were for them a primary sin, and a cause of sins, they may have managed to be a little less guilty of them than others. In any case, this is an important consequence of their exaltation of the mind and its processes, which had to be used well and scrupulously.

This is not a teaching of popular religion now. It has become commonplace to see those who pose as moralists and as exemplary Christians exposed in some particularly squalid act or practice, and to see them driven back, not by conscience but by exposure, upon the mercy of Jesus, who, it would seem, died to neutralize the consequences of scurrilous behavior. So far as their coreligionists are concerned, they demonstrate the benefits of having been saved, which include using Christ as a strategy of concealment in the first place, with that great mercy always up their sleeves, in case things sometimes get embarrassing. Jonathan Edwards says this about a style of piety flourishing among us now:

As the love and joy of hypocrites, are all from the source of self-love; so it is with their other affections, their sorrow for sin, their humiliation and submission, their religious desires and zeal: everything is as it were paid for beforehand, in God’s highly gratifying their self-love, and their lusts, by making so much of them, and exalting them so highly, as things are in their imagination. ’Tis easy for nature, as corrupt as it is, under a notion of being already some of the highest favorites of heaven, and having a God who does so protect ’em and favor ’em in their sins, to love this imaginary God that suits ’em so well, and to extol him, and submit to him, and to be fierce and zealous for him.6

Far better to have a lively fear of hypocrisy, granting that it is a subtle adversary, an endless temptation, as all those old divines agree, and given the fact that Jesus himself denounced it. From Wycliffe forward, the dignity of the individual was assumed to involve his or her being capable of responsibility for his or her thought and understanding, which meant a serious familiarity with the Bible, and the kind of self-awareness the powerful pious in his time and others so utterly lacked. Faith is as close to, and different from, presumption as virtue is close to, and different from, hypocrisy. These subtleties fascinated the New Englanders, who seem never to have doubted that they were an issue for any mind in any moment.

 

Rockwell Kent illustration for Moby Dick

Woodcut illustration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by artist and printmaker Rockwell Kent, 1930.
It has been usual to treat the great school of writers who emerged from American Puritan culture in the nineteenth century as having put aside the constraints of the old faith and stepped into a larger conceptual world. But in fact, the striking kinship among them suggests they found source and stimulus nearer home. Whatever else might be part of a Puritan worldview, the exalted mind is central for them. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson share a fascination with the commonest elements of life as they are mediated and entertained by perception and reflection. The Puritans spoke of their religion as experimental, that is, experiential. Sacredness is realized in the act of attention because reality is communicative and the mind is made—grace assisting exquisite effort—to experience its meaning. Dickinson and Melville propose minds brilliantly critical of their own perceptions, opening a vastness of suggestion in every shortfall, like a Puritan sermon. Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman see through all convenient or dismissive categories to the actual, the vital and essential. In every case their protagonist is the perceiver. The beauty they achieve has the character of acuity rather than refinement. It equalizes. The absence of shrines and rituals and processions that interpreted the world and guided understanding of it in England and Europe reflected a sense of immanence that gave theological meaning to any thing in itself in the moment of perception—a buzzing fly, a blade of grass. The exalted mind could understand the ordinary as visionary, given discipline and desire.

The seventeenth-century English Puritan John Flavel wrote that “the soul of the poorest child is of equal dignity with the soul of Adam.” He said this about a human being: “It is a most astonishing mystery to see heaven and earth married together in one person; the dust of the ground, and an immortal spirit clasping each other with such dear embraces and tender love; such a noble and divine guest to take up its residence within the mean walls of flesh and blood. Alas, how little affinity, and yet what dear affection is found betwixt them!” while breath “sweetly links” them.7 Whitman’s addresses to his soul might have had thought like this behind them. Whitman and any of his contemporaries might have read Flavel. He, or someone of similar mind, might well have come up in a sermon.

Perhaps we have given ourselves lives and expectations that are too small to sustain the customs and institutions the Puritans left to us. Or perhaps we will recover languages that can acknowledge the great mystery and dignity of humankind, which is essential to the best they left us. Harvard Divinity School is the perfect place for such work to be done.

 

Notes:

  1. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (reprint, Belknap Press, 1983; The Macmillan Company, 1939), 67–68.
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. “Wycliffe, John.”
  3. The English Works of Wyclif Hitherto Unprinted, ed. F. D. Matthew (reprint, Adamant Media Corporation, 2005; published for the Early English Text Society by Trübner & Co., 1880), 234.
  4. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. “Lollards.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, Religious Affectations, ed. John E. Smith (Yale University Press, 1959), 253.
  7. John Flavel, Pneumatogia: A Treatise of the Soul of Man (1685; Legacy Publications [n.d.]), 38, 18.
 
 

Marilynne Robinson is the recipient of a 2012 National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama for “her grace and intelligence in writing.” Her most recent book is The Givenness of Things: Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). She is also the author of Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; Home, winner of the Orange Prize; and Lila, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her first novel, Housekeeping, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

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Practicing Entanglement

Elizabeth Aeschlimann

For weeks now, there has been an image I cannot get out of my head. A man has walked through the Sonoran Desert and crossed the line that divides Nogales, Mexico, from Nogales, Arizona. He has been traveling for weeks, from brutal war in El Salvador to the country that has sponsored it. In the little town of Nogales, he sees the highest steeple: the Catholic Church. With relief, but still uncertain, he goes in. Someone drives him to Tucson, to another church. He cannot remember the name. They make a bed for him on the floor.

On Sunday, the congregants swell through the doors, singing and praying in a mix of Spanish and English. He is invited to stand. He comes before the pews. The pastor introduces him, and he explains why he left El Salvador, tells the outermost layer of a story he may never fully speak.

More singing. The Eucharist is sanctified, and the people come forward to receive it. When the service ends, a man and a woman with three small children approach him. “You can’t stay on the floor of the church,” says the man. “You’re coming home with us.”

This is what I imagined as the Reverend John Fife sat across the table from me in Tucson, Arizona, eating soup and telling me about the Sanctuary Movement that began in the 1980s. Fife and a small group of religious leaders launched the Sanctuary Movement almost by accident when they and their communities began to shelter the flood of refugees who were being threatened with deportation in their homes and congregations.

It began, Fife said, when his friend, a Quaker man named Jim Corbett, came to him. “I don’t think we have any choice but to smuggle refugees across the border,” Corbett told him. The failure of Christian churches in Nazi Germany was on their minds. “We can’t let that happen on our border in our time.”

Compassion, I have come to believe, is much less often an act of will than a refusal to be overcome by the reasons that would dissuade us from it. When Jewish refugees fled to the little French town of Le Chambon and knocked on the door, villagers like Magda Trocmé gave simple explanations for their heroism: “Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done—nothing more complicated. . . . How could we refuse them?”1 When someone knocks on the door, you open it.

But the knock is rarely as straightforward as a person standing physically on our doorstep. In 1980s Tucson, refugees were standing at the border, but Corbett, Fife, and others heard the knock anyway. They went to get them. And when the refugees stood up to tell their stories, the families of the church opened their doors. Inevitably, said Fife, “somebody would come up after church and say, ‘They can’t sleep on the floor of the church! They’re coming home with me.’ ”

What struck me most was Fife’s answer when I asked what gave him and his community the strength to offer refuge in the face of legal threats. “The whole congregation got mixed up with the refugees and their stories and why they fled,” he said.

During the summer of 2016, I traveled across the country interviewing community organizers and activists about spirituality in their work, gathering material for my thesis. Over two months, I interviewed thirty-three individuals in six states. I attended protests, rallies, barbeques, meditation sittings, and performances. I talked with Christians and pagans, Buddhists and Jews, Latinx, indigenous, white and black organizers. What sustained them, I wanted to know. What made their work effective? How did their organizations integrate spirituality and justice?

I had carried these questions with me for a long time. Over the four years I worked with churches and synagogues as a community organizer, I struggled to balance the goal of making concrete policy changes with the vision of building transformative relationships among volunteers and staff. Too often, I felt that faith was not a force moving through everything we did but a coat we put on at press conferences or at the beginnings of meetings. Too often, getting someone to show up at a meeting overrode my concern for the individual sitting across from me.

The whole congregation got mixed up with the refugees and their stories. Fife’s words stayed with me because they captured something at the heart of what I learned from so many that summer: doing the work of justice requires that we get mixed up with each other.

Practically, this work cannot succeed without deep, authentic relationship. As I met with organizers and activists in offices and backyards and coffee shops, I heard from many a theology of mixed-up-ness that awakens us from the constant temptation to divide and separate. Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic advocacy group NETWORK, sees our inherent relatedness in terms of common and constant creation. “The thing that I’ve learned in all these years is that God, the divine, makes us at every moment. It’s not like God is separate. My image is God hums us all the time . . .[and] that means God’s humming the person that I want to shake by the neck and change their mind. So if God’s humming that person and God’s humming me, well, where do we meet?”

For Micki McGee, an evangelical organizer who leads the healing justice efforts of Nashville-based organization FaithMatters, a trinitarian view of God speaks to the inherently communal nature of the universe. “In the Christian tradition, it’s three in one, so you come to this idea that there’s always been some kind of community. And if we’re made in the image of God, we don’t exist outside of community.”

Influenced by the Buddhist teaching of Joanna Macy, Anne Symens-Bucher described the world as a living system of radical non-separateness. “Because I’m not separate from you or from suffering or from anything, I respond from a heart that can’t not be impacted,” she told me.

Though cloaked in different languages, Campbell, McGee, and Symens-Bucher describe a basic view of humanity’s deep and profound entanglement that is a wellspring of strength and compassion in their work. “It’s the ground upon which I stand to know that I’m not alone,” said Symens-Bucher.

And yet, this profound entanglement, which has the capacity to be a source of power, is profoundly easy to forget. Our interdependence is obscured by the dominant culture’s insistence that we are autonomous, separate selves driven by our own self-interest. Our cognitive “moral machinery,” writes neuroscientist Joshua Greene, has evolved to sort in-group from out-group and encourage greater cooperation with others in our in-group.

For example, in studies of French and English children, Katherine Kinzler and her colleagues found that infants as young as six months preferred to look at speakers without foreign accents. At ten months, infants more readily accepted a toy from native speakers; at five years, children preferred playmates without foreign accents.2 Overcoming our tendency to give preference to “us” over “them,” in other words, is an uphill battle.

Where we are positioned within culture and society may make us more or less aware of our entanglement, but the delusion that we are not connected is pervasive, even among people working for justice. “I think a lot of our movements become individual protagonists, very self-centered, ego-driven,” said Diana Flores, lead organizer of the San Francisco housing organization Causa Justa Just Cause. “If you think you’re doing this work, and it’s coming from you, you’re going to break down. . . . But if you see yourself as part of this larger puzzle, you understand that there’s a purpose way beyond what you will be able to benefit from.”

To overcome the forces that drive us apart, we must practice what I call conscious entanglement—becoming more aware of our entanglement, and winding the tendrils of our lives more securely around each other.

Conscious entanglement means approaching each encounter as réunion, the Spanish word that, Roberto Goizueta observes, carries an association of preexisting relationship, though it means simply “to meet.”3

Conscious entanglement means knowing that we are waypoints in the stream of history through which something much larger flows.

Conscious entanglement means eating and praying and singing together. It means showing up when you say you’re going to show up and bringing soup when someone is sick.

Conscious entanglement means getting so mixed up with each other that the only thing we can say is, “They’re coming home with me.”

We enter the world like strands twisted into a spool of yarn that is long with ancestors and tangled with everyone. The tangle is not neat, nor is it complete. It pulls and chafes. Within it we are kind and cruel, we ignore and oppress each other. Dynamics of power and privilege persist. But the particular tensions and connections between us are also the source of power from which liberation emerges. Seeing through the lens of our entanglement, I believe, can help maintain the wholeness and generosity of our relationships, support us in taking courageous risks, and sustain us for the long haul.

In October 2016, the Harvard University Dining Services workers went on strike to demand affordable health insurance and living wages. One warm morning, I walked with about twenty students from Harvard Divinity School to a tent on the main plaza. We were singing, and we each carried a yellow daisy. Before a crowd of workers, student leaders from a dozen traditions stood and spoke words of support. A few days later several of us returned with coffee and a sign that said “We’re here to listen.” Sometimes standing quietly, sometimes talking to men and women about their children or looming mortgage payments or the weather, we returned each day until the strike was won.

In this moment when tribalistic hatred has been given a megaphone in the United States, the need for solidarity is indisputable. Such a time as this demands justice built on conscious entanglement: getting mixed up—messily, humanly, uncomfortably—in each other’s lives and stories.

 

Notes:

  1. Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers, The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (New York University Press, 1986), 102.
  2. Joshua David Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them (Penguin Press, 2013), 50.
  3. Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Orbis Books, 1995).
 

Elizabeth Aeschlimann graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a master of divinity degree in May 2017. Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, she holds a BA in cognitive science from Carleton College.

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Puglia

by Michael Coppola

The little storm arrives soon and ribbons of light will follow.

La tempestina arriva subito.

Da Vinci said the best lighting is before and after the rain, and Newton said, with every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It’s strange to see umbrellas close when a little drop of rain appears at the beach, because even when you swim in the sun, you get wet.

I stay on a hill of rocks for the bella vista and the storm air is fresh.

I wake crying.

My sister estimates the lump to be a tangerine, but my cousin felt it and qualifies it a clementine.

Multiple masses and irregular lymph nodes.

I think of a television interview in Marlon Brando’s garden, where Connie Chung asks Marlon Brando how he has spent the last nine years of his retirement, and Marlon says he watches ants. I watch them every day for hours and hours, he says, going up and down my sink picking up crumbs, they come inside, you know, in the cold weather.

The ants here in Puglia are numerous and aggressive.

I watch their intense autostrada move around the entire perimeter of the villa.

One discovers a moth carcass and communicates with another, and soon a new traffic lane emerges.

They carry the carcass while they simultaneously rip the body apart and bring pieces home until there is nothing left of it on the moving highway to dismember.

Why not cut off the body parts at the primary location and carry them away one by one instead of loading the whole on their backs?

La tempestina arriva subito. Sempre.

Those who remain on the beach watch me stretch on the rocks, while some climb the hill, and others take photos of the sky.

I walk to the edge of the cliff closer to the storm.

I wake crying.

In my waking life, my father accompanies me to Rome to see the new Papa Francesco.

My father buys a gold medallion of Pope John Paul II, he kisses it, and makes the sign of the cross.

At the beach, there are four comedic old men and one has a telephone with a ring tone that chimes a cacophony of church bells.

When the phone rings, I exclaim, Signore, forse Gesù sta chiamando, which means, Sir, perhaps Jesus is calling.

Everyone laughs.

The last time I saw my grandmother she was at my aunt’s birthday party with her nurse, against doctor’s advice.

She thought I was my father, and she thought my father was her brother.

At the party, she yells at the hired comedian to shut up and sing and when the comedian begins to make fun of her, nobody makes him stop.

When I received the news of my grandmother’s death, I did not return to New York for the funeral. Instead I hailed a cab in Barcelona and went to a sauna near Plaza de España.

Buenos Dias, Senor, Plaza de España, por favor . . .

Gracias.

Someone once said of me: If words could cry and perhaps I shouldn’t have taken it as a compliment.

Like in a movie, the man on the beach that everyone wants but cannot have moves towards me between the waves, he looks in my eyes, smiles, looks away, looks again, tension mounts, and soon a connection is made.

Later, in conversation, he asks what I’ve been writing on the beach and I tell him it’s about a man in New York who has never left his apartment, but always imagines to be in a different place.

And someone always dies, I say.

I think of the moth carcass and of Virginia Woolf who said, if it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death.

Someone always dies.

I wake crying.

It is said that although his plays are set in Italy, Shakespeare had never been to Milan, Venice, Padua, or Verona.

I tell everyone in Italy that every night in New York I watch RAI International’s Italian news and wait for a miracle of understanding, but the miracle never comes.

In Italy, although I have a limited vocabulary, in my own way, I make myself understood.

In a dream, there is a tall cake with many layers of white sponge and mocha mousse and I tell a poet friend in the dream that I know for sure my mother bought the cake, but I also know for sure that my mother is dead.

I wake to knocks at my window by other tenants at the villa.

Seven years ago, still traumatized by my mother’s recent death, my sister refused to return to the doctor after a suspicious finding on an exam. The doctor sent many registered letters to the house urging her to return, but each time she told the mailman she didn’t live at this place anymore.

I think of Barack Obama who in his inaugural address quoted St. Paul the Apostle who said, there comes a time to set aside childish things.

When I was a child, my mother came outside after spotting me from the window arguing with a neighbor about playing ball near his car, and seeing that I was upset, she asked me to tell her what had happened.

I choked up, my eyes watered, but, my mother, who wanted to save face in front of the neighbor, forcefully said, I’ve told you before, I do not like tears, and so, I stopped the crying before it actually began, and, I rarely cried again.

 

Michael Coppola teaches writing and literature at New York University and The City University of New York. He divides his time between New York and Italy.

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See also: Poetry

Repose


Detail of Power and People painting by Ahmad Moualla

© Ahmad Moualla. Courtesy Atassi Foundation.


Detail of Ahmad Moualla’s visually symphonic, twelve-meter-long painting People and Power, oil on canvas, 2011.

This work can be viewed in the new exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Syrian Symphony: New Compositions in Sight and Sound. An immersive and interactive response from artists to the current situation in Syria, the exhibit runs from May 20, 2017, until August 13, 2017. Music, painting, and media arts by some of Syria’s leading artists and musicians provide a multisensory experience to visitors that speaks of the struggle to protect Syria’s cultural heritage and of the determination to rebuild.

“In times of conflict or crisis, artists are implicated as our conscience,” says curator Amirali Alibhai, head of performing arts for the Aga Khan Museum. “They help us deal with loss, hope, and empathy. They express our humanity.”

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Righteousness as Commitment

Randy Rosenthal

In Review | Books Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 592 pages, $28 hardcover, $17 paper.

 

Abraham's Sacrifice

Cyril Satorsky, Abraham’s Sacrifice. Linocut, 20th century. Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum,
gift of Owen and Miriam Gingerich, student print rental program, sr1920.

 

True religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness.
—Albert Einstein

The title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ambitious novel Here I Am is taken from chapter twenty-two of Genesis, otherwise known as the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac.

Most of us know the story, but, like much in the Bible, we’re not sure what it means. Abraham is one hundred years old and living in Beersheba when his wife Sarah finally bears him a son, Isaac. One day some years later, Abraham hears what he thinks is the voice of God. “Abraham!” the voice calls. And Abraham answers, “Hineni,” which in Hebrew means “Here I am.” Abraham doesn’t say, “Yes?” He doesn’t answer, “What do you want?” He replies, “Here I am.” Here I am, God, I’m at your service. Whatever you want, I’m here for you. Abraham is fully present. Committed. No excuses. No explanations. Drop everything here I am.

 

In the tradition of divine command theory, our idea of morality is destabilized.

God tells Abraham to take Isaac to the land of Moriah, climb a mountain there, and sacrifice his beloved son as a burnt offering. What’s Abraham supposed to do? He has a duty to his son, and he also has a duty to God. Abraham chooses God over his son, and for that many of us condemn him. After all, murdering your own child is the most unreligious thing a person could do. But for Søren Kierkegaard, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac characterizes the most profound faith, requiring “a teleological suspension of the ethical.” In the tradition of divine command theory, our idea of morality is destabilized: God does not command an action because it is good; rather, an action is good because God commands it. Obedience is placed above morality. “Faith,” Kierkegaard writes in Fear and Trembling, is “a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God.”

 

Foer’s novel Here I Am isn’t about Abraham or Isaac, or even God. But it is about commitment. To lift a line from a character in the book, it’s “about who we are wholly there for, and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity.” Specifically, Here I Am explores the interplay between being in a marriage and being a parent and also being an individual. It asks why we let go of contentment in search of happiness. It also asks what it means to be a Jewish American, or, more specifically, what American Jews owe Israel. And, in asking all this, it asks what it means to be religious.
 

In some ways, Here I Am is similar to Foer’s earlier novels, mainly in that it’s set within the framework of a catastrophe. Everything Is Illuminated explored the Holocaust, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close dealt with 9/11, and this novel features an imaginary war in the Middle East that threatens the survival of Israel. But it’s been over a decade since Foer came out with a novel, and Here I Am is written from the perspective of a more mature person who has married, raised two children, and separated.

The novel centers on Jacob Bloch, a 42-year-old writer living in Washington, DC. When he was 21, Jacob won the National Jewish Book Award. He now writes an award-winning television series watched by millions. Jacob is married to Julia, a residential architect who only makes model houses. They have three sons, Sam, Benjy, and Max, sharp as splinters. They drive a Subaru and live in a bougie house on Newark Street filled with fancy appliances and tasteful decorations. Privilege galore. And yet Jacob is unfulfilled. He’s unable to be present for his children, his wife, his work. Hiding behind witty, sarcastic humor, he’s only half-committed to being there. In Saul Bellow’s fourth novel, Seize the Day, his non-hero Tommy Wilhelm prays: “Let me out of my thoughts, and let me do something better with myself. For all the time I have wasted I am very sorry.” These very words could be Jacob’s.

Jacob’s father, Irv, is a notorious blogger, and the right-wing Zionist position is delivered through him:

“The Germans murdered one and half million Jewish children because they were Jewish children, and they got to host the Olympics thirty years later. And what a job they did with that! The Jews win by a hair a war for our survival and are a permanent pariah state. Why? Why, only a generation after our near-destruction, is the Jewish will to survive considered a will to conquer? Ask yourself: Why?

He’s not really looking for an answer. To Irv, the answer is the same for any question: the world hates Jews. “The world will always hate Jews,” he tells Jacob. “On to the next thought, which is: What to do with that hatred? We can deny it, or try to overcome it. We can even choose to join the club and hate ourselves.”

It’s bad enough Jacob has to deal with his father’s obsessive Zionism, but what’s worse is his father’s disappointment. “I think you’re wasting your life,” Irv tells his son. Jacob writes a successful show, but, according to his father, it’s “a dumb show.” He’s not doing something that befits his abilities. “Jacob,” Irv commands, “you should forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race.” Understandably, Jacob asks, “What do you want from me? To spy for Israel? To blow myself up in a mosque?” No, that would be too easy. Instead, Irv says, “I want you to write something that matters.”

In fact, Jacob has been trying to forge something meaningful in the smithy of his soul: for years he’s been secretly writing a show about his family. But he’s never shown it to anyone. Anyway, Jacob doesn’t need this pressure from his bigoted father. He’s got a lot on his plate. His son Sam is about to have his bar mitzvah, but the boy sees through the hypocrisy of the family’s shallow Judaism and doesn’t want it. Like many Jewish kids in his situation, Sam feels he’s being forced to learn to chant meaningless words for no reason. The ancient rite of passage means nothing to him. Worse, the 13-year-old gets in trouble at school for writing the n-word and other slurs on a piece of paper. Sam denies doing it, and Jacob and Julia aren’t sure how to handle the situation. On top of this, Jacob’s grandfather Isaac, a Holocaust survivor, is unable to take care of himself and has to be put into a home. But he doesn’t want to go. He’d rather die. Jacob knows he should invite Isaac into his home and take care of his grandfather, but he can’t commit to doing so.

And where’s Julia? She’s out flirting with Mark, a recently divorced parent of Sam’s friend. Mark is so wealthy “he had the physical confidence of someone who doesn’t know within one hundred thousand dollars the contents of his bank account at any given moment.” For years, Julia’s been doing a mother’s job without the mother’s joy. In the privacy of her own mind, she fantasizes about building a new life for herself. What if she had girls instead of boys? Such thoughts make her feel “unmotherly,” even though she knows she’s a good mother. She thinks Jacob deserves someone better than her, someone who “didn’t sniff food before eating it. Someone who didn’t see pets as burdens.” (They have Agnes, a dog Julia takes care of but didn’t want; it’s Jacob’s dog, but he can’t even be there for Agnes.) No, these aren’t terrible traits, and Julia knows that “every blessing that was promised the barren heroines of the Bible had fallen into her open hands like rain.” And yet, here she is, flirting with a man who’s trying to convince her she’d be happier alone.

But let’s not feel too sorry for Jacob. He, after all, has a secret phone. And when Julia finds this phone she discovers Jacob has been sexting a co-worker uncharacteristically explicit statements, such as, “I want to lick the cum out of your asshole.” When Julia confronts him, Jacob admits he’s been having an affair—but only over the phone. He hasn’t actually done anything. But isn’t texting porn-talk actually doing something? Julia thinks so. And when she asks Jacob why he’s doing it, he doesn’t know how to answer.

Here’s what many readers will find to be the most disturbing part of Here I Am: its portrayal of contemporary marriage and parenthood, and how fragile commitment actually is.

According to Jacob’s shrink, Dr. Silvers: “Most people behave badly when wounded. If you can remember the wounds, it is far more possible to forgive the behavior.” So what are the wounds? What’s the problem anyway? Why aren’t Jacob and Julia just happy being together? They respect each other’s intelligence, make each other laugh, and don’t fight. Okay, maybe she belittles him sometimes, and maybe he’s emotionally distant, but is that enough to explain their behavior? Is that enough to threaten their marriage? There’s nothing obviously wrong, but there’s definitely something wrong, and they talk about separating. And here’s what many readers will find to be the most disturbing part of Here I Am: its portrayal of contemporary marriage and parenthood, and how fragile commitment actually is. What does it mean to commit to marriage, if we can divorce whenever we don’t feel like being married anymore, whenever it’s difficult, and we’re just tired of it? Like so many parents, Jacob and Julia are always tired:

 

Before they had kids, if asked to conjure images of parenthood they would have said things like “Reading in bed,” and “Giving a bath,” and “Running while holding the seat of a bicycle.” Parenthood contains such moments of warmth and intimacy, but isn’t them. It’s cleaning up. The great bulk of family life involves no exchange of love, and no meaning, only fulfillment. Not the fulfillment of feeling fulfilled, but of fulfilling that which now falls to you.

They’re living their lives, but they’re not really there to live it. And so they want to create a new life to live—a life without each other.

Perhaps the problem is their nonexistent sex life. Despite Jacob’s threats of sodomizing the receiver of his secret text messages, he’s impotent with his wife. She, at 44, naturally feels he’s no longer attracted to her. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that he’s balding, and taking medicine to prevent hair loss. The medicine causes impotence. But because he’s embarrassed about balding, and embarrassed about being vain enough to take pills to prevent balding, he doesn’t tell her the real reason for his impotence. Similarly, Julia is embarrassed to call herself an architect, since she hasn’t actually built anything. Rather than express this feeling, she buries it behind a facade of enjoying the sacrifices of motherhood. If they had gotten over their shame and communicated with each other, if they had expressed themselves, then perhaps their marriage could have been saved. But they don’t, and without any dramatic breaking point, their decade and a half of marriage slowly dissolves. After it does, Jacob looks back with cold eyes and thinks, “all those years felt worthwhile while they were happening, but only a few months on the other side of them and they were a gigantic waste of time. Of a life.”

On top of everything, in the midst of the separation, Jacob’s Israeli cousin Tamir visits from Tel Aviv. Jacob tries to be a good host, but Tamir has always known how to press his buttons. He’s always making obscure comments, looking smug, and talking about how much money he has. He’s confident, rude, and unabashedly casual. And yet, somehow he’s more authentic than Jacob, a more integrated person. He’s fully himself, fully there. And so Jacob envies the very thing he hates about Tamir. “Why couldn’t Tamir be more like Jacob? That was the question. And why couldn’t Jacob be more like Tamir? That was the other question. If they could meet halfway, they’d form a reasonable Jew.”

“You know what your problem is?” Tamir asks Jacob. “You don’t have any problems.” Jacob is American, and therefore doesn’t have the existential problems an Israeli faces. Because Jacob can live a safe, secure, privileged life—a “tchotchke existence”—he and his wife can create problems for themselves and their children. Using Tamir as a foil, Foer probes what it means to be a contemporary American, and how we’re unable to commit to anything. We surf the web while talking on the phone. We text while we work. We listen to music while we read. We’re unavoidably distracted, perpetually divided. We can’t even commit to one activity, so how can we fully commit to a partner? Or to our children? Or even to our self?

One thing that makes Here I Am grander and more ambitious than Foer’s previous books is his hard look at marriage. But the other thing is the war.


About halfway through the novel, a massive earthquake strikes the Middle East. It’s a natural catalyst that causes an eruption of a sleeping volcano, releasing generations of pent-up tension. The epicenter is under the Dead Sea. Tens of thousands of people die immediately. Thousands more are trapped in rubble; synagogues, churches, monasteries, mosques, and madrassas are in ruins. Electricity is out in all of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Highways, railways, and ports are functioning minimally. Cholera, dysentery, and typhoid sweep Palestine. Millions of refugees flee to shelters. Medical supplies intended for the West Bank and Gaza are held at border crossings. Israel abruptly withdraws from the Palestinian Territories, leaving millions without power, water, or other resources. Then the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) takes over the Temple Mount, expels the waaf, raises the Israeli flag over the Dome of the Rock, and everything explodes. More than thirty countries declare war on Israel.

Israel pulls back to its defensible borders, allowing disease to do the killing. As Arab armies penetrate the Negev, the Israeli prime minister goes on international television and proposes a “Reverse Diaspora.” He calls on Jews all over the world to come home and defend the Holy Land. The goal is to bring one million Jews to Israel, because “the president of the United States could watch eight million Israeli Jews be slaughtered, but not one hundred thousand American Jews.” The United States has remained militarily neutral, and the ploy is to force America’s hand to enter the war.

Like Abraham in Beersheba, here is where Jacob is called. He’s been hiding from himself, hiding from his wife and his children. He’s been devoted to his work but isn’t fulfilled by it, because he’s been using it to hide. He even hides from the woman he’s having “an affair” with, for while she pleads with him to consummate their sex-talk in the flesh, he keeps it digital. He hasn’t been fully present in any aspect of his life. And now he can say, Here I Am. Whatever you need, Israel, I’m here for you.

Unlike his cousin Tamir, Jacob has no military experience. And, in his 40s, he won’t be much use as a fighter. Israel is Tamir’s home, so he must go home and fight, no questions. His son Noam has been fighting, and Tamir will fight alongside his family and fellow Israeli Jews. But while Jacob is Jewish, he’s not Israeli. And though he belongs to a temple and observes the major holidays, he can’t fully claim to be religious. Like his creator, he’s not a believer.

At one point in the book, Jacob and his youngest son, Max, are staying in Texas, and out on the roof of their Airbnb, they look at the stars. They whisper back and forth, and then Max asks, “Why are we whispering?” In an interview with NPR, Foer explained that this inherent tendency to whisper under the stars is being religious. Einstein said: “What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”1 Going further, Einstein wrote:

To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties—this knowledge, this feeling . . . that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.2

Okay, but what does it really mean to be religious? Jacob struggles with this question, as do many of us. If Jacob is not actually “religious,” what does he really owe Israel? If he gets on one of those transport planes to fight in Israel, he’ll most likely die. He’ll be sacrificed. He wants to be like Abraham and respond to a call by saying, “Here I am.” But if he does, he’ll actually be like Isaac: sacrificed as an offering. And yet if he doesn’t go, he’s admitting that Israel is dispensable. For Israelis like Tamir, fighting is a question of existence. For Jacob, it’s a question of identity.

By the time of the war, he and Julia have separated, living in nearby homes so the kids aren’t traumatized. Their decision to separate, too, is a question of identity. When Julia first lets Jacob know she’s begun an affair herself, Jacob looks at her: “She wasn’t his wife, not right then, she was the woman he married—a person rather than a dynamic.” This is their question of identity: to remain a dynamic, or choose to be a person. It’s a choice anyone in a stagnant relationship has to make. Do I honor my commitment, or do I dissolve it?

When Jacob brings up the idea of going to Israel as part of the Reverse Diaspora, Julia laughs. She then sees he’s serious, but she doesn’t tell him to stay, even though that’s all he wants to hear. While it’s a difficult choice, it’s also his easy out. If he dies trying to save Israel, he’s not only a hero in his children’s eyes, he won’t have to suffer the pain of divorce. He’ll prove himself to his Zionist father, and he’ll make his grandfather proud. He’ll also be able to be there, to become a fully present, more integrated person. By going to Israel he will be saying, Yes, I’m Jewish. Yes, I am religious. And so he goes to the airport with Tamir. He endures questioning by the Israeli defense coordinators.

And then he goes back home.

He fails to be fully present. He and Julia divorce. They move on, establishing separate lives. Their sons grow up and become successful. Julia marries again. Jacob lives alone. Israel is destroyed. Not the land, not the people, but the idea.

The name Israel means “struggles with God.” In Genesis 32, Isaac’s son Jacob is out on the road and struggles all night with a mysterious man. The man happens to be God. In the morning, the angel gives Jacob the name “Israel.” After the destruction of Israel, Jacob Bloch, of Washington, DC, has stopped struggling. He now owes God nothing.

If we understand that there are things even more important than being alive, we look at Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in a new light.

In the middle of Here I Am, precisely when the earthquake hits the Middle East, Jacob’s grandfather Isaac dies. The family is saved from having to make the choice between putting him in a home or bringing him into their own. At the funeral, the rabbi giving the eulogy says:

“So much of Judaism today—regarding Larry David as anything beyond very funny, the existence and persistence of the Jewish American Princess, the embrace of klutziness, the fear of wrath, the shifting emphasis from argument to confession—is the direct consequence of our choice to have Anne Frank’s diary replace the Bible as our bible. Because the Jewish Bible, whose purpose is to delineate and transmit Jewish values, makes it abundantly clear that life itself is not the loftiest ambition. Righteousness is.”

If we understand that there are things even more important than being alive, we look at Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in a new light. We look at everything in a new light. “Abraham argues with God to spare Sodom because of the righteousness of its citizens,” the rabbi continues. “Not because life is inherently deserving of saving, but because righteousness should be spared.” At the end of the eulogy, Foer steps it up and uses the rabbi as a megaphone: “How much greater the Jewish people might be today if instead of not dying, our ambition was living righteously. If instead of ‘It was done to me,’ our mantra was ‘I did it.’ ”

Rather than being a critique of the Jewish people and the premise of Zionism, perhaps this is Foer’s prayer. He knows that verbal expression is generative. Let there be light, God said, and there was light. “I do,” we say, and then we are married. Words have power. “Prayer may not save us,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “but prayer may make us worthy of being saved.” It is through verbal expression that we are made righteous.

Here I Am is an expression of Foer’s struggle with what it means to be a fully present human being, a prayer for us to be as committed as Abraham. And perhaps we can also see it as the author’s own attempt to become worthy of righteousness.

 

Notes:

  1. Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses from His Archives, ed. Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann (Princeton University Press, 1979), 39.
  2. Cited in “Albert Einstein, Selected Writings on Religion,” in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, ed. Christopher Hitchens (Da Capo Press, 2007), 160.
 

Randy Rosenthal is one of the founding editors of the literary journals The Coffin Factory and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature & Art. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, the New York Journal of Books, the Daily Beast, Bookslut, and other publications. He is currently studying religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School.

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See also: Books, Judaism

Soot

by Kaveh Akbar
 

          Sometimes God comes to earth disguised as rust,
chewing away a chain-link fence or a mariner’s knife.
          From up so close we must seem
clumsy and gloomless, like new lovers

undressing in front of each other
          for the first time. Regarding loss, I’m afraid
to keep it in the story,
          worried what I might bring back to life,

          like the marble angel who woke to find
his innards scattered around his feet.
          Blood from the belly tastes sweeter
than blood from anywhere else. We know this

but don’t know why—the woman on TV
          dabs a man’s gutwound with her hijab
then draws the cloth to her lips, confused.
          I keep dreaming I’m a creature pulling out my claws

          one by one to sell in a market stall next to stacks
of pomegranates and garden tools. It’s predictable,
          the logic of dreams. Long ago I lived in Heaven
because I wanted to. When I fell to earth

I knew the way—through the soot, into the leaves.
          It still took years. Upon landing, the ground
embraced me sadly, with the gentleness
          of someone delivering tragic news to a child.
 

 

Kaveh Akbar’s poems have recently appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, will be published by Alice James Books in fall 2017.

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See also: Poetry

Taking Back the Narrative

Nadeem Mazen

Illustration of Muslim community members

Illustration by Saffa Khan.

 

We are sitting in a univerity with the largest endowment in one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. In Cambridge, we have approximately 50 percent of public school kids living at or near the poverty line. Despite the fact that we spend three times the national average per student on education, these kids, we know, will have fairly poor economic and educational outcomes and opportunities, comparatively. This is happening against the backdrop of and in the shadow of the Kendall Square and Alewife biotech corridors, a concentration of tech firms, tech jobs, and high wages that is unprecedented in the history of humankind.

We’ve been asked to look at our resistance and our complicity in today’s sociopolitical realities. When we look at our complicity, we also have to look at the scale of the problem. It may have been easy for our forebears in the 1980s and the 1990s to say: we really need to focus, as young immigrants, Muslim or otherwise, on putting down roots in America. It may have been reasonable, even, for upper-middle-class folks to say that they were just getting by. But I would hark back to the Islamic value of fard kifayah, which is echoed across many different traditions: if a certain social or government obligation is not being met, it is incumbent upon each person to set down some or all of what they’re otherwise doing in order to meet that obligation themselves. Now more than any other time in United States history, I would say it is clear that this is incumbent upon each of us.

However, in my experience at MIT and my run-ins with Harvard and other institutions, I would also say that, for the most part, scholarship is not that permeable to activism right now. And scholarly communities are not really permeable to their local neighborhoods—Harvard borders the poorest community in Cambridge and has relatively little to do with it; MIT borders the second poorest community in Cambridge and has relatively little to do with it. Within this context, we have one of the easiest choices and one of the most straightforward turning points in history: Will we establish, each of us, a daily practice that allows us to take an interest and a part in counteracting the inequity around us? Or will we simply, as scholars and learners have done since time immemorial, come out, be inspired, leave, and keep busy on our own projects?

We are not refusing to correct these social ills because we wish them to persist, because we are not equal to them, or because we are bad people. We are failing to counter these social ills sufficiently, in my opinion, simply because our priorities have not shifted radically in proportion to the social need around us; this despite the fact that the situation has become stark, that there has been a slow march of increasing socioeconomic and gender inequity—among many other types of social and economic inequity. If, ten years ago, we made a list of those hallmarks of social inequity that would cause us to drop everything we’re doing in order to serve, I believe that everything that’s happening around us now should certainly constitute that “trigger” causing us to commit our lives to these issues. But given the way that society works, and the unusual nature of social inequity and violence today, it is all too easy to slide slowly into this state of affairs, making it the new normal.

The standard local political opinion before I was elected was, “Cambridge, the greatest city in the world.” It is not. There are lists of the greatest cities in the world, and we are not on those lists. I believe Cambridge could be among the greatest, given the resources, diversity, opportunities, and potential we have. But we would have to be doing a great deal more outreach to those who are marginalized. And, once we have done proactive outreach and truly become invitational, then we would have to engage in training and strategy. We would have to be much more critical of where we are now in order to understand fully where we want to be and how we will get there. All of these things are absent to the degree required. For example, mentorship has virtually disappeared from the American economic and academic ecosystems.

These are not survivable hallmarks of failure. These are critical hallmarks of failure that indicate a system is collapsing fully. Not to be too bleak for you! When we ask whether we are complicit or resistant, I would ask first about the hallmarks: Would people say they are doing enough, as individuals? I would say that most people would say no, they themselves are not doing enough. Would people say their community or peers are doing enough? No, of course not; if people are at a place where they would say they are not doing enough themselves, they would definitely say their peers aren’t doing enough. Do we fund—that is, perpetuate—social inequity via our purchases in the marketplace and our taxes and other expenditures? I think most of us would say, yes, we do perpetuate the problem rather than solving it. And, finally, are we offsetting and mitigating the problem religiously through consistent practices that are substantive? I suspect most people would say of themselves: no, we have not even begun to offset the way that we perpetuate inequity—gender, racial, class, and otherwise—in our society.

To that end, I want to talk about the work we have to do internally in the American Muslim community. Recently, I went to a mosque (I won’t say where it was), and the women were praying in the basement and the men were praying on the first floor. There was an overflow room for men in the basement, in front of the women, which was demarcated by police tape. I thought, “Whooaaa this is the wrong thing! This is not happening!”

This is not because 90 percent of Muslims espouse discriminatory values—the contrary is true. This type of outrage is possible because of some strange absence of leadership development and the sharing of power in the community, and perhaps because of a “generational” type of leadership, where positions of influence are held for too long by too few. This is not optimal for where we are now in history. It may be an echoing of what we’re seeing in the community at large, where millennials and other young people are giving up on existing institutions and throwing in the towel on participating, because barriers to entry are too high. This should be a familiar story for Americans on the left and on the right, since women, black American Muslims, and other marginalized groups in all contexts in America are treated in ways that are discriminatory and minimize opportunity.

The point is that we have a need in most American Muslim communities for a great deal of internal critique. We need to elevate leaders of all sects and scholarly schools of thought, of all genders and all races. Critique is indeed very difficult in all first-generation communities, not just Muslim ones. But in our community, we have a division between the gatekeepers and the activists of tomorrow. The latter have more or less given up on preexisting institutions, despite the fact that these institutions may very well be our only foundation for the next stage of redress of socioeconomic and other types of inequity at play in society.

I implore everyone: if you are establishing a daily practice, some of it ought to be dedicated to the slow and consistent prodding and reform of our existing institutions. These problems are not as insurmountable as we might think. My personal experience is that, by developing action plans and strategizing and committing to reforming these institutions, not only will we see the fruits we believe we are owed as constituents, but we will also find that these institutions are happy for the change (once they realize that our energy is not always subversive or threatening).

However, I do want to say that the bigotry we face—as we do all these things by, for, and with American Muslims—is like an activism tax. In the context of doing this good work and setting a high standard for ourselves, we find ourselves coming to terms with the importance of continuing this work. But it is very difficult to reach full velocity when there are people working not to make our organizations better through critique, but to destroy our credibility through slander, libel, and character assassination. This, I’ve found, is universal across American Muslim leadership—literally every single American Muslim leader gets targeted in the press, on social media, and on television with coordinated hate speech campaigns, aimed at scuttling their professional or academic work, Google search results for their names, or slowing down their political momentum.1 This state of affairs is deleterious to the project of reaching new standards for social justice, social equity, and gender and racial equity.

Most journalists don’t understand the systemic nature and scope of anti-Islam racism, and the types of Islamophobia that are directed at specific leaders from the Muslim community. This racism would not exist to this extent if it were not so politically fruitful and fiscally viable for hate speech–oriented individuals and organizations. A large set of leaders that come up through the ranks, and certainly the most promising young reformers, are subjected to this hate speech, seemingly indiscriminately. For that reason, when we tell stories about Jetpac2 or talk about American Muslim political leadership, we tend to brush off this issue and say it’s much larger than we realized. It is fairly deep, and it can be quite consequential to a political leader. At the same time, if you have community roots and are establishing the connections and cooperation that are needed to take on the larger project of addressing inequity, then this fabric of networks provides a strong fallback position when you’re being attacked.

I speak from personal experience: A local hate group has been attacking several of the Muslim community’s leaders. Each year, they focus on one leader, putting together a documentary, an article, a guilt-by-association campaign, or a lecture about why this one Muslim person should be derided in our otherwise tolerant communities. When I was that targeted leader, it became clear to me that tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars were behind the advertising of the hit-piece on me, to ensure that everyone in my professional circle would see this smear campaign. Certainly, the organization funding this work was better funded in terms of marketing than all of our local mosques combined. Literally everyone in Cambridge who I met over the course of two months had seen it. Think about that. I see several dozens of people per day, so in a couple of months this adds up to thousands of people.

An attack like this can seem insurmountable, but the community came to my aid. Just as I was beginning to think about what I was going to do to respond, I found others had already spoken up publicly. Many in the community, though total strangers to me, came before the Cambridge City Council and made public comments. They said they thought something was fishy, given the quality of the article about me, and they began to check on the claims. Lo and behold, many stood up and said: “I’m here to say that this is merely a smear campaign.”

While I cannot say that everyone will be lucky enough to survive attacks like this unscathed, I think the strongest thing we can do is to address this issue head-on and to make sure our connections are very strong. It is out of doubt, not maliciousness, that these things take flight in otherwise tolerant communities. If we can inoculate ourselves against doubt and anti-Islam racism—and this is easier to do than persuading someone post facto—then I think we can stave off what has been, to date, one of the strongest destabilizing factors within the American Muslim community. Certainly, being attacked is one of the major reasons American Muslims are incredibly underrepresented in elected office.

What should be encouraging is that it is a fairly straightforward process to inoculate our networks, and it accords with our other obligations to resist. Jetpac was established to train Muslims, minorities, and allies to become authentic community organizers. As it turns out, this type of organizer becomes the best sort of elected official. If you actually have a connection to your community, it is easier to walk into positions of public service, like school committees that sometimes just need a handful of votes, or city councils where vote totals in the low thousands are required to be elected. One should not run for office or govern a community in a district only on charisma and marketing; one should do so based on a specific commitment to voter accountability. Rather than just pointing to a problem and publicizing it, a local representative should actually be working to solve it, and demonstrating the ways it could be solved through collective action.

Some final questions are: Is it possible to win for justice? Are we going to win? I would say most people think it is possible to win for justice. We certainly have the resources and the know-how. But, are we going to win? I think most people would agree with me that things are pretty bleak right now. Even if we score political victories, we have seen opportunities like this before, and we have been underwhelmed by our capacity—legislative, community, or otherwise—to surmount these problems.

This may sound dark, but it should be inspiring. If we believe we have the resources and we are willing to admit that we are not doing enough, then shouldn’t we put down what we’re doing and throw a bunch of energy against the wall? Shouldn’t we who are academics, scholars, and professionals say that we can admit that we are complicit, but that we wish to be resisting more actively?

As someone who snuck into a position on the Cambridge City Council the first time I ran, I would say that it is incumbent upon those of us who are in leadership (whether in politics, academia, or nonprofit organizations) to talk about opportunity, and to be a voice within our organizations, and to do actual proactive outreach to marginalized communities. If we want to counter the ubiquitous misperceptions of Muslims in the popular consciousness, it is incumbent upon each of us to practice narrative storytelling and to take back the narrative—now that we are informed about the scale of the smear effort going on against American Muslim leaders nationwide.

I’ve had great luck on conservative radio, and great experiences going out into communities previously less hospitable to American Muslims. We have fielded many questions about American Muslims in politics, and people are shocked to find that they’re more angry with me because I’m a progressive Democrat than because I’m a Muslim! I think that’s great! I would love someone to challenge me on the merits of a $15 minimum wage. But, when people realize that everything that has been propagated about Muslims is largely about their side’s grab for political power, when they realize they’re already upset with their side for not telling the truth, and when they realize that I’m upset with my side (not the American Muslim side but the Democratic party side) for not always telling the truth, there is a rich opportunity for self-improvement, collaboration, conversation, and mutual understanding.

It’s really a matter of four million American Muslim citizens, and the small number of leaders within our ranks, trying to address an audience of some 300 million or more. The path is steep. It’s a matter of time, of strong allies and strong partnerships—but if history is any indicator, I think it’s a battle that we will win. The current situation and the depth of this type of racism and targeting cannot withstand the truth.3

 

Notes:

  1. This includes thousands of top leaders just in the last few years. If you reach a certain level of leadership as an American Muslim, you get targeted.
  2. Jetpac stands for Justice, Education, and Technology Political Advocacy Center. See jet-pac.com.
  3. This is an edited version of Mazen’s presentation in the panel “Resistance and Complicity to Empire through Political Movements,” during the “Beyond Bans, Beyond Walls: Women, Gender, and Islam Symposium” held at Harvard Divinity School on April 7, 2017.
 

Nadeem Mazen is an educator, entrepreneur, and community organizer. He is a Cambridge city councillor and founding president of Jetpac, a nonprofit that empowers minority communities through civic education programs. Mazen is currently traveling around the U.S. to train underrepresented minorities who are considering a run for elected office and is considering a run for higher office himself in 2018. He can be reached on Twitter via @nadeemtron.

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Telling Uncovered Sides of the Story

Cooperation Jackson and the economics of black power.

Nathan Schneider

Early last year, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, reporting a story about the life and death of Chokwe Lumumba, a black nationalist lawyer who became mayor of the city in 2013.1 In the course of working on the article, I went to see the Reverend Wendell Paris—a civil rights elder—who was working, at that point, at a Baptist church in Jackson. Paris told me a side of the civil rights movement story that I had never heard before. He told me about the role of cooperative enterprises—business built on democratic shareholding and democratic governance. In the 1950s and 1960s, he had been a leading supporter of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

He talked about the pictures we’ve all seen of people lining up to register to vote and getting beaten up or driven out of the courthouse or something like that. He explained they were the co-op members, most of the time. They were the ones who wouldn’t get kicked off the sharecropping farm. They were owners, so they had the capacity to take a risk like that.

Then he talked about how Black Power started to emerge when Stokely Carmichael was staying on a cooperative farm in Georgia. It was in seeing cooperative ownership and self-management that Black Power as a frame started to emerge for Carmichael. He also told me stories about these cooperatives being suppressed just as ruthlessly as Black Power and the people registering to vote. There was one story about truckloads of cucumbers from black-owned co-ops that were being shipped up North because they couldn’t sell them in the South, and the Mississippi State Troopers stopped these trucks on the road under the hot summer sun; the troopers made the trucks sit there all day until the cucumbers were mush and then, when night came, they told them they could go ahead. This was a history I had never encountered before. But it actually goes even further back than the 1950s and 1960s.

Not long ago, I was glad to discover that my university library had a copy of W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1907 report from an Atlanta University conference on economic cooperation among Negro Americans. The report suggests that one might consider all economic activity among African Americans at that time to be in some sense cooperative. Churches are a subset of that report, and listed are several hundred distinct black-owned businesses that were operating under formal cooperative principles according to international standards at that time.2

The vital tradition of economic cooperatives is coursing through this movement, but we rarely or never see it in the news.

This is a story that I’ve begun to see come up more and more as I’ve asked questions about the economic side of resistance movements that have transformed our country. When I asked one of my own mentors, the onetime Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker Mary Elizabeth King, she said that, yes, when they were in Mississippi, they were organizing cooperatives as well as registering people to vote.3 It seemed obvious to her, though it is rarely remembered. Since holding an important role in communications with the SNCC, King has become a leading scholar of civil resistance, and she reminded me that Gandhi understood 90 percent of what he was doing to be “the constructive program”—the building of political and economic alternatives, represented by the spinning wheel on the flag of India. Only a small percentage of his activity was in the feats of resistance that got the headlines. The alternatives, for Gandhi, and for a lot of the African American communities of resistance, have also been deeply rooted in religious traditions.

If you look at the Black Lives Matter platform now, in the section on economic justice, cognates of “cooperation” and “cooperative” are mentioned forty-two times. The platform calls for “a reconstruction of the economy to ensure that Black Communities have collective ownership, not merely access.” The vital tradition of economic cooperatives is coursing through this movement as well, but we rarely or never see it in the news. At rallies I went to in New York’s Union Square after the death of Trayvon Martin, one of the first things people were calling for was economic boycotts. The role of the economy in this struggle has been there from the beginning, but we’ve rarely been able to talk about it.

After Mayor Lumumba’s death, the organization that emerged in his wake is called Cooperation Jackson. Cooperation Jackson has had an interesting role over the course of the Black Lives Matter movement through its connection to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an outgrowth of a series of black-nationalist organizations that emerged in the 1970s rooted in a sense of pan-African identity. The people involved in these organizations use terms like “Harambee” and “Ujima” to talk about their cooperative activity, drawing on African concepts and situating themselves in a transnational context.

The people who carry on the legacy of Lumumba in Jackson have been very involved in and supportive of the Black Lives Matter work in Mississippi and around the country, but they also sometimes issue critiques of the movement. I’ll never forget what Kali Akuno, a leader of Cooperation Jackson, said at one point while he was flipping chicken on a grill and talking to a group of people around him. He said, “I’m not a fan of the Black Lives Matter thing because, to be honest with you, they don’t. Your life did matter when you were valuable property. You were very valuable at one point in time. We’re not valuable property anymore.” This is not simply a critique of Black Lives Matter as such. It is a critique of the narrow framing that isn’t always able to see the broader vision.

This is a real challenge for us as journalists, as storytellers, as people who may be writing the first draft of history—and then for those who are scholars, who are compiling those first drafts into monographs. There are sides of these movements that get through, and then there are sides that do not get communicated that may be just as important, if not more important. There are limits to what we can pack into a narrative. There are limits also to what kinds of narratives people will hear, or that people will know how to hear, and these limits influence what gets picked up by news outlets.

I am grateful for my training in the study of religion, because in many respects that training helps me to see sides of movements that might not always be visible. I’ve tried—and haven’t always succeeded—to tell these buried stories and to help them be part of the conversation. I struggle with how to do this most effectively. I wonder how we can open up our narratives to entertain more stories, to include a broader mix that doesn’t normally enter into the picture but is so central to what it means to build a movement for social change and black power in this country.

 

Notes:

  1. The story, “The Revolutionary Life and Strange Death of a Radical Black Mayor,” was published in the April 2016 issue of VICE magazine.
  2. This book ended up spurring an important recent study by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development at John J. College of Criminal Justice in New York City: Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).
  3. Mary King was a communications director for the SNCC during the 1960s.
 

Nathan Schneider is a scholar in residence of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and resident fellow at the university’s Center for Media, Religion, and Culture. He is working on a book about cooperatives for Nation Books. This is an edited version of a talk he delivered in the “Black Lives Matter” panel during the “Religious Literacy and Journalism Symposium” held December 8–9, 2016, at HDS.

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The ‘Trump Effect’ and Evangelicals

Secret support for Trump and the crisis of whiteness.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

Donald Trump greeting the crowd at an Alabama campaign rally, with enthusiastic attendees holding a sign reading "Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump"

Donald Trump campaign rally in Mobile, Alabama. Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images.

 

I find myself in many interesting environments. I’m the president of the American Academy of Religion, I appear on Morning Joe, I write for Time magazine, I teach at Princeton. It can be confusing at times. But I hope these various contexts mean that I have something to say to this audience of journalists and academics, and perhaps it will be something that will spark debate.

It is certainly the case that white evangelicals, and, I suspect, some evangelicals of color, played a central role in the election of Donald Trump. What do we know? We know from the exit poll data that about 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, 60 percent of white Catholics voted for him, and even the majority of Mormons—61 percent—voted for him. This came as a surprise to many people in the media, myself included. Throughout the primary and general election there seemed to be a consensus that the so-called value voter found the character question surrounding Donald Trump insurmountable. His personal flaws definitely disqualified him from consideration, at least for some. This was certainly said to be true during the controversy with the Khans, the Gold Star family, and after the release of the audio and video footage with Trump’s horrific comments about his behavior with regard to women. We see the early news coverage reflecting this assumption.

Now, postelection, we know otherwise. We might even call this the “Trump effect,” which is something akin to the Bradley effect but with a slight variation. Of course, the Bradley effect involved discrepancies between voter opinion polls and election outcomes when you have a white candidate and a nonwhite candidate running against each other.1 In that situation, white voters dissemble when asked about who they support, for fear that, in stating their true preferences, they might be seen as holding racist views or having racist motivations when voting for the white candidate. In the sociological literature and the political science literature, this has been called the phenomenon of “social desirability bias.” The worst thing you can be called in the United States is a racist. Remember when George W. Bush said that the lowest moment in his administration was when Kanye West said, “George W. Bush doesn’t like black people, he hates black people.” (That’s the lowest moment for him? Really?)

In this case, we didn’t have a person of color running for office, but instead we had a white candidate running for president who embraced views that were widely considered racist—from building a wall, to his comments about the Indiana judge, to the appointment of Steve Bannon, and so on. So we had a number of white evangelicals behaving like Rose Aller said she had in a November 15 Washington Post article: they kept their support of Donald Trump secret.2 I remember sitting around the table on Morning Joe where folks said, “Is the silent Trump voter out there?” And they just kept saying, “No, no, no, no. They’re not.” But by not expressing their commitments early on, by not revealing what they actually felt, this obviously complicates how we might have read the motivation of these voters for supporting Trump. It also impedes our attempt to understand the contradictions of commitments that we all hold.

This was the first election in which white Christians were clearly a demographic minority, according to PRRI data—43 percent today, down from 54 percent in 2008.

To my mind, what happened in the 2016 election is not simply racial, although it is definitely that. Here, I agree with Robert P. Jones that the evangelical support of Trump reflects a convergence of economic insecurity, anxiety over demographic shifts, and in some ways a moral panic over the changing nature of the culture of the United States.3 I think a lot of this is rooted in the crisis of whiteness. This was the first election in which white Christians were clearly a demographic minority, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) data—43 percent today, down from 54 percent in 2008. In 2008, only 40 percent of the country supported same-sex marriage. Today, it’s legal in all fifty states, and six out of ten Americans support it—a cultural shift. I think the writing is on the wall. White evangelical Protestants made up 22 percent of the population in 1988 and still commanded 21 percent of the population in 2008, but today only 17 percent of Americans claim the moniker. I think the data is showing—and I’m just echoing the PRRI data—that young adults ages 18 to 29 are less than half as likely to be white Christians as seniors ages 65 and older. Today, only three in ten young white adults are Christian.

Though we can challenge some of this data, it shows that this election may be the white Christian America’s last gasp. In my other writing, I have said that the election of Donald Trump reflects white America’s last gasp. James Baldwin wrote in his 1961 essay “The Dangerous Road before Martin Luther King”: “White America is dead; the question is how long and how expensive the funeral will be.”

The second brief point I want to make involves our use of language. I noticed that in the early reporting on the election, the term “evangelical” was used to represent an undifferentiated grouping of people who supposedly hold similar religious and political commitments. But by the end of the 2016 election cycle, the adjective “white” was added. So early on it’s just “evangelical,” and in postelection articles it’s “white evangelical.” I think this was a significant development, the result of a concerted effort among some evangelicals to force the media to treat them with a bit more nuance. Think about Jim Wallis and his op-ed in USA Today, in which he tried to insist that there were “tens of millions of Americans who fit the theological definition of evangelical, but who do not support such a narrow definition of ‘moral issues’ and clearly do not support Trump or his bigotry.”4

I find it interesting that the problem has been repeated in the very literature that props up our discussion today. Might we think of the word “evangelical” and its function as a variant of a dog whistle? If the “Trump effect” is a variant of the “Bradley effect,” our use of “evangelical” can be read as a variant of a dog whistle. It isn’t a racist dog whistle, certainly, but it calls out a particular grouping of white people for special attention and orients the listener accordingly. When we use “evangelical” in our writing, it orients the reader or the listener in a particular sort of way, much like the expressions “working class,” and “middle America” do—as if black people and brown people don’t live in “middle America,” as if black people and brown people aren’t “working class.” What is the adjective “white” doing when it describes the noun “evangelical”? I’d like to explore this more in thoughtful conversation.

 

Notes:

  1. This phenomenon was named after Tom Bradley, the Los Angeles mayor who lost the 1982 California governor’s race, though he was ahead in the polls going into the election.
  2. Julie Zauzmer, “Hopeful and Relieved, Conservative White Evangelicals See Trump’s Win as Their Own,” The Washington Post, November 15, 2016.
  3. Jones is the author of The End of White Christian America (Simon & Schuster, 2016).
  4. Jim Wallis, “Evangelicals Aren’t Who You Think,” USA Today, October 23, 2016.
 

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. This is an edited version of a presentation he delivered in the “Donald Trump and Evangelicals” panel during the “Religious Literacy and Journalism Symposium” held December 8–9, 2016, at HDS.

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‘Sick, and You Visited Me’

Donald W. Shriver

Illustration of hospital visit

Illustration by Saffa Khan

 

I am a husband, parent, citizen, scholar, pastor, educator, author, ethicist, administrator, and world traveler, among many other things. But I was all but stripped of my identity when I was diagnosed with life-threatening B-cell lymphoma and assigned to a hospital bed.

There, I became simply “sick.”

Since my tonsillectomy at age five, I had not spent a single night in a hospital. When I was admitted to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City at age 85, I was torn from my long life of self-management to one in which I put my very life and death in others’ hands.

I spent more than three months in that hospital bed.

The bed was on the far side of a cramped, semiprivate room. A thin curtain gave me a mere shred of visual privacy from my roommate. His frequent visitors often were boisterous.

Dressed in a standard-issue hospital gown, I was tethered to monitors and an intravenous drip. I had to learn to sleep on my back. I didn’t feel much like reading. I was assaulted constantly by anxious thoughts that I might be dying. The experience was one of confinement, loneliness, deprivation, and loss of control.

Around me, medical professionals were doing what they could to battle my cancer. But somehow, full recognition of my humanity was missing until a friend, family member, seminary colleague, or fellow church member squeezed in alongside my bed and brought news of the life I had left behind.

Whether we talked about current events, mutual friends, or common interests, they affirmed that the person Donald Shriver was more than a cancer case.

My experience opened my eyes to the importance of visits to “the sick.” And it especially enlightened me to one aspect of such visits: combating loss of identity.

In seminary, they taught us to be pastors by visiting the sick. I was not sure that such visits were very important.

To be truthful, early in my work as a pastor in the 1950s, visiting the sick seemed so useless. And during my years in academia, it was hard to remember that love of learning was not enough to knit the faculty together—although once, it seems I “got it right” in spite of myself. I made a hospital visit to a colleague with whom I frequently disagreed on school affairs. I learned that, afterward, he had remarked to another colleague, “You know, the president seems really to care for us!”

Today, in my late 80s, my own experience of hospitalization has confirmed unequivocally that the real “use” of visits is in their assurances to the sick that someone knows and cares for them outside the confines of the hospital. Thanks to my visitors, I felt affirmed as a social person with a history and a place in society.

We know much of who we are as individuals by the groups we are part of and that affirm us. As my Harvard professor James Luther Adams often said, “You shall know them by their groups.”

Being hospitalized suspended me from the variety of associations that I took for granted on the outside. I craved visits from people I knew from the many parts of my life.

I was hospitalized from September 2013 until after Christmas at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Upon release, I still faced five grueling rounds of chemotherapy with an aggressive experimental drug (that, thankfully, beat back the cancer). I wore a box filled with chemicals that flowed into my body through an IV twenty-four hours a day. My wife, Peggy, and friends drove me to the hospital four times a week for refills.

I was home, but by no means back to my life. I was greatly weakened, learning to walk with a cane, and needing help—and company.

After I completed treatment, and just as I was regaining a bit of strength, Peggy suffered a stroke. Following her hospitalization, I accompanied her to a rehabilitation and skilled nursing center about one hundred miles north of New York City, near Spencertown, New York, where we had a second home.

We stayed there for two and one-half months. Peggy continued her recovery and I got the support I needed in my still fragile state until we were able to get back to our apartment in New York City.

Reflecting on that time, I wrote an essay titled “On the Science of Medicine and the Blessings of Love.”1 Its form is a “conversation” with Dr. Lewis Thomas, author of The Lives of a Cell and former chancellor of Memorial Sloan Kettering who died of the very cancer that I am surviving.

In addition to exploring such “macro” issues as the unjust distribution of health care for the world’s sick, the essay explores the shock of lethal illness, the experience of “total institutions,” the loss of identity, and the healing role of one’s friends and family.

Hospitals are indeed “total institutions” in that they control almost every aspect of one’s life—temporarily, one hopes. But, with few exceptions, they do not pretend to be hosts to total persons. Up and down the halls, sick people are reduced to the role “sick,” and it is ordinary for nurses to speak of “the cardiac case in Room 24-N.”

We, the sick, are more than our bodies. We are persons with a history and with relationships that support our personhood. Visitors represent the connections that define a patient outside the hospital.

Once, in conversation with a staff doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering, I said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea for all patients to have a note in their bedside record saying what their professional background happens to be?”

He responded, “Many people would consider that an intrusion into their personal lives.”

“No,” I countered. “One’s work is an important part of who we are. Your work, too.”

In the United States we tend to identify people with their work, which, I acknowledge, may be a distortion of their personhood, too. But equally distorting is the tendency in hospital culture to identify a patient solely with his or her illness.

Indeed we, the sick, are more than our bodies. We are persons with a history and with relationships that support our personhood. Visitors represent the connections that define a patient outside the hospital.

Among my most regular visitors at Memorial Sloan Kettering were two clergy friends and John Delfs and his wife, Nanette Bourne, friends through New York’s Riverside Church.

John, himself a physician, served the overt expansion of my identity by informing my doctors about what he considered to be the importance of saving my life for its potential service to causes consistent with my personal history.

That opinion might not have been needed to boost my doctors’ professional commitment that every life is worth saving, but it certainly boosted my morale to have him make such claims!

Visits had a desirable “side effect” of informing nurses about some of my neglected selfhood, and even opened my awareness, through ensuing conversation, about their selfhood, too.

For example, one of my nurses overheard mention of South Africa in one of my conversations with visitors and volunteered that she was from South Africa. I told her I had written two books and several papers about my visits to her country.

She bought two copies of one book, one for herself and the other for her father. It was a gratifying connection with a person busy caring for me in my illness. Just as I was more than my illness, she was more than her work.

Best among my “visitors” was my wife. Medical staff commented that, when Peggy was around, this patient named Shriver was a “better patient!”

My hospitalization cut short my active involvement in a project Peggy and I had helped to begin that pressed for reform in New York City’s criminal justice system.

Peggy kept me updated on plans for a consultation that followed up on our month-long trip to New Zealand for study of its restorative justice system that sought to keep young offenders away from prison. Peggy continued to convene meetings of the committee that was planning that consultation.

My wife and John Delfs argued successfully for the hospital to release me for a day to attend that event. Afterwards, a number of hospital doctors asked, with sincere interest in the topic, “How did that consultation go?”

While at the rehabilitation and skilled nursing center upstate, we received visits at least once a week from members of our Spencertown congregation, one of whom picked me up to go to church each Sunday morning.

John and Nanette visited us there at least four times. They illustrate for me the priesthood of all believers—something we are celebrating especially this year as we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

One Saturday, five members of Riverside Church made the two-hour drive up from New York City to visit us. I felt like the church was coming to me! The group included some prominent members, and I was touched that they took time for us.

They smuggled in a bottle of wine sent by Riverside Church friends Clarence and Emily
Anderson, a welcome gift and a luxury in a “dry” facility. By then, I had recovered enough from my chemotherapy to enjoy it!

We talked about our mutual interest in the church’s “Coming Home” program for welcoming recently imprisoned persons back into the community.

My experience of hospitalization had viscerally hardened my opposition to solitary confinement of prisoners and bolstered my commitment to work for restorative justice.

Hospitals remind me of prisons, so confined does one feel in that bed, with so little authority for deciding when one might be well enough to go home. In fact, one of my doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering once said to me, “I know you sometimes feel like you are in a prison.”

When visitors came, they broke up the hospital-prison analogy. But in solitary confinement, prisoners are completely cut off and are robbed progressively of their very humanity.

My experiences of confinement, first to a hospital and then to a rehabilitation center, took my mind back to guidelines for visiting the sick that my seminary professors had stressed. Here are some—interwoven with points of my own:

  • Your presence is the ministry.
  • For that, even ten or fifteen minutes may be enough.
  • Much talk can be a burden.
  • If possible, sit down. Don’t hurry away. Try to share some of the pain.
  • Be not too inquisitive about symptoms and prospects for return to health.
  • Bring some news of friends, work, and the causes you know are precious to this patient.
  • Share with a nurse or doctor a little bit of why you cherish this person.
  • Offer a word of support to the doctors and nurses, too. They carry the tremendous burden of trying to be healers in face of the certainty that some of our illnesses will end in death.
  • Ask if there is any favor or errand you might undertake on the patient’s behalf.
  • Continue to call after your friend/parishioner leaves the hospital.
  • Pastors, get to know your congregants before they get sick.
  • The most valuable visits are from people one knows.
  • If it feels right, offer a prayer, being sure to mention concern for the patient’s family and for their nurses and doctors.

As a theologian and ethicist, how can I conclude this article without preaching a little? A visit to the sick has eschatological, ultimate significance!

In Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus teaches that at the Last Judgment, when the Creator summons up from the capacious divine memory our errors and virtues, the Creator’s preoccupation will be whether in our earthly time we have cared for each other’s ordinary bothersome pains.

Those pains include hunger, thirst, imprisonment, loneliness, illness.

This is radical incarnation ethics. The divine Self has so identified with human selves that to touch one is to touch the other. For Christians, it’s the most salient reason for visiting one’s sick neighbors.2

 

Notes:

  1. This article is available for download at utsnyc.edu/shriver.
  2. Thank you to Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, an ecumenical writer and editor, who helped ready this article for publication.
 

Donald W. Shriver is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, where he was also Professor of Ethics from 1975 to 1996. His PhD from Harvard was awarded in 1962. He is the author of sixteen books, including An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (Oxford University Press, 1995) and Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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