‘What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?’

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“Such a net, such a harvesting, would put an end to all anomaly. If it swept the whole floor of heaven, it must, finally, sweep the black floor of Fingerbone, too. From there, we must imagine, would arise a great army of paleolithic and neolithic frequenters of the lake–berry gatherers and hunters and strayed children from those and all subsequent eons, down to the earliest present, to the faith-healing lady in the long, white robe who rowed a quarter of a mile out and tried to walk back in again just at sunrise, to the farmer who bet five dollars one spring that the ice was still strong enough for him to gallop his horse across. Add to them swimmers, the boaters and canoers, and in such a crowd my mother would hardly seem remarkable. There would be a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbors and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole.

Sylvie said that in fact Molly had gone to work as a bookkeeper in a missionary hospital. It was perhaps only from watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged rain the length of the lake that I imagined such an enterprise might succeed. Or it was from watching gnats sail out of the grass, or from watching some discarded leaf gleaming at the top of the wind. Ascension seemed at such times a natural law. If one added to it a law of completion–that everything must finally be made comprehensible–then some general rescue of the sort I imagined my aunt to have undertaken would be inevitable. For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally.”

– Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

Whiteness and ignorance, MLK Day [3]

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In the introduction to his edited volume, White on White/Black on Black, George Yancy begins with reference to comments made by then-President George Bush in reaction to the horrors committed at Abu Ghraib prison. White on White/Black on Black“This is not the America I know,” President Bush stated. But, happenings like those at Abu Ghraib, contrary to Bush’s knowledge, are all to familiar to the America that black Americans know, says Yancy. The events of Abu Ghraib appear to Yancy as an unfolding dramatization of American dynamics of race. “Such themes as sadistic brutality, sexual violence, xenophobic paranoia, the reduction of fellow human beings to brute beasts,” says Yancy, “played themselves out against a silent, though familiar, backdrop of a long history of America’s racist drama.” Abu Ghraib depicted a re-enactment of the racist historical processes of racialization, whereby whiteness is generated and reinforced simultaneously and alongside blackness. What took place there was not an exception to the rule — to the post-racial existence that George Bush occupies — it was part and parcel with America’s racist brutalities that are executed within the governing framework of whiteness. The rituals performed at the Iraqi prison were, to borrow from Marilynne Robinson, rituals of the ordinary for those bound to the ideology of whiteness.

Drawing on Du Bois, Yancy points out that the ritualistic nature of lynchings of black bodies in America wasn’t so much about whether a victim was guilty of breaking the law or not, but rather it was about the performing the act of taking the life of any black — “for if you were black you were guilty.” This helps make sense of the seemingly unimaginable brutalities that have occurred in the history of racism in America. A tragic and lamentable example of which happened here in Waco (which will be posted on in the near future). 

What this unfolds is a world cleaved across a Manichean axis. Blackness is “bad” and the state of guilt, while whiteness is “good” and the state of innocence. The America known by blacks, says Yancy, is one painted black and white, us and them, friends and terrorists, good and evil. It is the focus on black and white that concerns his book.

To unmask this Yancy describes how historical memory can function as a weapon against perceived national unity and equity (this brings to mind comments by MLK on the non-existence of democracy in America proven by the “deep rumblings of discontent out of Asia and Africa”). “To recall appropriate historical memory at the appropriate historical time has the power to silence those who would have us believe America is the paragon of ethical leadership,” he claims. Utilizing historical memory reveils this racist divide which was perpetuated by America itself and inherited from Europe during the age of exploration and consumption.

It should be pointed out that present day post-racial narratives and proponents of antiracialism — those who would do away with racial descriptions, commonly found in the linguistic practices of “colorblindness” — work against the weapon of historical memory for black Americans by seeking to cleanse language from the very terms that would allow for the oppressed to silence the oppressor. As MLK Day recently passed antiracialism was rehearsed through remembering King as an advocate of the importance of the “content of one’s character” above all else. Those are, of course, words from King himself, from his canonized “I Have a Dream” speech. What is interesting is how these particular words of King were situated within the context of antiracialism and colorblindness (e.g. “I don’t see color, just people”) making King himself a part of the narrative that ignores racial structures and powers — or, in Yancy’s terms, one that is blind to the Manichean divide.

As is conventional at the Republican debates, the mythopoetics of meritocracy have been emphasized by the candidates, and Newton Gingrich has been no exception. Gingrich has paid particular attention to solving issues of poverty for the black community and for the poor at large in America. Gingrich’s agenda, as far as I can tell, centers around providing jobs for the poorest in our country. This is neither surprising (conventional conservative parlance, after all) nor is it a bad idea in and of itself (also, for the sake of the post I’ll pretend that someone from Newton’s class even has moral standing to make a comment about solving poverty without concrete solidarity with the poor — thinking here about Mother Teresa’s important remark that it is much more common to talk about the poor than it is to talk to the poor). Jobs are an essential aspect to overcoming all kinds of barriers generated by poverty. The problem with Newton’s comments is the naiveté of their content with respect to the complexities of poverty and, even more apparent, the insensitive and racial edge that they have been delivered with. Without reciting the manifold dubious comments he has made about the poor in America and blacks in America (the two seem at times to be conflated for Newton) — poor kids only do illegal things, poor kids don’t know how to work, the black community needs to demand jobs not welfare checks, etc.  — it should be recognized that the belief in meritocracy (an annoying, but suitable word), like antiracialism, blinds people from the Manichean divide that fragments America along the spectrum of whiteness and blackness.

What these frameworks of thinking, from advocates of colorblindness to believers in the ability to move up the social and economic latter through hard-work and determination alone to believers in a fair and just America (like George Bush) all have in common is that they function within a context of an epistemology of ignorance. This epistemic context is, says Yancy, “blinded by a certain historically stuctured and structuring (white) opacity.” Elaborating he summons scholar Charles Mills who describes this whiteness as, “a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”

Connecting this to certain strands of liberation theology that describe the “epistemological privilege of the underdog”. This description of whiteness can be seen as its antitype. The overdogs — those bound by whiteness — by and large are unable to see the world they have structured and are structuring. Hence, Newton Gingrich and George Bush may not be insincere in their comments (and it helps explain what is at play in Newton’s belittling and untruthful comments made towards Juan Williams on MLK Day), but they are wrong nonetheless, inhabiting unreality, and embody the outworkings of a racial and racist imagination and epistemology that has been seared into those who stand at the top in America, which, consequently, forges and maintains the present conditions and Manichean divisions.

Bruce Longenecker’s ‘Remember the Poor’

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“For Paul, the meeting of Gal 2:1-10 resulted in the affirmation that the Jesus-movement in all of its indigenous forms was to be marked out by concern for the poor. We have no reason to think that he gave his assent to this begrudgingly, as if it verged on “salvation by human works” or a “social gospel” or “Marxist revolution.”Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World Instead, he gave his assent wholeheartedly, having already been wholly committed to this task precisely because it lay at the very heart of his gospel of transformation-through-grace. Paul knew from Israel’s scriptures that the deity of Israel had staked his own reputation as the cosmic sovereign to the overthrowing of unjust systems and the refreshment of the disadvantaged; and Paul probably knew from early remembrances of the Jesus-movement that Jesus himself had invoked the Isaianic narrative to encapsulate his own kingdom-message of “good news to the poor”… [C]are for the poor within groups of Jesus-followers has a solid place within Paul’s own theology of corporate enlivenment by the Spirit of the sovereign deity of Israel. If “remember the poor” is not simply “church politics,” neither does it represent a dubious, second-rate theology. It lies at the very core of Judaeo-Christian tradition, having been showcased in Israel’s scriptures, in Jesus’ proclamation and ministry, and in the best practices of the early Jesus-movement — including those Jesus-followers whose corporate life had been established and nutured by Paul.”

– Bruce Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2010), 205.

6 Working Theses on PBR

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1. Pabst Blue Ribbon–known as PBR more truthfully–is the most multifarious brew yet discovered by homo fermentas; indeed, it demonstrates its character without the pretense of exorbitant hops to rev the IBUs or outrageous alcohol content to market itself instrumentally towards dipsomania, rendering it a singular feat within history–in this the post-lapsarian existence of brewers that is more properly known as the post-Reinheitsgebot epoch, where ritual purity and the economy of salvation are incarnated and propitiated only as they accord to that Bavarian decree of 1516.

2. PBR’s lamentable transposition from Millertown to the city commonly operating under a Spanish pseudonymic facade alluding to non-physical entities garnered with wings — colloquially known as angels — for metaphysical locomotion veiling its sodomy towards the sacred life of the brew functions analogically to its cultural assault by those unable-to-account-for-their-own-existence-hipsters from its essential residence as a staple of the blue-collar worker’s cooler.

3. The bifurcation stated above to which PBR has become subject has received in potentia its salvific moment through Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Against all other substances read into this cinema, we must recognize the fundamental thread to be that of reclamation and polemical refutation to all those offenses waged by the so-called hipsters, whose perception of reality under the blanket of an epistemic regime of ignorance and a will driven single-mindedly by that which Lupe Fiasco has laid bare (albeit in separate contextual garment)–the cool–drives them to hedonistically grasp to what could become social capital within their spineless narcissism.

4. PBR, with its compassionate and just flavor, with its ends in its means, is revelationatory and consummationatory; it can in honesty before God transfigure a Hot-N-Ready from Little Caesars into a craft from the golden heights of Giordano’s or Gino’s East.

5. PBR’s ontological architectonics disallow recrementitious consumption of its partakers; it bears an over-line threshold that cannot be traversed. Put in another way, its ontic wonders carry a well-wishing, meek-tenderness that looks out for the good of its drinker, and in this kenosis it becomes an instantiation of graceful superabundance.

6. In sum, PBR, as a upper-midwest nectar of the gods (and yes, this stands against cynics claiming German genesis!) makes present unity in the universe, and, as a Master-theory of the cosmos, images an eschatological horizon and writes the lyrics for the morning stars as they prepare, once again, to sing together in harmonious concord.

MLK Day [2] and Making Measure of a Complete Life

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At the place I work we were encouraged on MLK day to do things MLK-ish. In the middle of the morning class, I decided that our class would read one of King’s sermons aloud right before our lunch break. I gathered all the participants in one room and we began to read King’s sermon called the Three Dimensions of a Complete Life. I chose this sermon because it contains a few remarks about the dignity of one’s labor which we referenced a few days earlier in class.

The relevant comments come in a subsection about vocation within King’s elaboration on the length of life (which, by the way, is the love of one’s self, a rational self-interest). King says that after we love ourselves we should discover what we are called to do. After we make that discovery we should strive “to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.” His vivid remarks about a shoe shiner in Montgomery having a PhD in shoe shining were particularly helpful in conversation with the job seekers in class. King’s supplication was for the congregation and us to live fully into our calling, that, whether we are painters or street sweepers, we should aspire to be the Michelangelos of our crafts.

The sermons we were reading together are based of off recordings from his sermons. Because of this, there are parentheses in the text marking when the congregation responded in spirit and agreement. We improvised and decided that those who were not reading would mimic what the congregation said in response to King–from preach, preach to alright to oh yeah. This injection of creativity ended up working well, bringing affirmation, enthusiasm, and levity to our mini-congregation–and patience for those whose literacy was sub-par.

The thrust (to oversimplify) of the rest of the sermon is that a complete life is composed of the proper length, breadth, and heighth which correspond to loving one’s self, loving your neighbor, and loving God. There is a wonderful and beautiful depth in this sermon, while it simultaneously comes across quite simply. King’s message is clear, and while delivering it he makes passing references to Tillich, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and Augustine, describes the historical situation of John of Patmos in his Apocalypse, while avoiding a slip in to pedantry and theological/philosophical jargon. His message never loses it contextual relevance yet retains a sophisticated depth.

Images of Waco in January 2012

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These pictures were taken around the Waco area by the fiance and I–the good ones by her. We will most likely do this sort of thing again, with several other places remaining around town that we still want to photograph. We tried to take pictures of significant and beautiful places. Some notables include: dubl-r (where a burger, double-double all-the-way, may be the closest one can get to the ethereal bliss of Elysium without malt or Milton), Cameron Park, Suspension Bridge and the bridge across from it (site of one of the Waco lynchings), a re-creation of a shot from Malick’s the Tree of Life, among others. I struggle to describe this city. I have been here nearly four years, and I will miss it when I am gone. There is life and light, but there is darkness as well. To borrow from the language of the righteous and devout Simeon from Luke 2: it has been a site of the falling and rising of many, hearts have been revealed and souls have been pierced in its walls. I won’t say much more; for now, I’ll let the images, if they will, speak.

The Renunciation of Politics in the Christ-haunted Death-dealing South

The sermon at my church last Sunday opened with a pre-recorded interview between our pastor and a member of the staff of Friendship-West Baptist Church, a black church in Dallas that apparently has in the past generated controversy from guest sermons delivered by Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at Obama’s former church.

The main question was the criteria used by that church and its black congregation to determine their political stance. The pastor answered that its constituents aimed to support those who they perceived to be concerned with their quality of life, as well as those who understood the kind of people God historically sided with throughout the Scripture. Those were his two main concerns, and they were completely absent in the following sermon, which was more of a renunciation of politics.

The gist of the message was that the church should not get involved in the heated back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats because legislation is not the way to a person’s heart, which is only an equally vapid re-statement of “You can’t legislate morality.”

It was not a terrible sermon all around. He made a distinction between “making a point” and “making a difference”, and argued that the church should direct their energies toward the latter. Avoid, for example, protesting outside of abortion clinics or alienating homosexuals, focusing instead on building bridges and the like. In this aspect there were a few things I might protest, but I don’t often see such a relatively sensible positions from churches around here, so it was slightly refreshing.

But I think all together the sermon missed the mark. Of the four main bullet points, the one most relevant to politics was, “Refuse to be dragged into distracting debates.” This was premised, as I said above, on the idea that the church cannot get at a person’s heart through politics. But of course, it is nonsensical to suppose that all political debates are “distracting.” And further, that the church could in good conscience refuse to recognize the legitimacy of many political debates.  

The main objection has to be that the church cannot only focus on transforming hearts. The pastor would have done well to listen to his black colleague talk about the black church’s concern for “quality of life.” It seems that to someone who has grown up in the segregated south, the Civil Rights Act’s success in changing hearts matters less than the concrete improvement in quality of life for black people. Surely it was in keeping with God’s will to enact legislation that stopped the institutional exclusion of blacks and all its attendant evils. Our pastor’s deafness to this claim stems, I think, from our church’s infatuation with individual morality, which tends to marginalize every material and social concern which doesn’t start and end inside a person’s soul. In their zeal to create more godly persons I think they forget that there can be more godly situations. 

Even if we were to grant that the church should not advocate positive action through legislation because such action is merely palliative, I certainly don’t see how the church can avoid caring about the purely negative part they could play. Are we to assume that the debate about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is merely distracting partisanship, and that it is not the church’s place to denounce wholesale killing, especially when it is often done in the name of the God they worship? Obviously not.

I get what the pastor is saying about politics sweeping people up in its fervor and distracting them from God’s will, but that doesn’t mean that the church should simply recede. They should have their own vision of politics that seeks to refine political discussion and re-focus its ends.

MLK Day and Loving Your Enemies

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I’ve started reading MLK’s sermons again this week with his day of recognition taking place on Monday here in these United States. It’s been a while since I was last with King. Last summer, when I was working the overnight shifts at the shelter I would spend my breaks at Ihop with the good reverend. Two things stand out from my memory of those times: (1) how rejuvenating the coffee–superabundantly loaded with sugar–was for me and (2) how moving, emotive, and upbuilding King’s sermons were. There were times when I wanted in univocity with the congregation to agree in a resounding amen and amen, and there were times when I could not but be stirred by his homiletic eloquence to read his sermons aloud. There’s no doubt that I would have heeded an altar call had my soul been so gracefully admonished in the presence of his gospel proclamation.

As King’s national holiday approaches with all its hagiographic accompaniment it is important to remember, especially given the construction and unveiling of his national relic in DC, that, contrary to the popular cultural memory of King, his legacy is one far more complex than what the coming days will narrate. King’s jeremiads animadverted not only the “race problem” but also and increasingly towards the end of his life capitalism and war.

Expect, predictably, the redacted King of civil religion to make no qualms with the contemporary state of things and to be instrumentalized in post-racial narratives. His remembered message will be edgeless and blunt, as lip service will be paid by political leaders from every corner, from President Obama to the conservative primary runners. The duplicitousness and untruth will be exceptionally uninteresting from the conservative candidates in light of the racial-essentializing comments and sentiments from seemingly every candidate.

This is, of course, not to expect President Obama to correct such a myopic vision, or better, to offer a revisionist historical remembrance that embraces a King who is unsettling to those in power that neglect the powerless and confrontational to those that render invisible the disinherited. The irony of all this is the extant conditions and prevalence of poverty, economic injustice, racism, and imperialism; further, that there maintains a moral deficiency of an imaginative alternative to war and “American interests” as the sole justifying criteria (even Ron Paul’s isolationism is directed by an exceedingly conventional appeal to the interests of America). All these things are absent current political nomenclature but were never more than an earshot from the euphonics mused by King.

Yesterday, I re-read a sermon King gave at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1957. The sermon is on Jesus’ command to love your enemies. The first half of the sermon considers the practical how of Jesus antithesis. He covers much ground in this part; first (and against Niebuhrian realism) he declares that

“Jesus was serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that its difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over to the point. This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master. Because Jesus wasn’t playing; because he was serious.”

After clearing the ground from any realist objections he discusses two steps a person should take in loving their enemies: first, look at yourself and the splinter in your own eye (he cites the international struggle between communism and democracy. While democracy is hailed as the greatest government ever conceived, the reality is that it has never been touched in the United States. King points out that one can see this by facing “the rhythmic beat of the deep rumblings of discontent from Asia and Africa” that unmask the failings of democracy in western civilization.) and second, discover the good in your enemy. For King, every human being is at different times good and evil (“there is the recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul”) but nevertheless bears the image of God. The task is to learn to recognize this image.

King puts the task of loving your enemy pointedly when he says, “Another way of loving your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.” I think that is sweet.

After discussing different forms of love derived from the Greek language King moves into the second half of the sermon which considers the metaphysical why behind the practical how. For King, violence can only lead to more violence. The chain of evil present in the universe cannot be broken through more acts of violence even by a force that appears justified. True strength, King says, comes when one has the power to cut off this chain and “inject” into the very fabric of the cosmos the element of love.

Hate destroys both the object of its scorn and the person who carries it, while love is the creative response to life that brings with it more life. What is more, love is not only creative but it is redemptive. It bears with it the power of redeeming the object of its attention, the power of transforming enemies. Love, as King describes it in this sermon, is the force that Jesus proclaimed that has the power to save the universe from hate and destruction and bring to it creation and redemption. In sum and to borrow from Yoder’s fitting phrase, to love your enemy is to move “with the grain of the universe.”

Beginnings of Ministry: Stringfellow’s Listening and Weil’s Attention

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While he worked as a lawyer in East Harlem, William Stringfellow understood his work vocationally as a ministry in which his call was to witness to the reality of the resurrection through his advocacy for those who were alienated and voiceless. Harlem placed before him the present condition of things as they really were, where the chief principality and power, Death, reigned as the greatest power apart from God. It was precisely within his work as a lawyer that Stringfellow recognized his call to a life of worship through which, even amidst the pervasiveness of Death, he could expose the “scandalous secret of the Word of God.” Anthony Dancer, in his theological biography of Stringfellow, notes that his life working as a lawyer “was characterized by the acts of listening, compassion, and surrender” [a]. Stringfellow’s ministry began through the act of listening which he describes as,

“a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives himself to another’s word, making himself accessible and vulnerable to that word.” [b]

These words from Stringfellow brought to mind words from Simone Weil, who, in an essay on the importance of attention, says that attention is the substance of both the love of God and the love of our neighbor. At the end of her essay Weil brings up the need of attention for those who are afflicted. I think her way of understanding attention is related to Stringfellow’s understanding of listening as the beginning of his ministry, though Weil’s emphasis here is on looking while Stringfellow’s is on hearing. She says,

“Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving  them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they possess this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough…

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.” [c]

[a] Anthony Dancer. An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow. Eugene: Cascade (2011), pg. 89.

[b] quoted in Dancer pg. 90.

[c] Simone Weil. Waiting for God. HarperCollins (1951), pg. 64, 65.