Monday, August 5, 2013

Tracking (nearly) vanished footprints: Christianity and radical democracy

From Harrisonburg, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, and Brian Gumm. This post continues our reflections on ch. 2, a letter to Hauerwas from Coles. 
This wound is in me, as complex and deep in my flesh as blood and nerves. I have borne it all my life, with varying degrees of consciousness, but always carefully, always with the most delicate consideration for the pain I would feel if I were somehow forced to acknowledge it.
Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, (4)
In Romand Coles' "Letter of July 17, 2006" (Chapter 2) he suggests that "we care for the world as we care for the dead" (32) and that this gets straight to the heart of a radical-democratic relation to time. This responsibility to ancestors means that our focus of responsibility shifts from only being about saving the present-moving-to-the-future. We've got to do the slow work of sifting through the past, getting to know those who have walked before us, tracking those footprints that are still (but just barely) visible on the soil of this earth we all inhabit. We must do this because, as Coles suggests, "The disaster has already occurred" (33, emphasis in original).

That the disaster has already occurred suggests that this tracking of nearly vanished footprints will be work of the dirtiest, messiest and most lamentable sort. If the disaster has already occurred, then at least some of our tracking will put us on the trail of that disaster - and being on the trail might mean that we are actually led to the disaster. Tracking takes time, patience and an incredible attention to detail, all the more so when the sands that hold the footprints are shifting and the wind is howling and the rain is making it hard to see. I know I shouldn't have to write it but the fact that the work of uncovering these footprints is called "tracking" should help us to recognize that we most likely aren't going to find nearly vanished footprints in standard textbooks and public histories.

I opened this post with the quote from Wendell Berry because I think he suggests what might be involved in uncovering the wound of slavery and racism in America. In so far as I was born in this spot of land now referred to at the United States of America and was raised in it the quote could be mine, were I as eloquent as Berry. Yes, the wound is in me. It is not something external to me that I can merely look at from time to time and admire how well (or poorly) it is healing. And much like my children enjoy keeping their band-aids on as long as possible so as to avoid the pain of tearing it off so I, like Berry, am often hesitant to open the wound to the fresh air. But the fresh air is what the wound needs, it cannot be hidden forever to fester and become infected. Thankfully Berry continues thus:
But now I am increasingly aware of the opposite compulsion. I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured; I want to be free of the wound myself, and I do not want to pass it on to my children. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking; perhaps such a thing is not to be done by one man, or in one generation. Surely a man would have to be almost dangerously proud to think himself capable of it. And so maybe I am really saying only that I feel an obligation to make the attempt, and that I know if I fail to make at least the attempt I forfeit any right to hope that the world will become better than it is now.
Berry, The Hidden Wound, (4)
There is a vulnerability here that I think has resonance with the kind of radical-democratic practice that Coles is suggesting. It is the vulnerability of diagnosing disasters of the past (actually, maybe its letting others diagnose the disasters of the past), and the recognition of complicity in those very disasters. Its the vulnerability of refusing to cover over the past with immediate return to the present-moving-to-the-future. I suppose its the vulnerability of risking death, or at least the death of the story I used to tell about the past. I think it requires something akin to Rizpah's commitment to sit with the dead, for a whole blazing hot summer, (2 Samuel 21:1-14) in order to keep bodies safe from scavenging animals. But the kind of sitting still that Rizpah embodies I find to be extremely difficult if not impossible.

Six weeks ago I sat in a circle of 75-100 other folks at the National Restorative Justice Conference in Toledo, Ohio. The theme for the conference was "Keeping it Real: Race and Restorative Justice." This particular circle was convened during the last full workshop session of the conference and it was billed as a workshop to discuss reflections on Michelle Alexander's recent book The New Jim Crow. I listened with keen interest as several people offered reflections on how Alexander's book related to their experiences. After these reflections the conversation was opened up to the rest of the circle. The facilitators guided the group to offer reflections about anything they had thought about during the previous two days of the conference. It became apparent rather quickly that many in the room felt that the conference had done anything but "keep it real" when it came to race and restorative justice. I listened as people of color spoke to their intense frustration that we had somehow avoided having the conversation that they so desperately wanted to have, especially in the context of a group of folks gathered around restorative justice. By that I mean folks who are supposedly familiar with discussion of harms and needs. I listened to stories of brothers, fathers, sons, uncles and friends who were caught in the prison industrial system that has developed over the last fifty years in this country. I listened to stories of experiences with forms of racism both overt and subtle. I watched several simply lose themselves in their pain, grief and frustration, collapsing to the floor sobbing. It was intense.

I made a purposeful decision just to listen. Actually I'm not sure it was a decision I made with purpose, but I sensed that we were sitting on holy ground and I didn't want to profane it with my two cents - provided I knew what that two cents would be. Did it feel good to listen? Did I feel radically democratic, or even Christian, in that moment? No. Absolutely not. I sat in the circle and felt hollow, dry, and incredibly tired. I felt despair and hopelessness. I did not feel passion to "do" anything. I didn't even feel that I could lament at that moment, I just felt numb. I felt that anything I would/could do (even offering an apology) would be so out of place and wrong in that moment. So I just listened. It was hard work.

Near the end of Chapter 2 Coles begins to flesh out some worries with a few of Hauerwas' statements in the previous chapter. He uses Sam Wells' Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics to bring to the surface some of his worries with Hauerwas' language of nonviolent rule. To Coles the assertion by Wells that the church has ample resources for every eventuality it faces and that the Christian community can 'out-narrate' any other story is troubling. It is troubling insofar as it is based on retaining identity and not losing the initiative, on maintaining possession of the far larger story and cramming the "other" into one's own context -- all of this Coles has a hard time swallowing as part of nonviolent rule. It does sound pretty colonial and imperial. So he asks these questions: "Might not ethical practice hinge very significantly on slackening the will to 'retain identity?'" and "Should one seek always not to lose the initiative?" and "Should we - Christians, radical democrats - have confidence that we have the 'far larger story,' that our task is to out-narrate all the others?"(42) This kind of over-narration (at least as a primary task of the church or the Christian) seems to me to be overly preoccupied with winning, with coming out on top.

Then Coles goes on to write what I've found to be an apt description of what I felt as I sat in the circle at the RJ conference.
Not knowing what to say and knowing one does not know - perhaps for a very long period of time - and dramatizing the fact that one is confronted with something for which one knows that one does not yet have the words: this is a very important ethical capacity... in those space-times we slacken the insistence to out-narrate, and perhaps for the first time assume an ethical stance toward others. (42-43)
Of course it is possible to resist this kind of unknowing, in fact it is quite tempting at times, for the very reasons Wendell Berry articulated earlier. There is a certain letting go that is required to truly, deeply listen to stories that disrupt and interrupt our own; perhaps even calling our stories into question. Coles continues
We allow ourselves to be called into question in ways that perturb our energies and insistences to out narrate and try to rule. We allow ourselves to sense that we don't know where this is going, that ethical action calls for uncertain discernment. We discover long pausing as frequently the most profound ethical art in difficult situations. We cultivate arts of pregnant waiting. (43)
So we're left with two less than comforting (although I suppose that depends on one's perspective) metaphors for the task ahead: tracking vanishing footprints and pregnant waiting. Both require patience (maybe even wild patience) and passion. Of course we might be aided in this task if we recognize with William Faulkner that the past is never dead, its not even past.

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