Friday, August 2, 2013

Upon these innumerable bones: Historical harms and ethics

From Toledo, IA
A mass grave in post-genocide Rwanda
(Photo copyright AP)
This is post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post kicks off our reflections on ch. 2.

This chapter takes the form of a letter which Coles wrote to Hauerwas in July, 2006, from his mother-in-law's house in northern California. After telling Stanley a bit about the surroundings, Coles leads off his response to the essay found in the previous chapter with a rather striking image:
Have you ever read Annie Dillard's For the Time Being? She writes there in a way that repeatedly evokes the unfathomable numbers of dead humans and nonhumans in the earth underneath our feet... I'm frequently overtaken by this sensibility. By a sense of the dead everywhere around me... by a sense that responsibility travels backwards, first toward the dead - their works, their unfulfilled dreams, their memories. (31, emphasis added)

This rather unsettling image brought to mind my reading a few years ago of Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith After Genocide in Rwanda by Emmanuel Katongole, which I might characterize as the most widely accessible and convicting work of political theology I've ever come across. (It was published by Zondervan for crying out loud!)

In his recounting of the history which led to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and Western Christianity's complicity and ultimate failure, part of what Katongole insists must be done to "resurrect faith" there (and here) is to come to grips with historical realities and to then re-member, or reconstruct memory, about who Christians are as a particular people in particular places at particular times, dealing with particular and often problematic histories.

For Christians in Rwanda, then, they must tread - physically and imaginatively - upon the innumerable bones of the dead. (The disturbing scene in the movie "Hotel Rwanda" comes to mind: The thick foggy morning drive on an incredibly bumpy road...whose bumps, as the fog clears, horrifyingly turn out to be a sea of massacred human bodies upon which Paul Rusesabagina's vehicle is treading.)

Memory, then, becomes crucial in redeeming history: "We can never begin to imagine a new future for ourselves until we find ways to remember ourselves differently" (25, MttC). It's upon his word "differently" that the Christian practice of repentance hangs; it requires honesty and humility - virtues necessary for the Christian disciple and radical democrat.

And with Katongole's use of the mirror analogy, he insists that Western Christians must also tread those same bones, if only imaginatively and empathetically. But Christians in the United States (the geographic, political, and cultural context for us three, as well as Coles & Hauerwas) must also tread upon this land, upon these bones of those crushed by the American project, and come to grips with Christianity's deep complicity in that history: Indigenous populations and peoples eviscerated; African people stolen and re-cast as non-people, slaves (property) to be bought and sold, used and discarded, for commercial activity; and the terrible legacy these have left behind (cf. Alexander's The New Jim Crow).

Much of this calls into question the treasured Western myth of "progress." Yet some might worry that such reckoning with the past will get us stuck there. What about our present and future life together? How now shall we live? Coles cites philosopher Walter Benjamin's work, and after making remarks that supported his earlier claim that "responsibility travels backwards," he says of Benjamin:
It is not that he has any disregard for the future, of course, just that the future can only be cared for obliquely, looping through the "weak messianic" shards of the past. ... As I see it, this thought that we care for the world as we care for the dead is at the heart of what we might call a radical-democratic relation to time that begins to respond to the crucial question...about the death/glory matrix that so (most) often captures politics and bends it toward violence. (32, emphasis added)
It is an obsession for future welfare that cuts ties with those bones whose ashes-to-ashes/dust-to-dust stories made our lives possible in the first place. Jesus has some rather no-nonsense moral instruction here in Matthew 6, but here's one tiny bit: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today" (Mt. 6:34). And part of today's trouble is what came before to make today possible. All those bones...

We can only go forward by knowing the road which brought us to where we are, and the sacred and profane bones which litter the way, repenting for unfaithfulness, celebrating with the cloud of faithful witnesses/martyrs.

Perhaps it's a perverted Christian eschatology which made the secular myth of Western progress possible. Perhaps that Christian eschatology was problematic to being with after Christendom?

Perhaps a radical Christian letting go of the handles on history - "living out of control," as Hauerwas often says - is akin to what Coles describes as the radical-democratic relation to time, and is a way forward for those Christians who would walk the path of the one whom we confess redeemed history by the willing march to his own crushed bones and death on a Roman cross, perched atop a hill named "Skull."

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