Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On the Obligation Not to Forget: The Challenge of Hope in Faith Communities

What haunts me, as I move towards a new phase in my life (I’m approaching a birthday that’s symbolic to me, as I’ve noted previously—my 60th—and one . . . ponders . . . as one ages):  

Where does hate go?  What happens to it, when it’s done its dirty work, had its field day, and been temporarily vanquished?

In one sense, I ask these questions naively, because I know their answer perfectly well.  In speaking of “hate” here, I’m talking about the intractable, venomous, never-overcome tendency of people in any human group to single out a particular sub-set of their community for scorn, demonization, exclusion, and often, active persecution that may even result in their eradication.

That tendency is constant throughout human history.  Theologians might argue that it’s one of those perceivable effects of the only Christian doctrine that is, according to Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous quip, empirically verifiable, the doctrine of original sin.

We need to hate.  Or so it appears.  We have inside us a hunger, and a ravenous one, it seems, to frame some group within our midst as the threatening outsider, and then to persecute and expel that group in public rituals of humiliation and purification, in order to make ourselves feel clean. 

And so where does hate go?  What I’m asking, as well as I can understand my own need to understand this process right now, is what happens when hate has accomplished its work—when it has succeeded in destroying a group of people solely because they have been defined as the unacceptable other and have been expelled and/or slaughtered. 

What happens once a Christian culture has succeeded in murdering millions of Jews, for instance—after a spectacular mass slaughter of this ethnic and religious group, following centuries of persecution of the minority?  The question I’m asking quite specifically is this: what do we who remain, we the Christians in the preceding picture, do with the legacy we’ve bequeathed to the world and to ourselves, when we’ve participated in such an act of mass murder?

Once we’ve been unmasked.  Once we’ve finally succeeded in seeing our own faces in the mirror, mask removed.

What do we do with that revelation?

What do social groups, including communities of faith, do with their historic guilt, with their legacies of profound injustice that sometimes include the destruction of entire groups of human beings for specious, ethically unjustifiable reasons?

At one level, I know part of the answer to these questions, of course: hate never goes away.  It continues.  Just as water seeks a new level and a new outlet when we try to contain it in any landscape, hate—which is as omnipresent to the social world in which we live as water is to the natural world—will always find a new way to express itself.

The particulars may vary: today, it may be the Jewish community that is vilified.  Tomorrow, it will be people of color who are being attacked.  Sometime down the road, women will bear the brunt of hate’s self-manifestation in a social group—since women have been almost always susceptible to scorn and abuse in many societies. 

Or the gays or Muslims may preoccupy our attention, may become the new social bugbear, the infectious agent we need to eradicate in order to give our social group the illusion that it is free of all taint.

And so part of the answer to my question is clear to me: given hate’s propensity to keep manifesting itself—dammed water breaking out of the dam here, there—in any given society at any point in history, we have an obligation to remain always vigilant.  We who belong to faith communities have a fundamental, unavoidable responsibility to keep looking at the social world in which we live, using tools of social analysis as well as those provided by our faith traditions, to understand where hate is doing its dirty work in the world today.

And to resist.

Because giving in to hate is a fundamental abdication of all that people of faith believe, at the most profound level.

But there’s more to the challenge I sense here, I think.  Given that no small proportion of the destructive hate manifested by social groups at various points in human history actually arises within communities of faith—is actively fueled by those who believe—what do believers who recognize, down the road, that their faith community has betrayed its most basic convictions through acts of hate do with that recognition?

It’s possible to go on living—and remaining in some vital connection to a faith community as one does so—while pretending that the past simply never happened.  That those who met nasty ends somehow deserved their fates.

That the murder of millions of people by members of my own religious community doesn’t in any way involve me.  Or have any implications for my connection to that faith community today.

That the tendency to hate is something the human race has outgrown, and the possibility of religiously-fueled violent destruction of stigmatized others has diminished in the brave new world in which I now live.

It’s entirely possible to forget.  It’s possible to go on doing our business as if nothing has happened—as if six million Jews murdered in the middle of the 20th century, by a highly civilized Christian nation, are simply a stone thrown into a pond, now safely lodged at its bottom.

A few ripples, yes.  For a time.  Some turbulence.  Temporarily.

But it’s all done and past, and life must go on. 

How does any of this concern me today?  And what good does it to do drag it up, to think about the Holocaust or read about the history of lynching in the United States?  To study documents regarding slavery and the plethora of religious books and tracts defending slavery in the past?  To dwell on the removal of native peoples, their dispossession from land they had owned since time immemorial, their confinement to “reservations,” and their eventual extinction?

I think I have two answers to these questions, ones that work for me right now—but they’re answers with which I’ve long struggled and seem likely to continue struggling even as I enter the final leg of my life journey:

1. It’s impossible to look at the crucified Lord and to forget.  It’s impossible to read the gospel accounts of Jesus’s passion and crucifixion and rest easy with the abominable human history of social hatred, which targets and then destroys one group of human beings after another.

It’s impossible to look at Jesus crucified and forget because Jesus was himself a victim.  Of precisely the kind of social hatred I’m describing.

In allowing ourselves to forget the fate of those in whose deaths we and our faith community have been implicated, we are forgetting Jesus himself—how he lived, and what happened to him as a consequence of how he lived.

In taking the side of the victor and not the vanquished, we are taking the side of those who put Jesus to death.  Not Jesus’s side.

2. And second, because the failure of Jesus’s life was transformed by his resurrection, it’s impossible to forget, since the gospel stories compel us not only to remember the historic suffering of millions of human beings, but also to hope and struggle for a world that transforms such suffering into something else.

Into a future that, we hope against hope, will comprise fewer manifestations of hate-driven eradication of others.  Into a future that will finally permit those scorned and excluded to breathe more freely, to live with as much humanity as those who have defined them as subhuman.

Both of these answers are unsatisfactory answers—for me, at least.  Because they involve the pain of remembering.  And the struggle both to keep the victims of history alive in my heart, and—even more difficult, I think—to believe that a world that doesn’t crucify innocent victims is possible at all.