So writes Episcopal priest Garret Keizer in The Enigma of Anger. I console myself with his words as often as I hold his words (somewhat angrily) against others.
Speaking to my dad or to my in-laws about current events and history only reminds me that the presence of facts does not diminish the prevalence of fictions. We tell ourselves stories based on a compendium of characters and then refuse to accept that any story apart from the one we tell ourselves can matter.
I’m not good at discerning the precise place where patriotism turns into idolatry. My personal manner of reconciling myself with the mass-murdering apparatus known as the nation-state is an ascetic one. I refuse to add the saccharine of patriotism to the bitter drink, lest it lull me into revisionism.
The drink stays bitter so I’m not tempted to lie about it.
So why is this drinker of bitter-draughts, the girl who declines to make the drink taste sweet, the idealist? How can we explain the fact that she is the one who believes in hope- believes in the value of protest and picket, finds comfort and fellowship in speaking truth to power- while those who sip from the sweetened tea recline and declare, “That’s just the way the world is….”
“Ever since Eve tasted the fruit,” they declare.
“Eat, drink, and be merry,” they reassure, “for tomorrow we die”.
Or, my personal favorite, “Humans sin and only Jesus is perfect”.
Hallelujah. Amen. Someone pass me that gun so I can take a shot at that hoodie-wearing scoundrel who’s looking for trouble.
For all my sadness at the human condition, I understand that the American Revolution was not (as some armchair theologians might claim) an act of God but an act of human beings. I understand that human beings are capable of great things and awful things. I cannot understand attempts to mitigate or downplay the difference.
“The feeling I dread most is not fear but despair: the dim, oppressive sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in the first essay of the captivating book of essays aptly titled, Small Wonder. It’s a book to which I return often.
The persistence of evil and cruelty is not a sound reason for denying the way in which evil changes shape and form over time. In fact, the extent of this change is usually the reason we fail to acknowledge the most recent form of evil colluding in our daily lives.
The Boy Scouts now “allow” gay members to scout, but the institution still refuses to permit gay “troop leaders”. So a gay father can’t lead his scout’s troop.
Behind this decision lies the sort of shameful thinking we rarely confront. In this case, the rule is maintained by the unspeakable fear that a gay man is the victim of his own “disturbed” sexuality- a sexuality from which young boys must be protected, one that must never be allowed in a position of leadership. Imagine if single mothers were not allowed to leader Girl Scout troops for fear that their divorces or lack of marriage would “contaminate” young girls. Imagine if skin color determined one’s access to leadership positions.
Don’t tiptoe around “No”- say it. Set it in stone.
Black Americans are no longer slaves. Things do change. But those Americans who wanted to keep their slaves resorted to the same excuse that “things stay the same”- that change is ultimately impossible, that humans can’t help but oppress one another and then validate such oppression by calling it “natural”.
What if it is despair- that feeling that nothing you do can make a difference- that keeps us from doing the right thing? Rabid, irrational fear might explain bombing innocent civilians, but it is despair which keeps from acknowledging the horror of what we have done and facing it with courage and humility.