1. Exodus

    November 19, 2018 by Chris Motley

    A great people’s origin story is one of liberation from bondage. A nation born from emancipation, and deliverance from slavery and oppression is its national mythology. 

    We hear that word, mythology. I worry that in our popular consciousness, that word tends to evoke a sense of un-truth, fictionality. It’s all a myth anyway. The Red Sea didn’t part like that. God didn’t burn in a bush. The Ten Commandments evolved from cultural norms and practices, not tablets handed down from on high. But to seek only truth and non-truth in the stories we share (what we are really talking about is fact and non-fact, rather than truth and non-truth), is to undervalue the power of myth, the power of literature. Think, rather, of the countless people throughout these millennia who have held this story in their hearts as being the most true thing they know. Think of individual lives that have been saved because they believed in the power of their God to deliver them. Think of the history of the Jewish people.

    On the cover of the Mouse edition of Exodus you see in the space reserved for the author’s name the name of Moses. Moses is thought to be the author of The Book of Exodus. He is also thought to be its protagonist. You would not be wrong to speak in this way. But there is another protagonist of this story, who is the protagonist, and in a way the author, of an entire national history: God. I am not speaking now from a place of belief, but rather a place of literary assessment. God is literally a character in these stories. But the protagonist? The author? Exodus is a story of a people and their God, coming together, triumphantly. 

    God is the protagonist. God is the author. I am thinking of a quote from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. He writes, in New Seeds of Contemplation, “God did not invite the Children of Israel to leave the slavery of Egypt: he commanded them to do so.” The grand story of Exodus begins when God decides to enact justice. He works through his chosen prophet Moses, and he throws in some plagues and a parting sea to seal the deal. God is justice in Exodus, from the beginning of the liberation story through the handing down of the commandments. 

    God is justice. We can turn to Martin Luther King: “Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King envisions an inevitability, a cosmic plan. I once heard his friend John Lewis put it this way. I paraphrase – it is not that we must bring the beloved community (or the Kingdom of God) into being. It already is here. We just have to step into it and dwell there. What does it mean then to know that God, the universe, or however we envision that which is beyond us – what does it mean to know that this entity sides with victims, sides with the oppressed and enslaved, and is working furiously to liberate the human species from every form of bondage? 

  2. Southern Horrors

    November 2, 2018 by Chris Motley

    The Scarlet Letter is a novel about religious hypocrisy, which we might also call idolatry – the substitution of a false god for the true one. In The Scarlet Letter punishment itself becomes a form of religious ritual, effacing the “Christianity” of its adherents. 

    Frederick Douglass was keen to point out the religious hypocrisy of the slave master. In the “Appendix” to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he writes, 

    [B]etween the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.

    A generation later, Ida B. Wells, whom Douglass once addressed as “Brave woman!”, continued Douglass’ work of exposing hypocrisy. While Douglass’ mode was rhetorical and oratorical, Wells’ is reportorial (though no less eloquent). She is writing during the time of what she called “southern horrors,” what civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson and others have come to name “racial terrorism.” We are quickly learning that racial terrorism can not be pegged to a time period, (i.e., it happened back then). But the particular iteration of racial terrorism that Wells documents is lynching. Her writings in her newspaper the Free Speech and several other publications document case after case of the abduction, torture, and public (indeed festive) murder of a black person. These reports must therefore describe the excuses made for such actions, the hypocrisy laid bare, such double-speak itself part of the crime.

    A phrase that we have now for Wells’ work is “bearing witness.” By documenting these cases, she bears witness to the world of an inhumanity that would otherwise pass as socially acceptable or go unregarded. While allies delivered speeches on social issues around the country, she doggedly accumulated stories of atrocity. And so a key feature of Southern Horrors and its companion The Red Record is their thoroughness. Wells does not want to rest until her exposure of these crimes is complete, until the extent of it all is truly known. This came and always comes at great risk. Wells’ home and business were destroyed, and she was marked for death by many in the South (in fact her flight from the South would put her in touch with key leaders who would join her in founding the NAACP, though her name would eventually not be included in the original list of founders). Her example of persistence would inspire many in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and she inspires me today. 

    The horrors, and the hypocrisies, continue. And we live in a time when the kind of work Wells was known for is regarded as fraudulent. Donald Trump might refer to Wells as an “enemy of the American people.” This kind of accusation would not sound foreign to Wells and her people, who have been on the receiving end of such rhetoric since the beginning of their time on this continent. 

    People ask themselves and they ask me – what can we do? Often that question registers as merely a rhetorical one. It’s rather easy to feel helpless and to let the helplessness guide us away from bearing witness, to focus only on our own lives. A synonym for witness that I use is vigilance. On the morning after Trump’s election, I wrote to my family about vigilance, committed myself to it in writing. Vigilance requires attention to atrocity, and it requires clarity about atrocity. Just as with the lynchers of Wells’ time, the lynchers of today not only commit violence, but they invent the narrative that justifies it. In this way the violence becomes public ritual. We are not as far from The Scarlet Letter as we think. Remain vigilant. Tell the truth about what you see. Truth? No need to look about for it in a world where reliable authority crumbles. The truth is within you. You know violence when you see it – physical, psychological, emotional violence, violence to language. Remain vigilant.  

  3. The Scarlet Letter

    October 30, 2018 by Chris Motley

    The philosophical heart of The Scarlet Letter appears in its very first lines. Hawthorne’s narrator writes,

    The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. 

    Practical necessities. Burying the dead, punishing criminals. I spend a day on this statement with my students. In the narrator’s formulation, it appears that punishment precedes crime. It appears that however hopeful a new colony may be for its people, it still must, as a “practical” matter, prepare for “human nature” to creep back in. Or, does the presence of punishment in fact precipitate crime? Do we become the criminals that the authorities presume, expect us to be? For more discussion on this question, I turn you over to Michel Foucault, whose Madness and Civilization and Discipline and Punish lay out the history and the present situation of any “civilization’s” need to surveil, control, and punish its people. 

    The need to punish. Another French philosopher, Rene Girard, places the need to punish at the heart of every civilization that has ever existed. Punishment, or, to use his terminology, scapegoating and sacrifice, unite a divided people against a common enemy in a war of all against one. The sacrifice temporarily purges the group of its intensifying conflicts, restoring peace in order. This sacrifice is so striking in its effectiveness that the perpetrators ritualize it, turn it into religion. See especially Girard’s Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat for further reading.

    Punishment and sacrifice become religion. Consider the final passage of the Mouse edition of The Scarlet Letter:

    The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always contributing a grotesque horror to what interested their imaginations, had a story about the scarlet letter which we might readily work up into a terrific legend. They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit. 

    The punishment – a piece of cloth worn outside your clothes – becomes more than punishment. It becomes a supernatural force, a legend to be passed down the generations. Stigmatization, isolation, becomes myth, becomes religion. 

    Ochlocracy. This is the word the Greeks coined to describe mob rule, rule by intimidation. Here we are, now. We witness the deification of punishment, the creation of criminals, all around us, all the time. We have handed our civilization over, for now, to the mob. And they will do their utmost. Can we stand apart, and bear witness?

  4. On Justice

    October 29, 2018 by Chris Motley

    The books in this series address three notions of justice: interpersonal justice, social justice, cosmic justice. The first two notions are in our hands. The third notion is trickier. We might view this list and assume that each notion of justice represents an increase in scale. That may be a delusion. 

    The Book of Exodus presents justice as the foundational experience of an entire nation. Social justice is revealed as cosmic justice. For the Israelites, those considerations are inseparable. The Mouse edition of Exodus concludes with the revelation of a foundational document of Western culture: The Ten Commandments, the original handbook for interpersonal justice, which again is viewed as the conduit for social and cosmic justice. These instructions for one’s personal life are, of course, really important to God, the arbiter of cosmic and, in Exodus, social justice. I like to ask my students which of the commandments they view as being the most important. This is, as we know, a key question put to Jesus in the Gospels. He has his answer, and so do my students. But there is another less common answer worth considering, too, offered by French philosopher Rene Girard (whose work I will return to in other blogs). For Girard, the most important commandment is the final one. In our translation it reads as follows: 

    Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.

    On first glance this commandment seems more benign than the others. It doesn’t refer to any evil deed, just a bit of a jealous attitude. For Girard, however, envy, jealousy, and covetousness are the keys to the whole game. If you are jealous, you will kill, fornicate, lie, steal, etc. It is the emphasis on the internal life that most fascinates Girard, and me. In the scale of cosmic, social, and interpersonal justice, you have to begin with your thoughts, your attitudes, your priorities. The rest flows from there.

    We can see how this consideration can guide our reading of the other books in this series. The public punishment of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter proceeds from the need for communal unity, the internal strife of puritanical morality, which causes all to war against all until they can unite, in a war of all against one. Similarly, the injustice and hypocrisy Ida B. Wells so thoroughly, eloquently, and courageously documents are not only sins of brutality against bodies, but also spiritual brutalities against the truth.    

    So perhaps we can add a fourth notion of justice. If we wish to witness the ripple effect of interpersonal, social, and cosmic justice, we must begin with setting our inner house in order. We could call it the justice of selfhood, or, to use an older-fashioned word, integrity – literally integrating the aspects of our selves into something unified, something that is in itself more just, in our communities, societies, and all of creation.