Remember a while back, around Christmas and the start of the new year when I said I was gonna write often and regularly and stuff like that??? Well you see, what had happened was… To borrow from my friend Josef Sorett, I’ve become quite the “back-sliddin’ blogger.” Anyway, I’m back! (For now…)
My fiance and I recently watched a movie called “Before I Say I Do.” It was a romantic comedy about a guy (George) whose fiance (Jane) gets cold feet and leaves him because of her fears stemming from a previously failed marriage. (I know what you’re thinking: “What’s romantic or comical about THAT?”) In a late night effort to get Jane back, George runs a yellow light and, following a light-running custom, makes a wish as he belatedly enters the intersection. Heartbroken, he wishes that he had met his fiance before she had married for the first. As he goes through the intersection he gets t-boned by another car (Hold on, there IS romance. I promise! ).
When George comes-to, his wish has been fulfilled and he has traversed time, traveling from the year 2009 back to 1999. Graced with the opportunity to save the love of his life from a marriage that will ruin his chances of marrying her, George plots and plans and eventually helps Jane to see her current/past fiance, Doug, the dirt-bag that he really is/was. He successfully stops Jane from marrying Doug and George and Jane live happily ever after.
My fiance was gracious enough to allow me to ruin a perfectly good romance movie with a reflection about tragedy, history, and hope (ahhh, the joys of being in relationship with a PhD student ). I got to thinking about our society’s persistent and determined efforts to evade the reality of tragedy, by manipulating history, and subsequently hope. The movie, for all its romance and wedding bliss (I’m NOT trying to be a killjoy. Really, I’m not!), mimicked our society’s attempt to evade the reality of the tragic by manipulating the past and producing unrealistic hope.
Take for example, the contemporary fact that 1 out of 3 black men are bound to the criminal justice system. It is NOT the case that 1 of every 3 black men is IN PRISON. It is however, true that 1 of every 3 black men is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Add to this the fact that the overwhelming majority of black men are imprisoned on drug related crimes which are considered felonies, and are then labeled felons by a society which discriminates against felons in hiring practices and denies felons the ability to vote, receive food stamps, and act as a member of a jury (hence part of the difficulty of “finding” black jurors for the black accused), and you have what Michelle Alexander refers to in her new and important book as The New Jim Crow. Mass incarceration has replaced de jure segregation as the new systemic method through which blacks, especially black men, are locked out of mainstream society.
The tricky aspect of this new form of segregation is that it is enacted devoid of the nasty overt racist language that we’ve come to associate with southern racism, especially Eugene “Bull” Connor and his cronies. Yet the effects are just as, if not MORE, devastating. Instead of “nigger” or “coon” law enforcement has gotten tough on crime in the War Against Drugs, and black men are the most oft convicted criminals (this despite the fact that black men are LESS likely than white men to use or sell drugs). This new, nicer form of discrimination falls right in line with popular historiographic accounts of Civil Rights Movement as the rapture of this world from racism. In reality, black America is WORSE off in many areas of social and economic life than it was before the CRM. It can, however, be extremely difficult to make tangible sense of this tragic social reality given the historical narrative which equates the absence of (as many) burning crosses with the end of racism.
In essence, romanticized American history travels back into the past and teaches us that Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination somehow ushered in a new and better social order. Theologically, this rendering functions as twisted Christology: in the same way that Jesus HAD TO DIE for our sins to be forgiven, King HAD TO DIE in order for America to have new racial and ethnic life. As a Christian, I believe in the saving power of birth, death, life, and resurrection (always interpreted together!) of Jesus. However, also as a Christian, I believe that to worship Jesus’ death ALONE can lead to a masochistic brand of religion that demands innocent blood in the name of salvific work. This just ain’t good. Hence, history and historiography (i.e. – the study of the way history has been written and interpreted) , as J. Kameron Carter has argued, bears tremendous theological importance. The way that we interpret the past will have deep and lasting consequences for how we orient ourselves to the present, as well as for how we construct our hope for the future.
Now, I’m not saying that we ought to celebrate tragedy – this would be to double-back on the Christological claims I made above about the importance of remembering ALL of who Jesus was and is. I am however arguing that tragedy, as terrible and horrific as it is, is a part of our REAL lives. It is a part of our social, political, and economic lives, and so it ought to be a part of our religious and theological lives. In other words, the reality of tragedy ought to be something that we pray on and meditate. The reality of tragedy helps us to understand why Paul challenged us to work out our faith in fear and trembling; the reality of tragedy is seen clearly in the cry of dereliction from the cross (“Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me?!”); it seen clearly in the masses of black and brown bodies that are continually jammed into prison cells; and it is seen in religious intolerance that would rather kill than learn.
I love happy and romantic endings just as much as the next person; and I believe that God’s justice, grace, and love will have the final say. However, when our desire for happy endings lead us to attempt to usher in the eschaton (God’s final judgment) for ourselves, happy and romantic endings become/remain impossible. What would it look like to dare to attempt to live in such a way that our faith helps us to stare the tragic in the face? Not to traverse time and space in order to avoid the tragic, but to actually believe that there is something else on the other side of this social order on this earth (as it is in heaven!). To actually believe that there is a way out of a racism dominated society and culture into a different way of being?