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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ancient insights on Today's Racial Conflicts

The recent stories about Police and the deaths of two Black citizens has led me to much reflection. I saw on TV Friday that government employees had walked out of their jobs. Many of them held their arms in the air, an obvious reference to Michael Brown. So what does this have to do with the Ancient insights and the Bible?

The Bible is literature. It is written words. In many cases, those written words are narratives. Certainly the two stories in the news are also narratives (probably multiple narratives). How do narratives function?

The church Fathers say there is a literal, plain, straight forward meaning to narratives. In ancient times, this was viewed as the most basic but perhaps least important. In our own age the literal is held in higher regard (though arguably it shouldn't be). Here is why: The literal has to do with objective facts, the 'event' as a pure, unfiltered, occurrence. When we ask, "What really happened?" this is what we usually mean. The problem is "real" means physical, concrete, "meaning-less" fact. It adopts the (assumed) tools of physical science (I say assumed because actual science is much less that way then most of us think) as the most accurate way to talk about our world.

"What really happened?," however, is not simply objective fact. Unfortunately, much of the literal and factual cannot be known. Experience is always subjective. It is meaningful because people find meaning in the event. Humans are not machines (and even machines measure from an angle or viewpoint which impacts the measurement!). In a real sense, "what really happened?" must include the subjective element. The subjective/objective together comprise the 'experience' of the event, and are, therefore, a deeper "really happened." "What really happened?" also includes "what does it mean?"---and it is that question of meaning that goes deeper than the literal sense of things.

The Fathers know that the moral, the sacramental/mystery, and the spiritual (typological, allegorical, symbolic, etc.) are inherently part of what "really happened." They also know that those are more important than the literal.

Let's consider the "hands up, don't shoot" issue.
The forensics say that Michael Brown was not executed as he knelt on the ground. However, some eye witnesses say he had his hands up in surrender, others say he did not. Some say he was charging at the officer. So what happened?

What if Michael Brown did put his hands up and say "Don't shoot," at one point and then later charged the officer. Is it possible for someone to do that? (I think so) Michael was under duress and we know he was not having a good day based on the store video. Perhaps he began to surrender and then changed his mind and charged (maybe the cop said something to trigger it, who knows why he did it?). If so, both are true. Based on myriad reasons eye witnesses are focusing on and remembering events (the unreliability of eye witnesses is well known) the way they do. No way to avoid that, so facts give way to 'truth' and 'meaning.' What does the shooting mean for us?

Truth and meaning are "spiritual." Michael's tragic death is being experienced and interpreted in different ways by different people. I have written about this a number of times.

Racism is real because prejudice is real. Generalizations occur all the time. It is easy to see it in others, not so much in ourselves. "Cops think all Black young men are criminals!" or "Black males are dangerous and thuggish!" many are heard saying. Those blacks.... Those whites.... Those young men.... Those cops.... Those media..... Those protestors..... Yet we pause to ask ourselves: All of 'them' are the same? You cannot generalize about "us" but we can generalize about "you"?

Clearly, the reality of racism in general and actual racist cops in particular is real. There is personal racism and there is institutional racism. It is one of the manifestations of sin. And racism, real and perceived, has been discovered/projected all over this particular case.

The story of Michael Brown, however, like it or not, is no longer about him alone. He was already a 'sacrament' and 'a type' and that aspect has only grown larger and larger. He represents more than himself. He is a symbol of youth and the Black race. He is a symbol of black people who have been victimized in this country for centuries. He is connected to every injustice from slavery through the civil rights movement to the latest incident of cruelty and death. His story now symbolizes thousands of stories. He taps into the rage, the despair, and all the other experiences, beliefs and feelings of people. There is a mythic element to this narrative which has a life of its own and is bigger than the story of what happened to Michael Brown. So in a real sense, it does not matter, in terms of the narrative, if Michael Brown had his hands up or not. Others have. Others have been gunned down begging for their lives. Other stories are making their presence known in this narrative. When protestors have their hands up it is an expression of that bigger narrative. Arguing data points and facts is missing the meaning of it all.

But that typology cuts both ways. There are others who see from with different assumptions and beliefs. The competing narratives make their presence known in the voices of those folks. Where one person states that police are the most dangerous gang in our city (I heard it) others think police are the thin blue line which saves us from mayhem. The problem is there is no simple objective way of seeing things. Right and wrong are debated. Victim and Perpetrator are also in the eye of the beholder. "Cold blooded murder or justifiable self defense" are swallowed up in a larger debate on justice and fairness. What happened here becomes the symbolic center of what has happened (time and time again) in other places. The desire for "someone" to pay for the crime (even if that someone is a scape goat) is driven by our need for a better world. "What is true" shapes "what must have happened" and that shapes the narrative.

We need to be aware of the mythic/spiritual/allegorical reality of any narrative. We need to be attentive to the "typology" which drives our interpretation. If facts shape the truth, then truth shapes the meaning of facts as well. When we talk about "this" (whatever this event may be) we are tapping into so much more at the same time. Sometimes "this" is less important to us than what "this" symbolizes. Insight into the Michael Brown story will help us understand how all stories, even Biblical ones, come into being and are shaped and reshaped over time. The Ancients understood this in ways that many of us do not, to our own detriment. And understanding this narrative process may give us deeper insight into the construction of Biblical texts, as well.     



  2. "It [the Bible] is written words."

    That is an amazing insight for a priest. Did you learn that in seminary?

    Are you really as stupid as you seem, Jeff?

    Or is it in act?

    I'm still wondering.


  4. Jeff, I have to admit, I'm so used to your scant familiarity with scripture that even I overlooked this: has it occurred to you that you wrote an entire blog post about "ancient insight on today's racial conflicts" without once thinking to mention the single most applicable passage in the entire Bible?

    "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28.

    That a Christian clergyman could write an essay on this topic and never even think of that verse is almost beyond belief.

    That is, unless that clergyman is you, Jeff. It never ceases to amaze me how little you have actually absorbed the Bible you think you are teaching to everyone else.

    I know you won't answer this. And if you did, you would give the standard Christian response: "You're quoting out of context." But what I said above is true.

    Tell me, Jeff--what are you really interested in? Not pretend-interest, as is true with you and the Bible that you clearly don't know--what really and truly occupies your mind--besides Sons of Anarchy?

  5. Michael
    i am writing about narratives, how they are read (multiple layers) and how they are written: the literal vs.spiritual (& other) meanings of a text. I then drew a parallel to the current situation as an example of how a story is impacted by other information.

  6. What you were actually trying to do was to disguise the fact that you are a racist and a moral coward.