the politicization of death

On October 4, 2017, Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, members of a 12-man unit on routine patrol in Niger, were ambushed and killed by a larger force of ISIS militants.

This past week, we have borne witness to what I consider the sordid politicization of death.

First, believing no two people ever mean the same thing when employing the same words and, thus, as the firmest believer in the necessity of defining one’s terms, I digress.

Politicization, in my lexicon, is the act or process of becoming politically conscious. Here, I understand “politically” in the primary sense, derived from the Greek polis (city) and, broadly applied, the human community (which is as expansive – locally, regionally, nationally, globally – as one’s imagination allows). Thus, to be politicized is to be aware and to practice with effective, respectful care the art of human relationships.

In the clutch of human selfish self-interest, politicization can be distorted. An example: One’s negative description and definition of the word or action (or unspoken word or untaken action) of another so to depict, so to diminish that person as lacking in character or virtue or falling short of accepted ethical norms.

This, for me, is when politicization is made sordid. This is what we witnessed this past week.

President Donald Trump telephoned Mrs. Myeshia Johnson, wife of Sergeant La David Johnson, to express his condolences and those of a grateful nation, saying, in part, as it has been reported, “He knew what he signed up for, but it still hurts.” U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida and a friend of the Johnson family criticized Mr. Trump as lacking empathy. Mr. Trump defended himself, denying Representative Wilson’s characterization.

I am no fan of Donald Trump. I consider him zealously egoistic and injudicious in speech and action, at times, dangerously, given his role and responsibilities. (However, I am not one who claims, “He’s not my President.” I am an American. Mr. Trump is the American president. Therefore, he is my president.)

I also am less than sanguine about Representative Wilson’s public and repeated declarations of her discontent with the content of Mr. Trump’s words to Mrs. Johnson. For her criticisms, in my view, precipitated a furious round of point-and-counterpoint because of which the primary attention has been given to the politicization of death and not on the lives and legacies, the memories of and the memorials to the dead.

I never served in the military. In World War II, my father, William, served honorably in the army in the Philippines. Through his recounts of his experiences and his revelations of the scars he bore, some invisible, but no less abiding, I, at an early age, learned to honor the sacred sacrifice of all who wear the uniform and bear arms, whether near or far, to maintain the liberties Americans enjoy (though, yes, it must be confessed, imperfectly and unequally).

Thus, this day, I want to – I will – do nothing but pray:

O gracious God, Sovereign Source of all life, Supreme Solace for the dead, I pray You receive into Your nearest, dearest Presence in Your heavenly habitations the souls of Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright: Heal their wounds, bind them fast and forever in Your peace. And, by the living breath of Your Spirit, comfort, come with strength upon the families and friends of these fallen brothers in arms, guiding them through the shadowy valleys of their grief with the grace of the light of Your everlasting love; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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if…then…: part 2 – hazarding some answers

I ended yesterday’s blog post (October 9, 2017: if…then…): I wonder, why can we not, will we not, do we not fashion legislation geared toward the prevention of more acts of gun violence or, at the least, compel strictest compliance with gun laws already on the books?

In my continuing wonderment, I hazard some answers or rather, in the fairness of honesty – for the subject of gun control, though my concern, is beyond my realm of expertise – some guesses to my question.

It would be easy, too easy, therefore, I think, unfair and dishonest, to attribute or blame “it” (our American unwillingness to do anything more vigorously legislative concerning gun control) on the National Rifle Association and the greater gun lobby. Yes, with the support of millions upon millions of dollars and millions of gun-rights advocates, the NRA can and does influence elections and, therefore, legislation or no legislation.

Yet that’s only a part of it, for, it seems to me, the immobility of our inability to do anything is, must be a complex matter rooted (again, hazarding a guess) in our national psyche. And this rootedness in the soil of the American soul (again, hazarding a guess) has to do with the power of the symbol of the gun.

Now, I’m not opposed to individual, private gun ownership. However, I neither have owned nor desire to own a gun. So, in an effort to understand, dreaming my way into a mindset other than mine own…

If I was or wanted to be a gun owner, then I wonder might that be an expression of my desire and need to take individual hold in hand (literally! physically!) of:

  • my 2nd Amendment rights and freedoms, especially in reaction and resistance to what I perceive (indeed, fear) as the external intrusion and erosion of those rights and freedoms by the government? Perhaps, and even deeper,
  • my sense of security in an era of unparalleled (read: uncertain, power-shifting, and status quo-threatening) social and cultural change? Perhaps, and still deeper,
  • my self-confidence in the glaring light and encroaching shadow of my ever-increasing awareness that I control little to nothing of the circumstance and chance of this world I inhabit and thus, the life I live (where even my free choices are in response to uncontrollable circumstance and chance)? Perhaps, and

If any (or all) of my guesses and more than I possibly can guess – all powerful, abiding, perhaps unconscious and, thus, unspoken reasons, verily, forces – are true, then I don’t wonder (or, at least, I wonder less) why we can’t, won’t, don’t fashion legislation geared toward the prevention of more acts of gun violence or, at the least, compel strictest compliance with gun laws already on the books.

predictable patterns?

On October 1, 2017, in another American mass shooting, 59 people were killed (one being the assailant from a self-inflicted gunshot wound) and over 500 injured. By the numbers, this is the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

Still, I think, I feel that all whose loved ones died last year in Orlando, Florida or in San Bernardino, California in 2015 or in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 or in Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007 (or in any other incident in our ongoing national saga of mass violence), for as long as they grieve, which will be for as long as they live, may consider those the deadliest mass shootings.

Since Sunday, as in the instances of all mass shootings, I observe a predictable pattern; some, not all of the elements being…

Every one of us of goodwill, regardless of race or religion or no religion, class or culture, personal philosophy or opinion, decries the murders.

Some of us demand and some of us resist renewed efforts to enact tighter gun control laws; and, in this, some of us in either camp vilify the motives and the morals of some of those in the other.[1]

Still others of us contend that, for the sake of compassion for the mournful, the immediate aftermath of the tragedy is not the time to engage in political combat.

And, inevitably, all of us who live will “get on with it”, going back to living our lives as we have known them, that is, until the next mass shooting.

However, on this last score, something for me, something in me has changed. Perhaps it is because, as I age, I find myself more attuned to and pained by our human trials and tribulations, worries and woes, sufferings and sorrows. Yes, mine own, yet, even more, those of others, all others.[2] Thus, though I will “get on with it”, I won’t, can’t get over it.

What I think, feel, believe this means for me is that my awareness of human mortality and life’s fragility, suddenly, shockingly, sickeningly renewed this past Sunday, will not, will never fade…

What this means is that I, every day, will be more conscious that all of us are mortal, we will die, and that all of us are fragile, our lives, whether by natural calamity or human violence, accident or disease, can be tragically transformed in an instant…

What this means is that I pledge to live with more intention than I ever dared to dream…

And, on this feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, I can think of no greater, grander guide than to live my life in the conscious keeping of the prayer attributed to him:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.

That where there is error, I may bring truth.

That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.

That where there is despair, I may bring hope.

That where there are shadows, I may bring light.

That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.

To understand, than to be understood.

To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Here, I think, in political terms, it has become all too facile to cast Democrats as gun control advocates and Republicans as gun rights activists. For it seems to me that either the stance of gun control or that of the Second Amendment “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is not the sole interest or desire of any party or persuasion. Indeed, I have been surprised, which, confessedly, reveals more about my biases and assumptions, when discovering that a friend, an avid hunter and combat veteran, is a longtime believer in strict gun laws and another friend, who has never owned or desired to own a gun, is a staunch supporter of individual gun rights.

[2] I wrote about this in a previous blog post, continuing becoming… (August 30, 2017).

a funny thing happened on the way to the protest (or “it seems to me”)

Symbol. A visual image or word that points beyond itself indicating, signifying an idea or object, verily, a reality oft unseen, but not unknown, which allows the beholder of the symbol, truly, the believer in the reality to which it points to comprehend it and communicate it with others.

And, it seems to me, in order for a symbol to be a symbol, that is, to perform the function of pointing beyond itself to a reality, at least two people (preferably more, of course) have to behold the symbol more or less in the same way, that is, perceiving it as pointing (believing it to point) to a similar reality.

And that’s the funny thing about symbols, whether images or words. No two people, it seems to me, necessarily see the same thing in the image or mean the same thing by the word. We humans, each and all, based on our individual histories and memories, thoughts and feelings, desires and needs, philosophies and theologies, intentions and actions, beliefs and behaviors (in other words, all this and more that constitutes being human; one’s sense of self and life’s experience) are entitled to our views of an image or word and the values that we associate with it.

Therefore, it seems to me, it’s important for humans, especially when we disagree, to be able and willing to engage in conversation or dialogue (literally, dia [through or across] logue [speech or words]) to communicate our potentially manifold understandings of a symbol.

And, it seems to me, such conversation requires respect; literally, re (again or anew) spect (look or see). With respect, I can see you no longer through the lenses of my sense of self and life’s experience, but rather, having listened to you as much, if not more than I have spoken to you, I can, that is, I am able (and, I would pray, willing) to see a symbol and its attendant reality through your eyes.

All this, it seems to me, applies to our current raging and divisive protest about protest involving the symbols of the American flag and the Star-Spangled Banner.

American flag against blue sky

Person One, based on her/his sense of self and life’s experience, beholding the flag and hearing the national anthem, believing they signify American liberty and equality, stands, salutes, and sings.

Amercian flag, tattered, behind fence and barbed wire

Person Two, based on her/his sense of self and life’s experience, believing these symbols to be signs of personal and systemic denial of liberty and equality, sits or kneels, locks arms or raises a fist.

Person One criticizes Person Two for disrespecting the flag and anthem, indeed, denigrating America.

Person Two criticizes Person One for pledging allegiance to a system in which the equality of opportunity, indeed, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are oft deferred, at times, denied based on inherent human qualities of race and gender.

It seems to me that Person One and Person Two are entitled to their points of view and to behave in ways, short of violence, that reflect their perspectives.

It seems to me that if Person One and Person Two could and would dialogue they might arrive at a new place of mutual understanding.

Now, this doesn’t seem to me, for this, based on my sense of self and life’s experience, I know. Whenever I, with respect, listen to another, I, at the end of our dialogue, may not be able to say, “I agree with you”, but, and it never fails, I can say, “I understand your point of view, indeed, I understand you and, therefore, why and how you stand and sing or sit or kneel, lock arms or raise a fist.”

Charlottesville redux: part 2, stepping back from the edge of pessimism’s ledge

thinkingI’ve been struggling…

Since identifying, naming and claiming my abiding, burdening existential angst about American bigotry in my August 22 blog post, Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?, I’ve been struggling to discern a faithful and hopeful way forward; a way out of the deep valleys and darkened alleys of my quintessential pessimism.[1] For, as I wrote previously, thinking that we, as a nation, have come to another moment in history when a conversation about our communal American identity is absolutely necessary, I believe the dynamism of our current and revivified cultural discord, expressed, in major part, in virulent anti-Semitism and racism, sadly renders such opportunities moot.

I am grateful for my bride, Pontheolla Mack Abernathy, my dear sister, Loretta Anne Woodward Veney, my newfound (though, given my sense of our spiritual simpatico, long-lived) sister, Gayle Fisher-Stewart, and my brother from another mother, Grady Hedgespeth, to a person, buoyantly optimistic souls, through whose sage and stalwart words of counsel and comfort, I have come to a new, renewed place of perceiving, of being.

To wit…

Considering it always important for me to define my terms and declare the ground on which I stand, I am a theist. I believe in God as creator of all life, who, from the formless void brought forth a divine differentiation – in other words, not some, any semblance of holy sameness – and called it all “good”.[2] I am a Christian. I believe in God as revealed through the Holy Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth, whose story is recorded in scripture and conveyed through two millennia of Christian tradition.

From this stance, I summon myself and all people of good will to repent, to turn away from, verily, to step over and beyond the barriers and boundaries of my and our phobias and prejudices, my and our numbing fears and negative judgments of “the other.”

If your, my phobia or prejudice is about or against a person who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind),

then, I bid that you and I seek out and engage in conscious conversation, and with honesty and humility, one who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind).

And I boldly predict that you and I will discover that that wholly different human being is utterly similar to you and me in possessing a personal history and a set of memories, thoughts and feelings, desires and needs, hopes and dreams, fears and failings, phobias and prejudices, struggles and successes and, in these unmistakable, irreducible similarities, that we all have more in common than we may have dared to dream.

My point is this. You and I can think and feel, hope and pray for a better world of comity and concord. But if you and I daily do not do something, anything different than remain secure, self-imprisoned in the towers of our ideological and existential sanctuary from “the other”, then you and I silently are complicit in maintaining the status quo. And given what we all beheld in Charlottesville, that doesn’t look at all good to me.

How about you?

 

Footnotes:

[1] For reasons tracing back to my formative years (the root, I believe, of most of our personal characteristics and ways of being and doing, both good and bad), I tend to assume and await the worst.

[2] See Genesis 1.1-2.3

Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?

thinking

I haven’t slept well since those days of August 11-12. As one who daily gives attention to the events and cycles of life in the world, glorying in the good news and bemoaning the bad, I have felt, verily, embodied in my belly the national anxiety stirred by the conflagration in Charlottesville fomented by torch-bearing, chant-shouting, anti-Semitism-and-racism-live-streaming demonstrators. The more I think and feel and pray about Charlottesville, the more I behold a microcosmic expression, indeed, a tragic realization of a distinctly American conversation that we, as a nation, are not engaging.

It is a conversation, yes, about race and religion, history and heritage, nationalism and immigration, yet bigger. It is a conversation, I think, I feel about our national identity. Who are we?

It’s the sort of question that arises for us as a nation founded on an ideal, indeed, an idea of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” at pressing historical moments, as, I believe, exist today, when it is clear that all of us are not reading from or reciting lines from the same proverbial page nor with a common understanding of the meaning of the words.

And here’s my fear. We won’t have the conversation.

For a number of reasons.

Chief among them, I do not believe that Donald Trump, as President of the United States, occupying that iconic position and, even more, symbol of national leadership and unity, has expressed a desire or exhibited the disposition to call the American people, all of the American people to the table of mutual and respectful dialogue.

An equally chief, no, perhaps the chiefest reason is what I consider our profoundly polarized national religious and political climate; the bitter fruit of seeds planted and nurtured long before President Trump took office. We live in a time of fleet retreat and determined retrenchment behind the impenetrable walls of our differing, often competing and, at times, conflicting perspectives. A time where the act of communal converse in which we intentionally seek out other points of view in the quest for truth has become an unpracticed, unpleasant, even unknown art.

In this, I believe that we, as a nation, have forgotten that whenever we, whether as individual persons or families, communities or congregations, regions or parties talk about what we believe, our core values, our fundamental truths, we, by necessity, must use words, which, at best, are symbols that point to what is inarticulable in its fullness. In a real sense, then, we always only point at what we believe, value, and hold true.

In this, there is an inherent epistemological (having to do with our ways of knowing) and existential (having to do with our way of living, being) danger. That we are tempted and oft blindly fall prey into the pit of temptation to invest too much power or authority in the words, even the actions or rituals that we design to point to our truths. The danger is in thinking, believing that the word, action, or ritual is the truth itself. That’s when we make difference dangerous. That’s when difference is no longer a lens through which we might behold a vision of greater truth, but only the stuff of which swords and spears are made. That’s when we won’t, can’t talk with one another.

And when that happens, indeed, I believe, as it hath happened, then our petitions and intercessions for America enshrined in one of our beloved national songs – praying God “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” and “crown thy good with brotherhood form sea to shining sea”[1] – won’t, can’t happen.

 

Footnote:

[1] Words by Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929)

when…then…

a 4th of July epigrammatic poetic meditation

Statue of Liberty

when Martin’s misty dream crosses the as yet insuperable obstruction

from the ethereal theory of virtuous ambition to righteous action,

from the hallowed declaration of a half-century plus four past[1] to the corporeal reality of daily realization,

and character, not color becomes the fairest, truest measure of human perception…

 

and when gender remains an aspect of human identification,

yet no longer a veiled, vile justification for subjugation…

 

and when this land’s loathsome chronicle of injuries unto others

(the venal seeds of prejudice yielding the poisoned fruit of injustice) –

because of

color and gender,

race and culture,

lineage Native or immigrant or slave –

is read aloud by public penitent voices within the hearing of a moral heaven,

and, in acknowledging the sin, repenting, promising, “never again!”,

 

then the American experiment will become the American experience…

 

then America will “be America again –

The land that never has been yet –

And yet must be – the land where every one is free.”[2]

 

Footnotes:

[1] A reference to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech, I Have A Dream, August 23, 1963

[2] From Let America Be America Again (1935), a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967); altered (one substituted for man)