Archive for slavery

Slavery and Dangerous Memory

Posted in America Magazine, Social Justice with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVEThis column appears in the December 2, 2013 issue of America magazine.

Sitting in a Cambridge, Mass., movie theater with a friend, I forced myself not to look or shy away from the violent scenes in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” Unlike the gratuitous violence of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” there was nothing over-the-top, nothing selfish about what was painfully depicted on screen in McQueen’s adaptation of the story of Solomon Northup. That is what made it so difficult to watch and why I wanted to look away so badly. The presentation seemed so real.

As the Yale historian David Blight, an expert on American slavery, said in an NPR interview, “We love being the country that freed the slaves, [but] we’re not so fond of being the country that had the biggest slave system on the planet.” Whereas Gibson’s depiction of the Passion was an idiosyncratic reflection of his own personal piety and Tarantino’s slave film was fictive, “12 Years a Slave” offers an indicting narrative that forces its viewers—particularly its white American viewers—to confront a dangerous memory that we would collectively like to forget.

Blight said that the history of American slavery is “a problem in our culture because, to be quite blunt about it, most Americans want their history to be essentially progressive and triumphal, they want it to be a pleasing story. And if you go back to this story, it’s not always going to please you, but it’s a story you have to work through to find your way to something more redemptive.”

The way Blight talked about the importance of McQueen’s film reminded me of the work of the German theology professor Johann Baptist Metz. In his book Faith in History and Society, Father Metz describes two types of memories. The first is the sterilized form of memory, “in which we just do not take the past seriously enough” and recall everything in a soft, glowing light. This type of memory is usually evolutionary or progressive, reflecting a trajectory of history moving toward an increasingly better world. The other type is what Metz calls “dangerous memories, memories that make demands on us.” The latter are what he sees constituting the Christian narrative when we take seriously the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Metz explains that these dangerous memories “illuminate for a few moments and with a harsh steady light the questionable nature of things we have apparently come to terms with, and show up the banality of our supposed ‘realism.’”

Far too often the history of slavery in the United States is reduced to the sterile, clichéd and comforting former type of memory. The stark reality of slavery and our collective complicity in its perpetuation are reduced to a caricature. Alternatively, we tell a story about the triumphant work of the “liberator-martyr” Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, which overshadows the complexity of a past marred by the indescribable suffering of generations of persons who have been dehumanized, sold, owned, raped, murdered and destroyed. Many who have the luxury to look away and forget do so. This selective memory silences the oppressed, the victims and the dead. This is a kind of memory that allows the sins of American racism and white privilege to continue today, an unquestioned status quo shielded by our willful ignorance and desire for historical “progress.”

But slavery in this nation is a memory of the latter kind, a dangerous memory. Like the resurrection of Christ, which can never be separated from his life and death, there is something redeeming about calling to mind the suffering caused by American slavery and its continuing effects.

What is redemptive is not the belief that “all is O.K. now.” Rather, the way toward redemption is directed by an awareness that things are far from O.K. What makes the memory of American slavery so dangerous is that in calling to mind the suffering of history’s victims, we begin to see that the suffering continues. Hope is found in the interruption that films like “12 Years a Slave” make in our everyday lives and presumptions. This interruption should shock us into hearing the muted cries of history’s victims (Psalm 34) and recalling that, although we are many parts, we are one body in Christ (1 Cor 12:12).

The body of Christ continues to suffer. The dangerous memory of slavery calls us to take seriously the question: What are you and I going to do about it?

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

O Holy Lord: Come, God of All Possibilities and Set Us Free

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons with tags , , , , , , , on December 18, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

walking young man over field and sunsetO sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

The use of the honorific “Lord” has, over the years, become the source of some controversy. Many women and men, with good reason, have suggested that its use reflects the inherent and uncritically appropriated patriarchal traditions of ancient and even more-recent male-dominated power structures that subordinate women to the men who lord over them. There have been mixed responses by black theologians, some of whom see the association with the nineteenth-century American slave holders who were the lords of their manor, while others value the title’s use because, in reference to God or Jesus Christ, the notion subverts the power-structure, abusive association, and priorities of the earthly lord. These are but two of many of the ways the term has come under question. With due respect to those who find the term offensive or problematic, we are nonetheless left with “lord” on this second day of the O Antiphons and we should try our best to see in what ways it might be speaking to us.

In the past I’ve written on this day about imprisonment and what it means to have the lord come and “set us free,” but I’m thinking this year a bit more of the recent tragic events in Newtown, CT, where so many young lives and those of adults were senselessly taken away. I’m thinking about the reflection I offered this weekend in response to that event and recalling what it might mean to talk about God’s “mighty hand.”

If we are to understand God’s mightiness as evocative of a God of all possibilities (as in, I might do this or might do that), then what could it mean for us to consider a lord, for whom “nothing is impossible,” that could set us free?

Perhaps one of the the ways this God of all possibilities sets us free is by undoing our human expectations. This reference to the coming of Christ as adonai, “Lord” as it’s translated from the Hebrew in the Old Testament, refers to the term of respect that the people of Israel would use as a place-holder for the name of God. Because the lord’s name could not be said, “Lord” became the stand-in reference for the God of all possibilities and the God who was, as Exodus reminds us in the account of Moses before the burning bush, the God of our ancestors who cares about God’s people and who is there for us.

The greatest fulfillment of the covenant comes in the form of a complete and utter surprise: a newborn child who is anything but the lord of the manor, the oppressive ruler, the powerful God who had smote the Egyptians. God continues to surprise us by unsettling our expectations.

So what does this God, the coming of adonai as a human being, mean for those who are in need of being set free? Could it be that at times we don’t really know that it is that holds us back? We really don’t understand what is and isn’t important in our lives, such that we become captive to things that we no longer thinkingly realize?

There are indeed those for whom the prayer of this O Antiphon applies in real and concrete ways, for their captivity is of the most identifiable kind. But we are all, in some way, constricted by the confines of expectations, pressures, guilt, fear, self-importance, self-hatred, and so on. Yet, the freedom of a God of all possibilities is offered to us in new and unexpected ways in this particular, divine, mighty hand. The hand of a child. The hand of a God-with-us.

God’s hand is there, extended in invitation to be in relationship and offered to free us from the captivities of our lives. How do we respond to the coming of adonai?

Photo: Stock
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