On Cultural Relativity, Scripture Exegesis, and the Rule of Love

Re-reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s On Christian Teaching, I have been struck- again- at just how much the great North African saint is able to cover in a relatively small space, and within what seems like a fairly circumscribed and particular topic- the proper technique of scripture exegesis. Yet St. Augustine covers everything, it seems like, and it’s a joy to read: he works through sign-theory of language, how to confront the Zeitgeist and come out the richer, the role of art and science in the life of the Christian, the healing power of Christ- along with the expected exegetical techniques. It’s a little breathless at times, as he weaves in and out of topics while continually drawing the conversation back to exegesis and scripture. He often times manages to feel remarkably contemporary to our own concerns, while also quite clearly transcending (well, transcending is obviously anachronistic) our usual categories for thinking about scripture, exegesis, epistemology, and so on. St. Augustine is neither a ‘fundamentalist’ nor a ‘liberal’ in thinking about scripture: scripture is inspired, inspired through the writing of the human authors, who are clearly agents and not mere autodidacts. Scripture can have multiple, simultaneous senses, and St. Augustine is remarkably comfortable with conflicting translations even, on some levels (some translations are just bad, he suggests, and easily enough corrected). The ultimate rule for exegesis is a little startling: whatever encourages love of God and other people, is the best- the true- interpretation. And if an exegete arrives at an edifying meaning not intended by the original author- well, that’s good too.

Over all is the rule of love, as exemplified in the passage I present below. Love of God is the centering point for human life, and when we love God we will love ourselves and others properly, not dominating and controlling them but embracing them in kindness and knowledge of our mutual places in God’s divine economy. There is, I think, an implicit critique of pretty much all forms of human authority and domination of each other going on here, even if St. Augustine does not fully articulate it. He envisions life lived under the sign, the rule of Love, in which human relationships are properly ordered, not through the pride and lust of the powerful and dominating (or ourselves attempting to be powerful and dominating), but through a love-centered orientation towards God. Even the task of exegesis, as he argues at the beginning of this work, is a love-centered task. The very existence of exegesis forms community, as we need each other to truly understand the sacred text; we are not to boast over our special knowledge of the text nor hoard it or lord it over others. Even commentary ought to be done under the rule of love- agaparchy, we might call it- though of course there is no ‘system’ here, since love is particular, is oriented first towards the Person of God, then to those we live with, our neighbors.

But anyway- one could spend pages (and plenty of people have!) on the many things St. Augustine is doing and saying in these pages and in others. I am always amazed at the scope, and the frequent bursts of beauty and sense of love, even as in other places St. Augustine’s fallibility and limitations are equally in sight. But throughout I find that he presents possibilities and points of thinking- and doing, loving, acting- that continue to be full of potential and possibility, and, I suspect, will be for years to come.

This example comes from Book Three, and in it we see a good instance of St. Augustine’s welding of seemingly extra-exegetical concerns- here, what we might identify as ‘cultural relativism’- with explicitly exegetical and theological concerns. The exegetical concern is to explain the seemingly odd or even shocking behavior of Old Testament figures; the theological concern, so far as it is separate from the exegetical, is to reconcile the apparent relativism of cultural convention with an over-arching moral order. Obviously, St. Augustine’s words do not fully sum up the issues we might raise here- but they’re remarkably deft and penetrating, and within a quite short space. There is lots to think about, and not just to think about- the rule of Love, St. Augustine would tell us, is not a political program or an abstract problem. It is a way of life, realized in the love of Christ, and lived out day-by-day, step-by-step.

*

‘Whatever accords with the social practices of those with whom we have to live this present life- whether this manner of life is imposed by necessity or undertaken in the course of duty- should be related by good and serious men to the aims of self-interest and kindness, either literally, as we ourselves should do, or also figuratively, as is allowed to the prophets. When those who are unfamiliar with different social practices come up against such actions in their reading, they think them wicked unless restrained by some explicit authority. They are incapable of realizing that their own sort of behavior patterns, whether in matters of marriage, or diet, or dress, or any other aspect of human life and culture, would seem wicked to other races or other ages. Some people have been struck by the enormous diversity of social practices and in a state of drowsiness, as I would put it- for they were neither sunk in the deep sleep of stupidity nor capable of staying awake to greet the light of wisdom- have concluded that justice has no absolute existence but that each race views its own practices as just. So since the practices of all races are diverse, whereas justice ought to remain unchangeable, there clearly is no such thing as justice anywhere.

To say no more, they have not realized that the injunction “do not do to another what you would not wish to be done to yourself” can in no way by modified by racial differences. When this injunction is related to the love of God, all wickedness dies; and when it is related to the love of one’s neighbor, all wrongdoing dies. For nobody wants his own dwelling to be wrecked, and so he should not wish to wreck God’s dwelling (which is himself). Nobody wants to be harmed by anybody; so he should not do harm to anybody. So when the tyranny of lust has been overthrown love rules with laws that are utterly just: to love God on his account, and to love oneself and one’s neighbor on God’s account. Therefore in dealing with figurative expressions we will observe a rule of this kind: the passage being read should be studied with careful consideration until its interpretation can be connected with the realm of love. If this point is made literally, the no kind of figurative expression need be considered.’

St. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, Book Three, XII-XIV

Why Do We Usurp God’s Right To Judge?

Nothing is more serious, nothing more difficult to deal with, as I say repeatedly, than judging and despising our neighbor. Why do we not rather judge ourselves and our own wickedness whcih we know so accurately and about which we have to render an account to God? Why do we usurp God’s right to judge? Why should we demand a reckoning from his creature, his servant? Ought we not to be afraid when we hear about a brother falling into fornication said, ‘He has acted wickedly!’

….

Wherefore a man can know nothing about the judgments of God. He alone is the one who takes account of all and is able to judge the hearts of each one of us, as he alone is our Master. Truly it happens that a man may do a certain thing (which seems to be wrong) out of simplicity, and there may be something about it which makes more amends to God than your whole life; how are you going to sit in judgment and constrict your own soul? And should it happened that he has fallen away, how do you know how much and how well he fought, how much blood he sweated before he did it? Perhaps so little fault can be found in him that God can look on his action as if it were just, for God looks on his labor and all the struggle he had before he did it, and has pity on him. And you know this, and what God has spared him for, are you going to condemn him for, and ruin your own soul? And how do you know what tears he has shed about it before God? You may well know about the sin, but you do not know about the repentance.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza, On Refusal to Judge Our Neighbor

Blessed Is She

Blessed is she in whose small and barren womb dwelt the Great One by whom the heavens are filled and are too small for Him.

Blessed is she who bore that Ancient one who generated Adam, and by whom are made new all creatures who have become old.

Blessed is she who gave drops of milk from her members to that One at whose command the waves of the great sea gushed forth.

Blessed is that one who carried, embraced and caressed like a child God might for evermore, by whose hidden power the world is carried.

Blessed is she from whom the Savior appeared to the captives; in His zeal He bound the captor and reconciled the earth.

Blessed is she who placed her pure mouth on the lips of that One, from whose fire, the Seraphim of fire hide themselves.

Blessed is she who nourished as a babe with pure milk the great breast from which the worlds suck life.

Blessed is she whose Son calls blessed all the blessed!

Blessed is that One who solemnly appeared to us from your purity!

Jacob of Serug, Homily Concerning the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, Mary

Singing Scripture

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has been turning out beautifully crafted, insightful songs for quite some time now. On nearly all of his projects there are continual echoes and allusions to Biblical themes and verses; Scriptural language permeates his songs in a way rarely matched by other contemporary musicians (including the explicitly confessional ones!). Darnielle is himself a self-described lapsed Catholic, who has- whatever the current state of his religious practice and devotion- assimilated Scripture to a remarkable degree, enough that it simply is there in his music- not a forced presence, but integral to the stories he tells in his music.

While most of his albums have been full of Scripture, this year he has put out an album that is entirely composed of songs developed out of his interaction with specific Scripture verses. Lest there be any ambiguity in the project, titled The Life of the World to Come, each song is titled with the verse reference. So far I’ve only listened to the free track- Genesis 3:23 (get it here, left side bar)- but will hopefully get a hold of the full album before too much longer, and perhaps offer a more detailed evaluation. This song, at any rate, is quite good: Darnielle meditates on the loss of Paradise, his Adam breaking into the place he used to live but knowing he cannot really return. The Garden is not really there, it is no longer home and cannot be. Darnielle’s Adam here is not an epic character- few of Darnielle’s lyrical characters are, but rather ordinary people caught in the immensity of a fallen world with occasional glimmers of grace. The emphasis for Darnielle though is usually on the desperation, the longing, the search for signs of redemption in a world that very obviously is in need of it.

If Darnielle has only this year gone to direct Scriptural exegesis of a sort, John Ringhofer’s project Half-Handed Cloud (several free tracks on the right hand column there) has produced a whole commentary on the Bible, built out of quirky (sometimes really, really horns and toy piano and found sounds swirling all around quirky), short (almost never over two minutes in length) songs that usually draw directly upon a Scriptural verse or story and expound upon them. Ringhofer moves just as well in the familiar stories and great Christian themes as he does in the more obscure and difficult Old Testament stories. In all of them, his exegesis is deeply Christological, tying Eden and Abraham and Levitical regulations into the mystery of Christ. The quirky, psychedelic even (and certainly not for everybody), disjunctive nature of his music serves as one of his best exegetical devices, if you will, startling the listener into a new appreciation of the text, as the often times familiar passages and verses are transformed into new-yet-old texts, meanings bursting to sudden life- and then moving on into another joyous meditation, exploration of another Scripture passage.

One of the important functions of good exegesis must surely be to draw the reader/listener back into the text, to refresh the Scripture in her mind and heart, so that her reading/recitation/listening does not, as al-Ghazali puts it, simply exist on the lips, but enters into the heart. Or rather- the heart becomes present to the words, they become a single unit, Scripture and the heart united and alive. I could list similar understandings across the spectrum of late antique and medieval writers, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim: true understanding must pass from the surface to the heart, must break through the ease of familiarity and rote reading. I suspect that our ancient exegetes would have understand what John Ringhofer’s Biblical songs are doing: joyously connecting with the heart of Scripture, and through this exploration of the Bible, reaching out to God and rejoicing in His grace and incarnated presence. For Ringhofer is always directing the listener, through his psychadelic two-minute singing Scripture exegesis, to the grace and love of Jesus:

Not that I know,
But that I’m known,
You told me I’m Yours and now You’re making me Your own,
And it’s a gift
Because You lifted me out of the past

I tried to honor
What You commanded with my labor,
But now I haven’t just been told
I have been loved.

Throw Your arms wide,
Taking Your bride,
Making us like Yourself and cleansing us inside,

We wore out our sponge,
The dirt didn’t budge
‘Cause the fudge was all cake-on and corroded,
And we just wouldn’t let You hold it,
That’s when we found You pure but messy with our blood.

Oh in the past we tried to honor,
What You commanded with our labor,
But now we haven’t just been told
We have been loved.

Now that I’m known

Approach Him Who Can Alone Save the Lost

A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man if one should reflect a great deal about the sacred mysteries, and whether a sinful person approaching these would be condemned as being unworthy.

Response by John:

When you enter the holies, pay attention and have no doubt that you are about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ; indeed, this is the truth. As for how this is the case, do not reflect on it too much. According to him who said: “Take, eat; for this is my body and blood,” these were given to us for the forgiveness of our sins. One who believes this, we hope, will not be condemned.

Therefore, do not prevent yourself from approaching by judging yourself as being a sinner. Believe, rather, that a sinner who approaches the Savior is rendered worthy of the forgiveness of sins, in the manner that we encounter in Scripture those who approach him and hear the divine voice: “Your many sins are forgiven.” Had that person been worthy of approaching him, he would not have had any sins. Yet, because he was a sinful man and a debtor, he received the forgiveness of his debts.

Again, listen to the words of the Lord: “I did not come to save the righteous, but sinners.” And again: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick.” So regard yourself as being sinful and unwell, and approach him who can alone save the lost.

Letter 463, from Letters from the Desert: Barsanuphius and John, trans. John Chryssavgis (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003).

A Kind of Hurt in His Spirit

Song of Solomon 5.6: I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word.*

‘See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of his knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that knowledge which I had received when I opened.

‘For that reason she says, my Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen that He at once withdrew, swift as the lightening. And my soul went out with his word; that is, “having obtained a small glimmering of his words my soul left me and pursed His words.” To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had attained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

‘I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: “Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain.” By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person who yearns after the meaning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.’

St. Gregory of Narek, Commentary on Solomon’s Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007)

* Note: you will notice even from this excerpt that St. Gregory’s text is somewhat different from either the Septuagint or Masoretic recensions; in lieu of ‘beloved’ this Armenian recension has ‘nephew,’ among other differences.

On ‘Right-Wing Terror’

The following are a few thoughts, more or less in order but of fairly rough outline, on the looming specter of ‘right-wing terror.’ Comments or corrections welcome.

I am struck by how similar the current establishment left campaign to vilify the entire conservative movement and everyone else on the right and the (on-going) efforts by the right to do the same sort of thing to the Muslim world. Both are preposterous; both are rooted in a desire to see one’s political enemies as one massive, undifferentiated (and hence quite faceless) horde that can then be easily attacked through the worst examples inhering in said horde. Thus, in the current campaign of anti-rightist hysteria (for examples, just take a look at Krugman and Rich in that bastion of rational peace-mongering, cough, the NYT) everyone on the right is placed in the same box of ‘right-wing’: paleoconservatives to Tea Party types to white nationalists to neo-Nazis to pro-life activists. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to notice the vast discrepancies that lie between these different groups, including the fact some of them have nothing more in common than some common enemies and, usually, shared melanin content. A Tea-Party neoconservative sort and a neo-Nazi anti-Semite- come on. Glenn Beck and Stormfront are not the same thing, even if they happen to converge on some points; only through the simplistic device of ‘left and right’ can they be at all grouped together. The same logic would equivocate Hillary Clinton and Murray Bookchin (assuming one could be a convincing case for a Clinton being at all on the left; just barely maybe…), and would be equally flawed. And the same logic, going back to my comparison, has been used to mass all Muslims together as being either outright or secretly violent and just waiting to go crazy, for either inexplicable (‘they hate our freedom’) reasons, or because of religiously inherent animosity towards all non-Muslims and especially America. Salafists become al-Qaeda become Sufis. A similar sort of reckless essentialism and equivocation is going on, if not as deeply or widely- for now- against right-wing and conservative Americans, and with it calls, some explicit and some implicit, for the State to start busting heads.

Particularly gregarious are the attempts, some more obvious than others, to equivocate genuine hard-rightists (in the classic, European sense of the term) of the neo-Nazi variety with the average conservative, or, for slightly more comparative purposes, particularly intense conservatives. Such an attempt is, of course, an attempt to smear the broader right with the charge of antisemitism, which, at first glance, seems a promising venture. After all, much of today’s conservative movement has at least ancestral roots in the old Southern segregationist movement (though this does not necessarily mean much of anything, but that’s another topic), which wasn’t exactly known for being pro-semetic, to say the least. But the present is rather different: the modern South is, if anything, a rabidly prosemitic place. And I don’t just mean pro-Israel- sure, no doubt one of the significant reasons for Southern evangelical (and I suppose evangelicals elsewhere in the US, but my lived knowledge base of American Christianity is mostly limited to the South) support of Israel and hence prosemitism developed out of a very particular interpretation of dispensationalist theology that places a high value on Israel and the Jewish people. But it would be false and unfair to suggest that Southern evangelicals only support Israel and ‘like’ Jews as part of an apocalyptic scheme to bring Jesus back. Growing up evangelical in the South, I was taught- both explicitly and implicitly- to value not just Israel but Jewish people and Judaism in general, even as the distinction was maintained between the two. Say what you will of groups like Jews for Jesus, but having Jewish people in rural Southern churches acting out Jewish ritual- that’s pretty significant. And it’s pervasive- I’ve encountered a fair amount of anti-African American sentiment in the South, and some anti-Latino sentiment, but I can recall having witnessed only a couple instances of antisemitism. Maybe some of my readers have encountered more, maybe it’s lurking out there somewhere- if so, probably outside the orbit of Southern evangelicalism. But therein lies part of my point- right-wing conservative evangelicals are, if anything, rabidly prosemitic; advocating limits on Jewish settlement expansion borders on the blasphemous. Yet we’re supposed to imagine them and neo-Nazis on the same scale, as somehow being part of the same movement?

Of course, there are the genuine out-and-out white nationalists and the members of the paleoconservative right who tend in that direction- and some of these people probably are genuinely racist and possibly even antisemitic. But again, lumping them together, first of all part of some cognent unified movement of- what, paleoconservatives?- is artificial and inaccurate, and become even more gregarious when trying to bring the ‘mainstream’ conservative movement into it. Trust me, the average right-winger in America has probably never heard of V-DARE and probably hates Patrick Buchanan almost as much as he hates Barack Obama. But again, we’re expected to group them altogether and be sufficiently afraid of all of them.

Ditto on the pro-life movement: we’re supposed to imagine pro-lifers all being rabidly waiting to blow up or shoot (God knows those people are armed to the teeth, not like civilized White people) saintly abortionists like the Martyr Till. It’s not a huge leap, of course, to move from such hysterical diatribe to demanding the prosecution of all ‘radical’ pro-life activists, with the parameters of ‘radical’ being stretched further and further. First rosaries, then firebombs, right?

In the end much of comes down to a simple fear of especially, though not exclusively, a certain sort of American, usually rural or perhaps suburban (but imagined no doubt as rural), evangelical, possibly Pentecostal (the scariest sort), likely Southern and white (but not White, naturally), uneducated (or at least in the right way), and heavily armed. God, the guns- nothing is as frightening as their guns. Crackers with guns. They have ideology- ideologies if you’re being slightly fairer and not entirely collapsing them into one mass- which makes them even more frightening; they have grievances, they listen to idiots on the radio, like the wrong music, and read the Bible far too much and take it far too seriously.

Maybe I exagerate a little, but not too much, I think. And let me add the caveat- certainly, I can’t stand much of what goes on and is accepted and advocated in various corners of the right. I find the near and outright xenophobia and racism of the paleoconservative right disgusting and destructive, along with similar manifestations elsewhere in the more mainstream right; the warmongering of the neoconservative right is equally repulsive. Certainly, elements all along the right have engaged in ugly tactics and advocated awful things; they have also and continue to advocate many good things, whether on behalf of the unborn or against aggresive foreign policy or in favour of free markets (though one rarely finds all three of these in one place on the right…). There is nothing dangerous or particularly wrong about pointing out the sins of the right. But the tone and intentions that seem to lie behind the ongoing campaign against an undifferentiated right-wing in general- from Stormfront to Bill O’Reilly- is deeply troubling and dangerous. Letterman’s recent crass jokes at Sarah Palin’s expense- a politician, it should be obvious, I have some serious issues with myself- are a snapshot of the prevailing attitude in America’s elite and in much of the centre-left. There is a hatred for conseratives, in particular, because they are the wrong sort of people. They vote the wrong way, they have outdated notions, they can’t accept change. They’re like natives in a colonial state, they’re like the image of Muslims that right-wingers had crafted as part of the ‘war on terror’: ignorant, different, dangerous, a horde. Sure, maybe they feel threatened by Federal policies, by changing culture- that’s because they’re natives, uneducated, different, violent.

And like natives in any good colonial state, they must be controlled before they lash out. For their own good, of course. We’ll see how far the current hysteria carries- it may well die down and things chug along with mutual hatred and miscomprehension, which would be better than a ramped-up police state and random acts of terrorism. For if you treat people like colonials they’re likely to respond; and one should not forget that Ghandi was something of an exception in anti-colonial struggle. The possibility for xenophobia and outright racism certainly exists all along the right; persecuting and vilifying people isn’t going to help things. The average right-wing American is not violent, even if some folks get hot on internet forums; indeed, not unlike with the Muslim world, if even a small percentage of right-wingers were willing to carry out mass violence, we’d be in trouble.

In closing, one of the things that has for some time struck me as both ironic and tragic is the way in which both Islamic societies and Southern white culture are so often construed in similar ways, even as Southern whites enlist and are enlisted into campaigns against Muslim peoples (I doubt whether most Muslims have any awarness of the South or Southern whites as distinct but if they did no doubt perceptions would be equally bad). The Southern white and the traditional Muslim are both cast as backwards, inherently violent, religion-bound, incapable of dealing with change or ‘progress,’ wedded to their traditions, and in need of paternalistic (or perhaps not so paternalistic) care. In both cases, one can easily enough find examples to flesh out the stereotype, and thus enforce the faceless image of a foreign, deadly threat. And sure, if one looks one can find unsavory views and attitudes in both the average Southern white and the average traditional Muslim (along with views and attitudes you’re not taught to expect in either); but this does not prove in either case that average Bubba or Ahmed is out to wreck and kill, and it certainly does not justify dehumanizing reduction to a faceless other.

The great Bill Kauffman has often articulated a vision of society in which the ‘wrong sort of white people,’ like our much-maligned crackers with guns, can join forces or at least stop sniping at other ‘wrong sorts of people,’ whether commune hippies growing their own food or Latinos in the rural barrios of the South. These various groups- for so long played off and playing themselves off against each other- could then work for their genuine interests, united in so many things that they share in common. It’s a beautiful, humanistic vision, and Mr Kauffman remains fairly optimistic about it. Mass lumping of conservative Americans, of all stripes, into the category of the violent irrational Other does not move us any closer to a humane goal like Kauffman’s; it only serves to perpetuate the divisions and excaberate the already existing hatred and mistrust. Add in the sorts of police-state measures some people are advocating and it will only grow far worse. If we try, on the other hand- all of us, whether conservative or socialist or libertarian- to see our neighbors as genuine human beings who carry concerns and harbour fears like the rest of us, we move much closer to a more humane and livable future. God knows it can be hard- God knows I’ve felt some pretty nasty sentiments towards people in my native South, I’ve gotten frustrated and angry, I’ve failed miserably at loving my closest neighbors, much less my more distant ones. I’ve shot back with all but bullets, and being a contrarian libertarian sort, I usually end up shooting in all directions… But it remains that, as cliche as it sounds, fighting fire with fire, xenophobia with xenophobia, is only a recipe for more pain, for more violence, from all sides.

God have mercy on us and teach us to love our neighbors, or at least to stop shooting, with bullets or otherwise, at them.

Rising From the Ashes

I spent part of this week in and around Atlanta, the ever-expanding capital of the ‘New South.’ I’d not been to Atlanta in years, other than in passing while traveling; this week I wandered around the city some, both intentionally and unintentionally, since I didn’t get a hold of a decent map until the last day of my visit. It’s a big city; most of my experience in urban navigation has been in ‘Old World’ cities where my means of transport was my own two feet, and in New Orleans, a city set apart from pretty much every other North American city I’ve visited. Atlanta is, I suppose, the South’s paradigmatic example of the modern city- big, ever-expanding, new and shiny (in the up-scale parts anyway, never mind the poor parts for the moment), with precious little of any considerable age, even for North America. Of course, General Sherman bears some blame for that, but not very much; there wasn’t a whole lot there back when my unfortunate ancestors were getting shot up at Kennesaw Mountain and Peachtree Creek.

There are of course some sections of the city that are fairly old and historic, and feel it. Auburn Avenue, which was the center of African-American life and commerce after the imposition of segregation in the early twentieth century, has some wonderful old and funky buildings; the Episcopal Methodist Church with its hodge-podgy neo-Gothic and big blue neon ‘Jesus Saves’ sign on the steeple is singularly wonderful, and is still in good shape. Further up the street, the Park Service has purchased and renovated a whole neighborhood worth of old buildings associated with Martin Luther King Jr., who was born and spent his boyhood in one of the old houses. But the stretch of street running back from the historic site is, with all its lovely old structures and venerable history, pretty decrepit. As my friend and I walked up from downtown towards the MLK site, we were approached by a homeless man offering an impromptu tour, followed by a request for donations. The whole area is now run-down, boarded up buildings and heavily armoured likker and mini grocery stores here and there; our homeless tour-guide told us he lived back up under an overpass of the interstate which now dissects the area.

The historic site is quite nice itself however, a sudden imposition in the immediate landscape, neatly trimmed shrubs, a rose garden, a fairly new looking museum, as well as a new Ebeneezer Baptist Church (the old one is still there, though it is at present closed up for renovations). There are signs up in the National Historic Site warning visitors against giving anything to ‘panhandlers,’ reminding one of signs in less urban Park Service sites prohibiting the feeding of bears.

The area went down, as we say, in the late sixties; before it had been a thriving center of African-American businesses, churches, and residences, with it’s own economy and tradition of mutual aid. If the segregationist regime rejected their money, the entrepreneurs of Auburn Avenue reasoned, it was their loss- so they built up their own economy, and thrived. Dr. King’s family came out of this milieu, and the determination and communal (but deeply personalist) sense of mutual aid and support would go a long ways towards the successful challenging of the segregationist regime and its systematic but ultimately untenable oppression. This was one of the things that struck me most as I looked at the exhibits in the museum, and has always struck me about the civil rights movement, particularly in its early stages- it was community-based, and broad-based, with people of many cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and standings coming together in a truly powerful movement. The men and women who challenged the segregationist State did not have to resort to bombs and guns; they had built up lives and communities powerful enough to take on even a violent and deeply entrenched regime and succeed, without turning to violence and oppression themselves.

Returning to the gritty shot-up feeling streets of which Auburn Avenue is only one, one has to ask- what happened, and what can anybody do about it? Auburn Avenue itself is an icon of what has been happening in our cities and towns for years now, what is happening right now as I write. Desegregation had its part, of course- African-Americans were no longer restricted to their own self-contained economy, and could take part in the wider economy and succeed there- leaving behind in many cases places like Auburn Avenue. But this is hardly the only explanation, or even the primary one. At the same time as desegregation was going into affect other programs, Federal and otherwise, were coming on-line, many under the title ‘urban renewal.’ As one line was erased new ones were laid down, often with the best of intentions, but often resulting in Federally-supported ghettos. The drug war has only escalated and grown more violent and more deeply entrenched; the ever expanding field of operations of the Mexican drug cartels only harbours more violence and destruction, and it’s not up-scale gated communities suffering the brunt of the violence and the corruption and rot.

There are other problems as well- job losses, poor education, and so on- but they all share the quality that few of them are exactly intentional. Much ‘urban renewal’ was meant to help the poor, at least ostensibly, or was at least supported by people who wanted to do good. Of course, plenty of it was deliberate in partionining off the poor, especially but not exclusively minority poor, from the elite enclaves. There is ridiculous highway a few blocks from my neighborhood here in Knoxville that, I am pretty sure, was built primarily to separate downtown from the much poorer, and darker-skinned, east-side neighborhoods; maybe there were no such intentions, but the effect is the same. The drug war is supported by well-meaning people, and I am sure at least some of those carrying it out have only good intentions and genuinely desire to do good. The damage is the same though.

The problem is further presented though- the evils and problems afflicting places like Auburn Avenue are so various that they are hard to fight against. There is no segregationist regime that we can unite against and battle; there are no straight-forward targets, as much as we would like for there to be. There is less ground, too, for people to stand on, as so many urban- and otherwise- communities are shot-up and worn out. The work that is needed- and here I start to really preach to myself as much as anyone else- is personal, is on the ground, and is probably not going to yeild immediate or impressive results any time soon, maybe ever. The great failing of the American elite- who are often very well-intentioned people- is to generally stay safely away from the poor and the decimated places, while sympathizing for them, in the abstract, and proposing solutions that are sure to work in theory, in principal. But while there are some genuine general policy solutions no doubt- the drug war comes to mind- they are only a part of the solution, probably not a terribly important part.

When it comes down to it we have to stop thinking in terms of helping the poor, or saving the inner city, as if the poor were a different species or something (albeit an endangered and valorized one), capable of being saved through the right policy enactments or a sufficiently large charity pay-out. In the end, working to end the violence and destruction of our cities is a struggle for ourselves; it is not a case of our aiding the poor and downtrodden in their struggle; we are all in this together, my struggle is your struggle. I cannot cut myself off from the rest of the world; my sin afflicts my neighbor and it afflicts me, just as the violence and deprivation of endless war and seeping poverty are part of my struggle, against the violence and evil in my heart and the violence and evil that come from outside my heart.

Our Auburn Avenues are not going to be magically transformed overnight; if there is going to be change, it must begin in our hearts- my heart- and work outward, person by person, community by community, in knowledge of each person and place’s particulars, and with love for them, love that, in imitation of the love of God, offers itself in becoming one with the sufferer, by becoming a co-sufferer, from the inside, with all the danger and dirt and darkness that comes with being inside of a suffering world, a suffering humanity.

You Draw Up Everyone From Endless Evils

‘I prostrate myself, Lord, at the throne of Your majesty, I who am dust and ashes and the dregs of humanity. A thousand upon thousands of angels and countless legions of seraphim offer You, the holy Nature hidden from the senses and knowledge of all created beings, spiritual worship in the hiddenness of their natures with their fiery praises and their holy impulses; for You are close at hand, Lord, with Your assistance to everyone at all times of need, and Your door is open in season and out of season for the entreaties of all. You do not abhor sinners nor does Your Majesty feel loathing for the souls which are stained with all kinds of sins; rather, You draw up everyone from endless evils, including me, Lord, who am utterly defiled, seeing that You have held me worthy to fall down before You on my face and make bold to pronounce Your holy name with my mouth, even though I am a vessel full of uncleanness and not worthy to be numbered among the children of Adam.

‘Grant me, Lord, that I may be made holy by praising You, and be made pure by the remembrance of You; renew my life with a transformation of mind and with beneficial thoughts which You, in Your grace, stir within me. Be a guide to my mind in my meditation on You, and make me forget my stumbling conduct through a renewal of mind which You instill in me. Stir up within me requests that are beneficial, with my will in accordance with Your will, for it is You who give prayer to those who pray. Imprint in me a single will, one which gazes towards You at all times, and a deliberation which is never weakened in its hope of You by continual deaths for Your sake. Grant, Lord, that I do not pray before You with unfeeling words (just uttered) with the lips, but may I spread prostrate on the ground in hidden humility of heart and repentance of mind.’

St. Isaac the Syrian, in The Second Part, ed. and trans. by Sebastian Brock (CSCO Vol. 555)

Everything All At Once

In the month- month and a half I guess- since I last posted, it’s all been coming at me hard and fast; I kept meaning to blog but never got around to it, feeling that other things had greater priority. Finally things are slowing up, and if I have anything interesting to say I will being posting pretty regularly through the summer.

Since my last post, a great deal has happened in my usually quiet and fairly uneventful life. I was received by chrismation into the Orthodox Church, just before Holy Week started. It had been a long, slow journey to that point; I never really had a climatic moment in which I just said to myself, I’m going to convert to Orthodoxy! I was raised Protestant, but I started feeling dis-ease towards Protestantism when I was thirteen or fourteen, and started immersing myself in Patristics and writers like Dostoevsky and O’Connor and Merton, all of whom led me degree by degree towards Orthodoxy, as it turned out, though I seriously contemplated the Roman Catholic Church. But that’s a discussion I’m not really interested in following. I’m sure I had very profound reasons along the way for leaving Protestantism and embracing Orthodoxy, and have heard some excellent arguments and all that. To be quite honest, as I prepared for chrismation and the Holy Eucharist, I was not concerned about any of those arguments. Rather, I realized somewhere along the way that if I was either going to become Orthodox or I wasn’t probably going to be anything; it was either here or nowhere, and that for some very pragmatic, not very theological or exalted reasons. I found that at a very basic level I need the Divine Liturgy; I need confession; I need the guidance of the Fathers, of the prayer-books, of the whole thing. I need icons, incense, all that. I’m not super-spiritual; probably I’ll never be. I read the great ascetic saints and I try to give their counsel a shot, sometimes, but I’m so far off it’s not even funny. I want- want to even when I’m close to giving up wanting- to worship and love God, and I couldn’t do it any longer where I was, outside of Orthodoxy. Entering into the liturgical space of the Eucharist, even entering the space of my daily prayers, I still find myself zoning out and thinking about something totally unrelated and unimportant- but I know that in those spaces, in the lived life of the Church- and not in her books and what not, as important as those are- I am encountering and worshiping the living God, and by His grace I hope to inhabit those spaces more and more.

Anyway, that’s my imperfect and no doubt entirely unsatisfactory apologia for my conversion to Orthodoxy. I would like to describe for you the awe and wonder I felt upon first receiving the Holy Mysteries; but I can’t, and I’ve always found that my ability to express myself breaks down utterly at the point of deepest emotion and experience. Some things can’t be spoken (or written) anyway, by anyone, not in this life, not in this capacity.

My first Holy Week was magnificent, if long- Pascha fell almost in sync with the end of the semester this year for me, which meant long services combined with long sessions of study and writing, but I made it through. The moment of Pascha, the lighting of the candles and the gradual illumination of the church, and then the outside, and the glorious troparion of the Resurrection- again, these things are so hard to speak.

My semester ended well, everything got turned in, and I really enjoyed doing this semester’s work. I had a brief period in which my short-term financial future was up in the air somewhat, but that’s now resolved, and I’m gearing up for my second year of graduate school. My first year of grad school had its ups and downs; I’ve wanted to quit a few times, write off academia and scholarship and all that and find something else to do, but it looks like I’m staying, at least for the time being. I love doing history, and I love the university, even if I find plenty of points that make me want to loathe it. But, mutatis mutandis, where is that not true?

I finished my classes on the last day of April, a Thursday; Friday afternoon I got a call from my mom back home in Mississippi, telling me that my grandmother- her mom- was dying. I knew she was in the hospital- she had been hospitalized a few days before, but my mom had told me then that while it was fairly serious, I could wait a couple days before coming home, it wasn’t that serious. But she took a turn for the worse Thursday night. I was already exhausted, but quickly packed up and drove back to Mississippi that Friday evening; I saw my grandmother Saturday, got to talk to her a little. We drove back home- she was in a hospital in Meridian, which is abou an hour from both my grandparents’ county and my parents’- and I went to bed, expecting to go back in the morning.

But I didn’t. She passed away early Sunday morning, peacefully, we were told. The hospital called and my grandfather and parents raced up there but not quickly enough to see her before she died. It was colon cancer- undetected, it had spread and its effects combined with some other problems- pneumonia, a slight heart attack- were just too much.

We drove back to Winston County, where many of my relatives live, to stay with my grandfather before and after the funeral. It was rough. My grandmaw had been sick, we knew, for a while, but we had no idea she had cancer. She had not had tests run; I imagine she suspected at some point but didn’t really want to know, it being too late by then. It was hardest on my mom, and my grandpaw of course; as much as you mentally tell yourself that people will die, that your family is getting older and death is part of the course, still, you don’t really expect it, you don’t really adequately prepare. The suddeness was the most difficult thing- as selfish as it no doubt is, we would like to the person to linger a little, please, just long enough to say goodbye adequately and gear oneself up for it.

The funeral was the Wednesday after; the morning of was stormy and violent, with tornadoes in parts of the county. We woke to darkness, no electricity, and had to take detours to avoid fallen trees. The service- in a little Baptist church in Noxapater, MS, one of a thousand rural Southern towns that I’ve seen in my short lifetime slowly diminish and fade, only the cemetery growing larger- started in the dark, no electricity, the rain beating down outside. I got up to speak; I wrote out a short address, using the story of Lazarus- still fresh in my ears- as a guide. I had rehearsed it, and was praying I wouldn’t break down. As I was speaking the lights came back on, courtest of Mississippi Power out there somewhere, but I also thought, an encouraging sign, a small grace. I made it through, in tears granted. The final words and prayers were held inside, as it was pouring rain outside. At the end we lifted the coffin and marched across the road up to the cemetery, the rain beating down, and said our goodbyes.

All the time I was trying to summon up the events of just a couple Sundays before, Pascha; I kept saying the troparian- Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, bestowing life upon those in the tomb!- in my head. I believe in the resurrection, I believe in the life of Christ; but still, still, when you come to these encounters with death, it’s still so hard. I broke down when we came back to my grandparents’ house; she wasn’t there, and while I kept expecting to hear her I didn’t. This enormous severing is the hardest part, even as you believe in the hope of the Resurrection. The hope remains a hope, unseen, waiting for the lights to come on, and the world and all things to light up and the fury and violence to cease.

Maranatha.