We Are Who We Are

I’m proud of my president tonight. I can’t always say that, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but I’m proud of him tonight. He (finally) said some challenging things in a challenging time. In fact, I would say that tonight he was not just a president, but a prophet, calling the country to account. And, sadly, he was also a prophet in that he made a prediction about the future which is pretty much guaranteed to come true: that this won’t be the last time he has to make a statement after a massacre.

I’m also proud of President Obama for calling for common-sense gun laws. I agree, particularly in the realm of gun-safety education. The trouble is, I’m fearful. I’m fearful that no such law will ever pass this particular Congress—or any Congress, really, because I fear there will always be at least forty senators who owe more to the National Rifle Association than they owe to their consciences, and four or five Supreme Court justices who often distrust or outright despise government interference in general, and these days that’s enough to halt any law in this country.

But I also have a more direct fear: I’m worried for the president’s life. He’s already said enough that will make certain people want to kill him. If, by some miracle, he managed to get a gun-control law passed before he left office, I’m convinced that he would be attacked, possibly repeatedly, quite possibly by very well-trained men. Many would be killed. The president himself might be killed.

And we already know what the attackers would say to explain themselves, don’t we?

“He was reaching for my gun.”

After all, we know what happens to black men in this country who even appear to be trying to take a gun away from someone, even when said gun is pointed straight at their heads.

Friends, here’s the heart of my fear and the heart of the problem: this is America. We live and die by the gun. The Second Amendment exists because many of the founders of this nation were afraid—afraid that the people they had enslaved would rise up in revolt, afraid that the people they had taken the land from would come to take it back, afraid that the new government they were actually forming at the moment would turn tyrannical. After all, they’d just fought a war against a government that had done just that. Thus our country came into existence by violence, and by violence alone, in at least three different ways. And it was maintained by violence: for all the rhetoric and eloquence of our governmental system, the enslaved Africans and the disinherited First Nations were not persuaded by it. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to suggest that political violence was necessary. And so the Second Amendment legalized the tools to make all that violence possible.

This nation was then shaped by violence; for all that I admire President Lincoln, he was willing to kill to keep the country intact. Then, after a gun took him from us, guns rewrote his legacy, too, disenfranchising the newly-emancipated black people of this land. A reign of violence kept people of color powerless—be it the KKK attacking black families, the Texas Rangers attacking Hispanics in the southwest, or the US Army itself bludgeoning the First Nations to death. Guns and violence took US power around the world and built us an empire—an empire we still maintain, in altered form, with our global military presence. President Obama himself has used violence against his enemies extensively, even when the drone-strike program has left so many innocent dead (along with some judged guilty, but not judged so by means of a trial). And, of course, the United States was the inventor of the biggest weapons possible, the atomic and hydrogen bombs.

We are who we are.

Why will now be any different?

Dr. King—almost exactly a year before he, too, was shot and killed—explained it best. Speaking in 1967, he described going around the country to speak with black rioters in Watts, in Detroit, and in scores of other places. He told them they shouldn’t be using violence to get what they wanted. “But Dr. King,” (he recounted them saying) “what about Vietnam?” And he understood at last that we use violence to get what we want, or to feel just a little bit safer, all the time. Every damn day we use violence, be it yet another case of domestic assault or yet another cop killing yet another black kid or yet another US military op dropping bombs somewhere else in the world. Every damn day.

I’m proud of my president. I’ll stand with him, if he pushes to get a law passed. But the trouble is, he’s treating gun violence as if it were a cancer. As if with the right bone-marrow transplant we could cure ourselves of this. But every era in our history makes it plain that this is not a fluke. It is what it is, and we are who we are. Until we come to grips with the complicated history of violence that has brought us to this state, blood will still be shed.

Guns aren’t a cancer in our bones. They are our bones.

Can a country cut out its own bones?

Occasionally we’ve started to—the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow—but we wouldn’t finish the job, and we wouldn’t even start until we saw Emmett Till lying in his coffin and Medgar Evers lying in his driveway. And even then we still looked away, from the crimes and from their causes. We refuse to look, and refuse to admit what we’ve done. How could we let someone kill a man like Dr. King? Well, because we’ve already let thousands of people like him die, before and since, because we looked away, and lied the American lie that “It can’t happen here.” We are well-trained in separating causes from their effects.

The first step of the cure is not to look away. God knows it will hurt, and fixing the problem will hurt even more, because the second step is actually admitting what we’ve done, which will burn our lips to ash. And then it’s on to the pain of Step Three… cutting out one’s own bones is not an easy process. But if this is who we are, and we want to be somebody else, then that’s what we’ll have to do.

I was always taught that we Americans could grow up to be anything. Can we grow up to be people who do not look away?

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Conviction

The election is done; but it has not solved all our problems. Martin King said, in his classic speech “A Time to Break Silence,” “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Going by Dr. King’s formula, the United States is still dying. President Obama is treating symptoms of that illness (such as abuses of health and some legal rights) while not treating causes (abuses of wealth and power). It would dismay Dr. King to see the first Black president doing so, but it might not surprise him.

In fact the whole political left is largely focused on symptoms, and each group has picked one and made it their hill to die on. There is little agreement about what should take priority (other than beating Republicans). In fact the left—or liberals—or progressives—can’t even agree on what to call themselves. And in such tight financial times, the left plunges into what I call “liberal cannibalism”—fighting over who gets the last crumbs of the pie, rather than asking what happened the pie as a whole. The result, as W. B. Yeats put it, is that “The falcon cannot find the falconer./Things fall apart; the center cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, and the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.”

Quakers are far from immune. I have watched Friends leave meetings, and the Society, because of divisions over which worthy cause is worthiest. The result, in my part of Quakerism, at least, is that Friends have embraced a wide range of causes, but generally those causes are lifted up by individual Friends, or by individual meetings. This is to be expected: one of the most central Quaker tenets is “What canst thou say?” We are a faith that puts great faith in individuals. But the down side of “What canst thou say?” is that there has been less of “What can we say?” Meetings and Yearly Meetings are slower to take action. And may I point out that while minutes do indeed say something, they do not by themselves do anything? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers minuted opposition to slavery in 1688. A century later, Philadelphia finally banned slavery among its members.

So even we Friends can lack all conviction.

But while virtually all liberals wail and moan and wring their hands over priorities, we Quakers have an alternative. We know where to go to find the answers: George Fox called it “Living in the life and power.” We have over us the ultimate authority. When it comes to authority we accept no substitutes; only the Spirit will do. We do not even always listen to each other, after all. Sometimes we do need to stand aside and let the Meeting go a way we wouldn’t choose, but this is acceptable as long as we do find and follow the leadings of the Light.

When we do… ah, what we can do then!

So we do not need to stand in bafflement at all the different threats and causes, trying to triage an entire civilization. We can instead discern what the Spirit says we should do, and then move with true conviction towards the holy goal.

I don’t think this would mean abandoning any causes near to our hearts. There is so much overlap, after all: gay rights matter for immigrants because some immigrants are gay, and environmental damage so often follows poverty and war, and so on. After all, don’t our testimonies overlap? There’s no real line between Peace and Equality, is there? And to truly live up to Integrity we have to be both peaceful and equal. Moreover, everywhere I look, I see one core problem: abuse of power. Confront abuse of power in every form, and that’s the first step to social justice, no matter which form of abuse is dealt with first. But I also suspect that we may not be called to a particular agenda, but to a particular way. A deep way, a difficult way, even a dangerous way, but a way sure and true. The manner of Friends may come to mean not what we all do, but how we all do it. If we all lived so deep in the Spirit, that might well be enough.

This is just my guess, though. After all, we must come together and discern our way. But we can do this. To come back to Yeats’ poem again, we are the falcons who know how to find the falconer. To return to King’s speech, it is our time to break our silence. We may not see the path clearly, but we can follow the Light in faith, and trust that we are well on our way.

 

Authors and Finishers

My country is increasingly fractured and divided these days, with this oncoming election widening the rifts deeper every day. The election has, to an extent, become a clash of ideologies. And though there are still more things that unite us than divide us—all the candidates love their country, all the candidates are trying to protect it—the rifts are so deep that compromise is becoming not just a dirty word but an equivalent to “surrender.” Too many have come to the conclusion that even agreeing with their political opponents is tantamount to treason. I will not pretend that all parties are equal in this respect; one political party, after all, has seemed to drift rightward in the wake of the other’s extremism. Now, it’s possible that the election will end some of this; if Governor Romney wins, he might attribute his success to his late-race moderation, and if he loses, the Republican Party may recognize that it is because of their ideological extremism, and adjust accordingly. But there is no guarantee of that. And with the politics of rage reaping a rich harvest of hate for both parties (though to an unequal degree), I do not see politics in this nation becoming more civil any time soon. The electorate is remarkably divided this year, with few swing votes up for grabs. This means that first, most voters were set along party lines long before Election Day, with few people deciding not on party name but on the merits of arguments, and second, the way to win the election is a matter of firing up the party base and bolstering loyalist turnout. Which means more vitriol and more hatred, because the easiest way to motivate people is through fear. It is almost becoming a situation where we no longer have the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but the Anti-Democrat and the Anti-Republican Parties. Or at least that is how they bring out the vote.

This makes me deeply uneasy. Continue reading