Murmurs and Antagonisms

Orthodoxy via Heresy

Month: February, 2015

The Failure of American History

American history is, too often, a failure. This isn’t to say that America is a failure since, by most standards, we’re pretty powerful and successful (though, I’d argue, in the wrong areas). Rather, the way American history is taught is a failure. History is a construction, just like anything else. Events occurred and years down the line we attempt to construct an accurate, or acceptable, image of what occurred. And, so far, American history is taught from the constructed narrative of the dominant group, namely white folks of European descent and with liberal values. Yes, history textbooks will mention the slave system, the forced migration of large swaths of people to not only America but the West in general. Sure, they’ll mention a few stories about the Trail of Tears and the brutality that Andrew Jackson committed against Native Americans. But rarely do they emphasize how intimately tied to the growth of America these policies and actions were, and to some extent, still are.

The slave system is presented, conventionally, as a sad misfortune in this great land of Liberty. The opposite is in fact the case, as Du Bois states, “It was the plain duty of the colonies to crush the trade and the system in its infancy: they preferred to enrich themselves on its profits.” Instead of dealing with this evil the founders blatantly ignored it. The early history of America from, say, 1780-1830 were formative years in which the slave system was advanced in the name of profit. Andrew Jackson forcibly removed Native Americans from their lands to sell land to investors for cotton growth. Millions of acres taken by force and with bloodshed for the benefit of white landowners and that great profit maker: cotton.

Yet, somehow American history has been taught in a way that makes this unfortunate rather than a central focal point of the industrialization of America. Baptist notes in The Half Has Never Been Told that, “the 3.2 million people enslaved in the United States had a market value of $1.3 billion in 1850 – one fifth of the nation’s wealth and almost equal to the entire gross national product” (pg. 352). The slave system was one of the most disturbingly efficient means of production in the modern world. On those 3.2 million people’s a good half of America’s wealth came through primary, secondary, and tertiary effect. This wealth fueled the industrialization of America (Baptist’s book is a powerful resource on this).

But this isn’t taught in American textbooks. We weren’t taught that our first President spent three years attempting to catch an enslaved person who fled for her freedom. We minimize the complicity of our leaders and the men we admire. And American history has failed to deal with this properly. As Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel has noted, “that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Whether we like it or not our history has failed. We’ve failed to teach what founded this nation. And I wonder what it would look like differently. I also wonder what it means that Oklahoma lawmakers want to suppress this “bad” side of American history. For white Americans we are responsible, whether we like it or not. And we need to look at our past and deal with it seriously. We also need to realize the implicit racism we are born into and with. American history has failed to deal meaningfully with its past, a past built on the blood and labor of human beings from it’s inception well into the 20th century. All founded on whiteness as being the dominant group. I wonder what a re-centering would look like. And I don’t have an idea what it might look like but it needs to happen.

My Sister Has Far Right Friends [New Poem]

My sister has far right friends. 

They drink basic white girl drinks,
write reactionary polemics
—somehow not a tension worth attending to.
Screeds to redundant traditions long past.
About men who wear suits with bowties & cufflinks.
Write about being right and white.

Wishing there were more like Lee and Stonewall,
praising Knights Templar.
Resurrection is their fixation and life blood.
Bloodied honor stains their too neatly pressed white clothes.

My sister has far right friends, stagnating in nostalgia.

On Becoming Vegetarian

I’ve grown up in suburbia and trees. Grown up surrounded by a family who hunt and/or fish. On my dad’s side hunting seems to be the most common, on my mom’s side fishing. I’ve done both. I’ve caught fish and failed miserably at hunting. In either case I’ve always been repulsed by the idea of gutting an animal. Something seems off putting about it to me, but serious injuries on a human body fascinate me. Despite my repulsion I’ve enjoyed the results of successful hunting and fishing. I enjoy venison, I enjoy freshly cooked fish, I’ve enjoyed meat. And still do, if I’m honest. There’s meals my mom makes, that come from my heritage (German-America), that I really appreciate and cherish. But I’m not sure I can eat meat any more. This isn’t some sudden appearance of an idea I don’t think. It’s been in my mind for a while.

I first really became disturbed by the videos I’d seen in high school. These videos that depict immense cruelty to animals, mistreatment, and disturbing methods of development and meat production (Glass Walls [graphic, disturbing imagery] stands out as one of the main ones in my memory). I was aware of the cruelty, of the pain. But I figured that it’s okay, my family hunts, we use a fair amount of the meat. And, more bluntly, I just didn’t care. I’d been taught by churches and particular interpretations of the bible that animals were just animals, that somehow I was better than them. This teaching was backed by passages in Genesis describing how humanity has dominion over nature. I had no reason to really consider ethical eating of any sort. Till a year ago.

I revisited Glass Walls (leaving aside the problematic nature of PETA and their campaign rhetoric). After revisiting the video I just had this sudden overwhelming intuition that eating the flesh of another being is, if not wrong, weird and uncomfortable. But I still ate meat. I had an intuition and I tried to follow it but not seriously. Then I came to college. And my college has good food (or not horrible food) in my opinion. The best options tend to be vegan/vegetarian, to my estimation, so I ate that most times. During the course of last semester I ended up in an intro to philosophy course with my advisor (an ardent animal rights activist and thinker). Within the course my advisor has us consider speciesism. We didn’t dwell on speciesism for too long but the brief time we spent on it made clear to me that the language I use (and have been given) brutalizes animals just as much as a visceral practice of slaughter. Or, at the very least, it allows for mistreatment. Mix that with eating mostly vegetarian options and things became interesting.

All that to say, I’m pretty much committed to at least a form of vegetarianism for now. The health benefits seem to outweigh whatever benefits I could get from meat and I feel better physically (though that may not be linked directly to meat). I’m still working through the process of why I am. But it seems clear to me that factory farming is in itself problematic. Since more than half the meat we eat comes from factory farms (estimates range, depending on the animal, from 78-99%) I can’t really justify continuing to eat meat under the notion that I killed it, or it was ethically harvested. This isn’t to say that the possibility for ethically sourced meat doesn’t exist, just to say that I don’t have affordable access to that meat, much less a means of cooking and presenting it.

I guess for me it comes down to selfish reasons but also to the fact that, as Mylan Engel has so beautifully argued, if I claim to desire a world with less harm and suffering then my participation in the meat producing industry contributes to that and I am complicit in a systemic harm. My moral complex, however pathetic it might be, doesn’t allow for unneeded suffering. None of this is to condemn meat eaters or folks who enjoy a good steak (I have and maybe will some time down the road, though unlikely) but it is to say that for me, in my Western, developed country context, I have no justification for eating meat that doesn’t come down to: I like it. And liking something isn’t an argument for allowing harm.


On Following Jesus

I’ve taken to saying that I still identify as a Christian. At its most basic this simply means I’m attempting to follow Jesus. But what is “following Jesus”? What does that mean? Sure, the typical answer is doing – or acting – in accordance with the way of Jesus. And that’s not wrong. But I wonder if there’s anything unique about following Jesus, at least in a world of options. I think not. But I still follow Jesus and I still think of Jesus as having some salvific power. But I think I’m beginning to realize that I am incapable of having a personal relationship with Jesus. More: I don’t think it’s possible. It’s definitely not possible in any traditional understanding of a personal relationship. I can’t call Jesus, or text him, or tweet at him, or hug him. I can pray, though the benefits are questionable to me. As a friend once said (paraphrased and worded to the best of my memory), “An immanent god isn’t one too interested in answering prayers, I don’t think.” This has stuck with me. And I’m not sure I could explain how it’s affected me, just that it has. The point is that my belief in an immanent deity instead of a transcendent one makes it unlikely that I can pray with reasonable expectation of my prayers being answered. So, not sure I can have a personal relationship with Jesus.

What then? How do I define my relationship to this man who claimed to be God?

To get at this I need to detour into a discussion of idolatry. I think Marion offers the most helpful clarification regarding idolatry. Marion argues that idolatry finds its problem in its limits. As he states, “Only the genuineness of the idol, as a limited and hence real (real because limited) way of taking the divine into view…” (God Without Being, 28). This makes clear to me why discussions of a personal relationship with a no longer existing person seems odd. I’d actually contend it’s idolatry. Which, finally, takes me back to the ideas of a personal relationship.

Most Christians would, I think, argue that because Jesus exists in a heavenly realm now (he ascended after all) he is still existing and therefore a personal relationship is possible. But that doesn’t seem to make sense without assuming – or doing – the prior work of redefining what “personal relationship” means. Thus, if Jesus is in heaven the way we advance our relationship is to read the bible and pray. Which, also seems odd. Sure, prayer might be just like talking to a friend but Christians can’t even agree on what prayer is really. And reading the bible as a way to form a “personal relationship” seems mildly disturbing. Treating the bible like a diary (which it’s not) of God makes it seem like it’s okay to read the diaries of friends and parents etc. My point is that I don’t think one can have a personal relationship with the God-Man personally on practical grounds. But, more, I think these discussions presume an experience of the divine which verges on idolatrous.

The problem is that folks don’t realize the idolatry of claiming to know a man who died and disappeared. With Jesus we only have a three year snapshot of his life and ministry. Thus, any attempt to demonstrate the historicity of Jesus will be limited by our human capacities. As such, I’m not sure we really will ever know the flesh and blood Jesus. We rely on testimony. We build a construction of Jesus and then associate it somehow with God (insert a protracted discussion of the sensus divinitatis as an example of this). The idolatry comes from a valid experience of the divine but then limiting it to that.

So, what does it mean for me to follow Jesus? It means I follow a construction. I follow an icon of the invisible, questionably existent God. I risk idolatry because I construct an image of what Jesus desires of me. Ergo, I can deconstruct the way of Jesus and try to bette grasp on to this.


(Note: writing this I realized I’ve hit the problem of conversion…which will probably lead me to another post. Nor do I think idolatry is inherently a problem.)