Celebrate Freedom

Perspective.  The most valuable thing I learned growing up was to try to see things from the perspective of others.  It’s the basis of sharing and empathy and kindness.  It’s what makes us human.  Juneteenth celebrates a Black holiday, but it applies to us all.  Today (actually tomorrow) commemorates the day when slavery was ended in Texas.  As much as southern states sometimes like to posture, all but the most frightfully unenlightened know that slavery is wrong.  The exploitation of others because we have the power to do so is the very embodiment of evil.  There’s no need for a devil if human beings can do this all by themselves.  Black lives do matter.  We need to stop countering this with “all lives matter” because until we acknowledge systemic racism such responses only serve to perpetuate the problem.

The history of the Christian (and yes, religion fueled and still fuels it) European domination of the world is a long, sad, and unethical one.  Blacks, because they’re often so easily visually identified, have borne the brunt of this domination.  In many ways this continues to be the case even today.  Red lining still exists.  Discrimination still exists.  Blacks are more likely to be imprisoned than others.  Poorly trained police are more likely to shoot and kill them.  This must change if society is to improve at all.  Congress has just passed a bill making Juneteenth a national holiday.  This gives the lie to the posturing of many of our elected officials.  This shows how deep Trump’s lies went.

More socially conscious employers made today a paid holiday in support of Juneteenth, even before the senate passed the bill.  We need to admit that we’ve been wrong.  We need to admit that special interests have kept us from seeing what should’ve been as obvious as the color of our own skin.  We’ve tried to keep slavery going.  We’ve made life hard for those easily identified as not “white.”  I have to wonder if this situation would’ve ever developed had we grown the more accurate habit of calling some people pink and others brown.  “White” was chosen for its theological implications.  Make no mistake, this was a carefully constructed divide.  Those who initiated the terminology—pink men, all of them—used their Christianity to demean, debase, and degrade other human beings.  Juneteenth celebrates one small step in what is necessarily a long journey.  We need to undo systemic racism.  We need to learn to say Black Lives Matter and we need to live it.

Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

Hearts are Dark

For the most part, reading introductions to literary works is tedious.  Since this edition of Heart of Darkness was brief enough, and the introduction wasn’t as long as the novel, I decided to follow through.  I’m glad I did.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s classic before, but it was helpful to have pointed out before this reading just how much darkness is in the story.  Drawn in by Kurtz’s famous last words, I suspect, many readers make the heart of the darkness the life lived by this contradiction of a man.  An individual who’d set himself up as a deity, and who pillaged the region for his own gain.  A man who wasn’t above using terror to acquire his ends.  An enigma.

But in actual fact, the story is about as full of darkness as an early Bruce Springsteen album.  The story begins at sunset and ends at night.  There is darkness to the Europeans’ dealing with the Africans throughout.  Even Marlow participates in that interior darkness that seems present in all people.  Delivering the deceased Kurtz’s letters to his still grieving fiancée, he meets her as darkness is setting.  He lies about her beloved’s last words, preferring to preserve her feelings than to reveal the truth uttered upon the deathbed.  There are layers of interlaced darkness here and Conrad never gives a definitive statement about what it really is.

We live in dark times.  I suspect that, for someone somewhere, that will always be the case.  The corruption of our government is so blatant and obvious that we seem to have fallen under the shadow that must’ve driven Conrad to pen his novel.  When living in darkness it helps to have a guide who’s been there before.  No matter what evil Kurtz has perpetrated, he’s treated as a god by those he oppresses.  He knows their suggestibility and preys upon it.  Although slavery was no longer (officially) a reality when Conrad wrote, the attitudes—embarrassing in the extreme today—lingered.  Even more embarrassing is the reality that they linger even today.  Not just linger, but assert themselves and then deny that they exist.  This is the heart of darkness, I believe.  We cannot allow others to live in systems that don’t kick money back into our own.  Trade on our terms, with our worldview being the only legitimate one.  Like so many writers, Conrad has been made a prophet by history.  And we all know the horror.


Fashions to Slaves

Howard Thurman was a theologian who held saintly status in my days at Boston University. As an African-American he’d experienced episodes while growing up that nobody should have to face. I remember him writing about being stuck with a pin in the hand by a caucasian girl who declared, “you don’t feel pain.” That image has stayed with me for decades. Unfortunately, that image hasn’t remained alone. I’ve been reading about slavery in the ancient world. No matter your race, slavery was considered a kind of ontological state. The color of your skin didn’t matter; your social status did. Slaves, you see, were less than human. When the slave trade began its hideous trans-Atlantic business ventures, essentially an entire race was classed as subhuman, because it is easier to feel good about mistreating a subhuman than it is a fellow being with a soul just like yours, if only purer.

This is not to deny the very real and troubling, criminal mistreatment that African-Americans experienced during the colonial period. The deeper problem with slaves was that of social status. If you look closely enough, you can always make someone “the other.” Heck, we’ve done it for millennia with those of the female gender. Something that has always bothered me has been how sociologists, political scientists, and historians constantly overlook the concomitant issue of class. In the new world we like to image we’re a classless society, but we’re not. The plight of many African-Americans today is economic. If you prevent people from having access to education and good jobs, they become much more easy to repress. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, just someone with the will to look. Those who write the history are those comfortably ensconced in offices and with research assistants, and people who empty the departmental garbage for them after hours.

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

How easy it is to suppose that the other is not the same as me! Most people do not like to challenge their preconceived notions. This is one of the real values of an education in religious studies. Take that intimate belief and put it under a microscope. Many would leave the lab screaming. Those who remain, patiently probing, learn uncomfortable truths. If the biologists are right—and there seems to be no reason to doubt it—all people evolved from common ancestors and we have more in common than we have that separates us. Skin color is only skin deep. Gender differentiation is merely in the service of species reproduction. What really makes us different is culture. And culture always requires classes. As even the ancients knew, some tasks are odious, and it is far more pleasant if we can compel someone else to do them. First, however, we must use our religion to explain why they can be made our slaves. If anyone doubts this, read Howard Thurman and see if he can’t change your mind.


Working Dead

AmericanZombieGothicPerhaps being born into and reared in a working class environment naturally predisposes me to the populist variety of entertainments. Although this may be true, serious scholars have begun to pay attention to the subjects traditionally classified as “lowbrow,” and particularly zombies. I mention zombies not infrequently because they are monsters with religious origins (although not the only ones). Reading Kyle William Bishop’s American Zombie Gothic (and who could resist such a title?) resurrected all of these interests for a few happy days on the bus. Subtitled The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, Bishop’s study goes back to the beginning with zombies and their religious origins. Since the concept of zombie required the blending of Catholicism with its root African indigenous religions, it seems natural that the concept would emerge in Voudon (voodoo) religions of the Caribbean. What Bishop makes clear, however, is that the zombie is a way of coping with slavery, since, as originally conceived, zombies represent the horrors of enslavement. In other words, they represent a social justice issue.

Dismissed as puerile and unsophisticated, zombies had a difficult time catching on in American culture. Once they caught on, however, they didn’t let go. (They are zombies, after all.) As Bishop shows, this appeal has many bases. George Romero’s zombies were always social critique. Exploiting their shock value made a point, but other filmmakers soon followed, enamored of the potential violence, gore, and exploitation the zombies offered. Then, following 9/11, zombie movies proliferated, demonstrating that even the undead might perform some kind of catharsis. As Bishop notes, zombies were primarily a movie phenomenon, slow to catch on in literature.

Having read a few zombie novels in the last few months, I have pondered this last point deeply. What is believable, momentarily, on the big screen is rendered laughable with the ponderation of reading. When your brain has time to process what slick visual editing denies, it is clear that decaying corpses would have a pretty tough time getting around—even living bodies have trouble with it from time to time. Zombies, after all, are not really ever literal. They are signs, or even prophets. They point to a reality beyond themselves. Zombies, in reality, represent enslavement—whether literal or figurative—that holds us back from our true potential. No wonder they’ve become such fixtures in a world where opportunity has become effaced and terror can breach even secure borders. They may be lowbrow, but having lived the working class life, I have always had profound respect for the walking dead.


Ham Awry

Ham, in the movie Noah, is a conflicted figure. I felt a slight chill, I’ll have to admit, when the carnivore Tubal-Cain asked him his name, reminiscent as it is of pork. Of the sons of Noah he alone bears the impossibly stylish short hair his father seems to favor, and yet, he is one of four men alive and the only one without a mate. Japheth is young enough to wait for his twin nieces to grow up, and the ancestor of the Semites, Shem, has already begun his fruitful multiplication, just when humanity seemed at an evolutionary bottle-neck. Ham found a wife but couldn’t keep her. Noah leaves her to be trampled to death as he takes his son to the gentlemen’s club known as The Ark. The rain has already begun to fall.

In the Bible Ham gets short-shrift as well. Having seen Noah naked after he discovers alcoholism, Ham bears the brunt of his father’s wrath. Noah, perhaps still hungover, curses Ham’s son (not appearing in the movie), Canaan. From the biblical point of view, the reason is perfectly clear: when Israel arrived in the promised land, the Canaanites already lived there. Given that the promise was to Shem’s descendants, a genocide was ordered and probably the more liberal among the marauding Israelites felt a bit of guilt about that. No worries—like ethnic minorities in horror movies, the Canaanites were created to be killed. Ham, however, isn’t cursed for his voyeurism. Still, according to later interpretation, he is the ancestor of the Africans as well, and the “curse of Ham” was used for a biblically literate society as a justification of slavery. After all, Ham had had an eyeful, and it was only fitting, they reasoned, that his n-teenth-hundredth generation should suffer cruelly for it. How’s that for air-tight reasoning?

According to the movie, Ham decided to leave in voluntary exile. Perhaps he hoped that like Cain he might find an unlikely spouse in an unpopulated world. He had grown apart from the new Adam, welcoming Tubal-Cain aboard the ark, and keeping him hidden until Noah threatened to kill the future of all humankind. Strangely, it seems that Ham is the proximate cause of the salvation of all humanity, and he become a self-sacrificial scapegoat in the Icelandic scenery. He declares that his deceased chosen mate was good, and Noah had cursed her as well. In the Bible cursing is freely dispensed, and it is considered adequate to its task. Somehow that curse transmuted to a nobility in the film, for Ham is the most like Noah of all his children. And even today that self-same Bible is used to justify a genocide in a world where myth is taken for reality.

Noah doesn't like Ham

Noah doesn’t like Ham


42 Shots

Many of us were raised with the figure of a divine father who is ready to whip off the belt for any infraction we may make, intended or not. On a more human scale, our criminal justice system locks people in prison often on the basis of race rather than purely objective considerations. The infographic below demonstrates this clearly. African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population in a society that is still reluctant to offer true justice to all citizens. When these numbers are wrenched from statistics and brought down to personal levels, the results are distressing indeed. I recently read of the case of a promising youth who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His lawyer, a prominent African-American, pled with the judge for leniency for this young man who had great potential. Time in jail, even in one for youth, would probably scuttle this boy’s hopes for a productive future. Being an American, though, I had no hope that this might end well for the boy. Still I read on as the judge sentenced him to jail.

None of us likes to be reduced to statistics. At the same time, some social-justice disparities are easily overlooked until they are placed in such stark terms. Xenophobia is a normal human reaction. In fact, it is displayed in apes and other social animals as well as in people. Its biological function seems to be group cohesion and safety. We’ve evolved beyond that, however. The great promise of the New World was freedom. Unless you were imported as a slave. The Bible, being a document of its time, lent its voice to the approval of keeping slaves and those who wanted to justify their horrid treatment of fellow humans in the name of God relied heavily on the Good Book. We still put considerable roadblocks in the way of African-Americans and others of minority status, believing that we are somehow justified in the myth of Caucasian superiority. Humans are humans. Society benefits from the gifts that different traditions bring to the cultural table. And yet, we continue to lock up those who look different.

Justice shouldn’t be a distant dream. We know that for those who do commit crimes reformation is a possibility. Critics cite the expense, but I have to wonder whose bank account is being audited. As a society as a whole we could all benefit from some reform. The profession from which I have been repeatedly blocked is one of the few that has taken demographic configuration seriously. Some must pay the cost for others to be given an opportunity. Of course, opportunity itself is a rare commodity these days of hoarding and one-percenters. Perhaps those who build towers and remove themselves from the rest of society have put themselves in a kind of luxurious arrest. Until they are forced to share, however, those of us on the street level have to do our best to help each other out. Take a look at this infographic from arrestrecords.com and see if I’m right.


Thinking Zombies

Religion seldom makes as big an impression as when it concerns itself with the undead. Popular culture has gone after zombies to such a degree that they have engaged academic discourse well beyond the field of African-Caribbean religions. In fact, religious specialists tend to shy away from the topic in a kind of first-date embarrassment. Perhaps it’s because zombies in popular culture are so much cooler than their Vodou forebears. Within the past several months, however, zombies have shown up in Time, on the Center for Disease Control website, and now in the Chronicle of Higher Education. An article this week explores the academic implications of a paper by neuroscientists Bradley Voytek and Timothy Verstynen on the zombie brain. The two took on the project as a lark at the behest of the Zombie Research Society. Science fiction writer and head of ZRS, Matt Mogk gave an interesting take on zombies. He’s quoted in the Chronicle as saying, “Zombies are rooted in science, not superstition and myth.”

At the risk of sounding extremely uncool (one that I take rather frequently, I fear), I would point out that exactly the opposite is the case. Zombies are rooted in superstition and myth, i.e., religion. The entire idea that a person can be made to rise from the dead—originally to be made a slave—comes from that heady blend of Christianity and African religion that developed as part of slave culture. Slavers were notorious in not wanting slaves to accept Christianity because that might make slaves think that they were equal with their owners. By suppressing Christianity among slaves, the African religions in which many were raised came to blend with the Christianity that they’d garnered. One of the bi-products was the zombie. The zombie partakes of the Christian concept of resurrection, but in a twisted way. Once the new vision of the zombie presented by George Romero took off, yes, they did move into the realm of science fiction, often the forerunner of science.

A very serious issue underlies the zombie myth—the very religious concern about death. While not all religions comfort with an afterlife, they all in some way deal with ultimate issues. The end of life is about as ultimate, from our limited experience, as they come. Science loudly and repeatedly insists that death is the final frontier. We don’t cross back this way again, according to the available evidence. Scientists do not study ghosts or souls, and are very cagey about near-death experiences. The zombie, who is now threatening the careers of young scientists, is a most religious monster. Everything about the zombie points to its origin as a religious trope. Voytek and Verstynen wanted to interest people in science by taking a comic look at zombie brains. The problem is that zombie brains are brains on religion, not science.


Nouveau Riche

Among the vibrant areas of interest for scholars of religion is the emergence of new religions. Unlike the religions of antiquity, New Religious Movements provide a direct view, occasionally in “real time,” of what constitutes religious belief. The possibility of sitting Jesus, or even Paul, down for an interview remains vastly remote. The same is true of Ellen White or Joseph Smith, but here we have many historical records upon which to draw and a clearer context against which such religions might be read. Supposing the religious urge is something people of antiquity felt, we can get a sense of what might have satisfied that itch, at least in an oblique way, by looking at the modern period. As a student of religion I was mired in the ancient period. Learning obscure, dead languages, I supposed, would lead me back to the earliest forms of religious belief, therefore the most authentic. Like many of my colleagues, I came to discover that the origins quickly disappear into the distorted view our poorly ground telescope into the past reveals. As one writer recently suggested, if humanity evolved in Africa, so did religion.

This past week I read Jon Butler’s New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America. Growing up I always felt that our own history was too young to be interesting. As I learned more about the horrid treatment of Native Americans, my sense of newness was accompanied by a sense of collective guilt. I like to think I wouldn’t displace a population in hopes of getting wealth, but as Butler demonstrates, the colonial experiment from the beginning was a profoundly religious one. We all know the pilgrims were dissenters from the established Church of England. Butler takes time to pause and consider the unwritten religions of those subjugated to European rule and sometimes extermination. How many of the first to brave the Atlantic crossing did so with missionary zeal, convinced of the superiority of a Christian culture. Not incidentally, they noticed great wealth could be had in this new land. Slaves would be needed to extract it and the Bible seems a slave-friendly document.

Butler’s little book is a good guide to the larger issues. The religion of African slaves grew into something to be feared. Colonial religion split along hairline fractures of doctrine, leading to the fascinating multiplicity of religions we now have in this country. Then, in his discussion of the early Presbyterians of Philadelphia, I ran across a sentence with immense explanatory value: “At the same time, congregations found that they could exercise their own power over clergyman through controlling their ministers’ salaries.” Conviction quickly falls by the wayside with a God whose arm is too short to save. The paycheck is something you can take to the bank. Religions develop into something different once gold enters the equation. I have watched the birth of empires with megachurches and televangelists in my own lifetime. I know that we are witnessing the birth of yet another human scheme to acquire eternity in the form of liquid assets.


Winter’s Music

An editorial in this morning’s paper once again raised the question of whether we need a politically correct version of Huckleberry Finn or not. The story led me to recall the origins of rock-and-roll – not that Mark Twain was a rocker, but because I’d recently viewed the first installment of Time-Life’s History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Both Huckleberry Finn and rock-and-roll owe a vast debt of gratitude to African-American culture, and both bear the scars of prejudice. An unfortunate aspect of life is that few people willingly subject themselves to hard labor when they realize an easier lifestyle is available (thus, Brave New World). This has been true since civilization began. With the advent of the Sumerians we begin to read about the slavery of war-captives. Even today, dressed up in fancy clothes, slavery of various degrees continues to persist. The reprehensible treatment especially of Africans for slavery is a heritage that will not easily be overcome. And yet American culture owes much to its African components.

While already in the back of my head, this was once again brought to the front by the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Explodes” episode of the Time-Life series. Now, being a musically deficient individual, I claim nothing particularly insightful here – my wife and daughter are the musically accomplished ones in this household – rock clearly has its roots in the blues and gospel. In the documentary Little Richard explains how rock was often simply music of the black churches transposed to secular clubs. Xenophobic “white” culture of the 1950s felt threatened by this catchy music and sought to disarm it. Calling it “race music” producers had the more popular songs covered by white singers such as Pat Boone. (His cover of “Tutti-Frutti” always makes me smirk.) The real element at work here was the prejudice against the other.

As a youth I recall literally throwing my rock albums in the trash because of a Fundamentalist tract that declared in no uncertain terms that it was the “Devil’s music.” I’d bought those albums with my own hard-earned money, but sacrificed them to save my soul. Little did I know that “Devil” was a code word for “African” in this fundie literature. Otherwise, why was it alright when Pat Boone (of The Cross and the Switchblade fame) sang the same song? Mistrust runs very deeply in monotheistic religions. Even today many branches of Christianity inveigh against the horrors of rock without acknowledging that the music has its roots in the cry for liberation on the part of slaves, as expressed in Christian worship. Civilization will always insist on retaining its slaves. At the very least modern western culture should say “thank you” for the unrequited gift of the musical voice of the twentieth century.


Mournful Metaphor

Sometimes the concept is great but the results disappoint. Those who have followed this blog know that a unifying concept over the past half-year has been the often hidden relationship between religion and monsters. Certainly this fascination has its roots in my refusal to admit that I’ve grown up, but with the popular media pushing the undead into our collective consciousness on a daily basis I feel a happy vindication. I posted last week about Seth Grahame-Smith’s new book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Well, now that I’ve finished the book I would say that the jarring concept of our most honored president leading a secret life was fun to wrestle with, but the book failed to win me.

Lincoln’s great contribution to our nation is still echoing through a society slow to admit the equality of all. Perhaps that fact alone would render any book trying to throw some comic relief on a deadly serious issue mute before it even begins to spin its yarn. That, and I didn’t like the portrayal of the vampires. I’m no undead purist, and I’m aware that vampires have changed form and character over the centuries, but having masses of them in one place felt like being the proverbial cat-shepherd. Giving them political ambitions, with a nod to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was too much. The issue of slavery, clearly the metaphor being utilized by Grahame-Smith, is hard to smile about. Lincoln’s personal suffering is difficult to lighten with his career as a vampire hunter. The story just didn’t work.

I’ve had enough bumps in my own life to eschew easy categorization. Even my current career must be listed in the TBD category. Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure if what I was reading was a serious attempt at a novel or a humorous exploration of a funny idea. I found the book catalogued in humor, but its narrative seems to have the earnestness of a determined novelist. When the story ended I felt as if I’d read a dime-store novel I’d purchased at Comedy Central. And with the headlines the way they are these days, I’d been hoping for a good laugh. Instead it seems that I have been bitten by a vampire wearing shades.

Two heroes, no smiles