A family visit to Kampala Part I

This was just from a letter to family about the first week of our trip to my wife’s home in Kampala. This is a photo of the kids sorting coffee beans grown in the garden of their grandfather’s house. More photos linked below.

We had a wonderful first week in Kampala and have enjoyed being home with Angie’s family immensely. They created a nice little apartment in a storage building that we can sleep in at night with its own bathroom that even has a little Italian contraption that provides a warm shower. They are all doing well.

One of the albums in the links below is of the last memorial service for Angie’s father Paul’s older sister (Aunt or Senga Berna) who was an important supporter of our marriage. She died four years ago. This three day ritual officially wrapped up the period of mourning and that now allows other celebrations to resume such as the official introduction of Angie’s sister Grace’s fiance on Friday. At Senga Berna’s request, Angie took on the role of "heir" which means that she ritually takes on the role of Senga Berna as caretaker to the widower and mother to her grown children. We fear that these roles will prove just as complicated as they seem. But it is generally agreed that these roles are mainly formalities. Most important to Paul is that the series of ceremonies and general fellowship that took place over the weekend was completed with honor and he properly laid his sister to rest. The actual organization of the weekend’s events largely fell on him and, together with the four-hour-each-way journey to his brother-in-law’s home village, took a lot out of Paul and Rose and Angie. One photo I missed last night was of Angie’s sister Berna putting her arm around her father’s shoulder as he sat at the dinner table after it was all over, and this normally austere man momentarily allowed himself to lean into her and close his eyes and accept his daughter’s love.

Abilene and Imani have adjusted well and, after a trip to town yesterday entailing a good hour through traffic each way with plenty of time to look out the window at the scurrying street life of chaotic cars and boisterous bodaboda (motorcycle taxi) drivers endless shops and pedestrians of all shapes and sizes, Abilene now says that she "loves Uganda." I have been taking notes from the papers of a former Tanzanian Finance minister in a Makerere University archive and came home mid-afternoon on Friday, while Angie had gone to a hair appointment, and found Abilene and Imani running around the yard barefoot with their 15-year old cousin Amos playing with them. Amos is a very conscientious if easily distracted young man who is great with kids. I was worried they’d be inconsolable without one of us around but they could not have been happier….Amos was a little clingy all weekend however while Angie was busy with the ceremonies. As you can see in the other set photos, Abilene quickly became reacquainted with a new best friend, her cousin Amy Faith, Angie’s sister Agnes’s little girl who is just a year older than Abilene and has a little brother August who is exactly Imani’s age. Abilene and Amy Faith first met over two years ago, and when Agnes brought the kids over on our first day at the house Abilene was shy for about 10 minutes before they were playing like old friends.

I’ve been very pleased with my laborious progress in the archive with lots of secret memos and handwritten notes about bureaucratic ephemera but will not bore you with the details. Paul made the mistake of asking me and I just about put him to sleep before dinner with my answer! I’m now on the way to Tanzania for two days to talk to government types about solar power solutions for village electrification and off-grid cell phone towers and lodges. This side project entails some support from Texas Tech and I’m working with a guy who recently got his PhD in electrical engineering at TTU and previously oversaw the installation of a large off-grid solar installation for the Saudi electric company on the Farasan Islands in the Red Sea. It is a very short trip but depending on his schedule may end with a short meeting with the Tanzanian Minister of Energy who is an admirer of my historical research. I had lunch with him once years ago when he was a presidential assistant working on education issues. He’ll be traveling to Houston in September I’m told and we are hoping to invite him to visit Texas Tech.

Angie’s sister Grace escorted us to Entebbe today. She had errands to run there and I had a flight to catch, so Berna Angie and the kids all piled in and we visited the Entebbe Zoo and saw elephants and chimpanzees and sundry African wildlife.

Pictures from around the house of Angie’s family. Construction began around the time we got married, and they only moved in in 2016. It has dual wiring with both a grid connected system and a separate wiring for solar powered lighting which is really nice when the power goes out as it did one evening.

Memorial Mass and meal for Angie’s aunt:

I’ll send a note about next weekend’s events but probably won’t get around to writing until I can find another quiet moment like this plane ride!

The Alito Opinion and the Question of When Life Begins

I wrote this in May the week that the Alito draft on Roe v. Wade was leaked, and sent it to several newspapers, but none were interested. So, I’ll post it here. It proposes an alternative logic on the constitutionality of abortion that respects the fact that many have heartfelt opposition to the practice


May 4, 2022

When does life begin? This is the core question at stake in the abortion debate. Of all the Republican cudgels, this one has the most heart-felt support from those who fear to facilitate the murder of innocents. In his polemical draft opinion on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, leaked to Politico last week, Justice Samuel Alito does not address this question except in discussion of other topics, namely the concept of fetal viability that is a key element of the Roe v. Wade framework for laws relating to abortion.

The primary question at stake in Roe is whether the constitution shields both medical conversations and procedures from the prying eyes of government. But the purview of privacy not unlimited even in medical issues, as Roe affirms. An act so benign as prescribing prescription drugs for recreational use is not allowable merely because it takes place in private, let alone something so egregious as ending a human life, even in embryo. The "viable" fetus as a human life subject to law was not nullified by Roe. The Roe decision didn’t legalize abortion, it just decriminalized it by throwing up a curtain of privacy that only applies in the first trimester.

Roe’s defense of privacy as a basic right is an increasingly important pillar of law in an age of big data surveillance and should be upheld. But Justice Alito is right that the Roe decision exercised a quasi-legislative power with its trimester timetable of narrowing permissibility, hinged on the question of “viability.”

For the historian, it is telling that Alito frames Roe’s concept of viability in relation to the long-standing common law tolerance for abortion before “quickening – i.e., the first felt movements of the fetus in the womb, which usually occurs between the 16th and 18th week of pregnancy.” In everyday practice, “quickening” was when life began. This long-standing custom was merely ratified in Roe as viability. Rather than pursuing the vexed question of when life begins, Alito asks about viability, “why is this the point at which the state’s interest becomes compelling?” Indeed that is the question.

Few would insist that the details of a woman’s menstrual cycle should be the business of the state. In this, a right to privacy prevails. When a doctor detects a healthy fetus, however, the pregnancy becomes a witnessed fact of social consequence, but not a human life separate from the mother. Roe’s logic of viability confers the possibility of separation and thereby proposes a separate juridical existence, or “personhood.” The question of when life begins would then takes precedence. The problem, as Peter Wenz argued a generation ago, is that American law cannot define the moment that life begins in a secular manner, but even he retained the turning point of viability at 20 weeks.

We must acknowledge that any law defining the moment that life begins prior to a baby’s emergence from the womb violates the First Amendment. There are philosophically coherent positions on this question from conception to crowning. As the Roe decision pointed out, none can be established on points of fact nor scientific consensus. Justice Alito seems to agree, “it is very hard to see why viability should mark the point where ‘personhood’ begins.” It is in the Establishment Clause that a woman’s right to choose should legally reside.

The mere fact of belief does not make all things legal. Society defines criminal acts without regard to a personal belief. But in regard to abortion’s legality, the question of belief is existential; if a life cannot be defined in law, then abortion as a crime cannot be defined. Even if we celebrate “life” in a new pregnancy, that life remains firmly in the mother’s womb, blood of her blood, flesh of her flesh. The legal status of that internal life cannot be defined in law without the governmental establishment of religion.

A Sign for the Times

It is late, I’m momentarily thinking that if I am to write beyond my professional duties, I will have to become an artistic obsessive and write when inspiration strikes, knowing full well that I cannot maintain that commitment. The dishes are done, the kids are in bed, the baby certainly about to wake up for a midnight bottle, and if I write this I will not fully appreciate the showing of the Prince concert-ish film for “Sign o’ the Times.”

It is extraordinary. A dutifully sexy portrait of the multi-racial, multi-gendered world he created for us, where his lead dancer tells him to “fuck off” when he proposes an after-show date. Whether in real life she would have been free to get away with that does not change its expressive presence in the show. It is good to see Prince in a live form like this, still with the core members of the Revolution, plus Sheila E on drums, introduced with knowing irony as “Pretty good for a girl.” He’s showing her off and loves the break with rock and roll tradition. And I’ve always loved the fact that he allowed Dr. Fink to wear his stupid medical scrubs, which make for a lame visual pun and are so dreadfully boring compared to the rest of the show. So you get the impression that everyone can wear whatever they want, the shirtless bassist and the skimpily clad dancer and the matronly keyboardist and Sheila E typically rocking it if she’s got it. Her attire does not come across as Prince’s imposition, maybe just his advice. He was never one to abjure a little skin. This was Prince’s family and allowing them their individuality brings a joy that places us among friends. Even though Prince’s music was all his, drums, guitars, keyboards, drums, background vocals, he was best when he allowed himself to play with a band. In concert he was forced to, and during this era he gave them little bits of songs that lent a bit of new tonal color and allowed the song to wander out of his own crowded claustrophobic head. Likewise he is front and center for this whole performance, but it populated by something like a community. It goes without saying that his talent is incomparable, master of all instruments, composition, lyrics, and a hell of a dancer with that leaping athleticism, in heels! Where did he come from? A shy boy and a shy man who is transformed Jekyll & Hyde style before a crowd into this winking peacock strutting and sliding and stripping, none of it accidental nor acts of passion, the passion is there but the performance is planned from top to bottom. This is sober disciplined show-biz. In this he had no equals.

And then he does something with sexuality that would be impossible, possibly even for him, today with our prudish fears of cancellation and excessive presuppositions of pornographic playacting. The sexuality of Prince’s performances is coy and knowing and full the playfulness and transgression appropriate that particular genre of activity. But for Prince it is also holy. Youthful beauty exists in something of a Greek tribute to the body as pure aesthetic object, and for Prince its lusty sexuality joins into that aesthetic purity. The band that prays together has sex together. The sexuality is part and parcel of this disciplined performance, and in its prayerfulness the performance becomes ritual. It is, despite all appearances, a church service, and not just the church of Prince. “The Cross” stands as its culmination. The release Jesus offers to the fullness of creation, and the silly and sometimes fearful means God instituted for procreation. In this life-affirming theology, Prince offers us an escape from the self-canceling dread of the cancel culture.

lue Tuesday 12.1.1987

This is a continuation of 

http://prince.org/msg/7/299844 My Goodness: isn’t the Black Album a really rather marvellous thing? 

http://prince.org/msg/7/247006 The Black Album / Ecstasy / Lovesexy story

Ruperts Dance Club [Minneapolis Minn.] Paisley Park studios [Minneapolis Minn.] 

Prince Warner Bro. Ingrid Chavez Karen Krattinger Susan Rogers Matt Fink Gilbert Davison Mo Ostin Marylou Badeaux Eric Leads 
From the perspective of Warner Bros., the Black Album was emblematic of the label’s concerns about Prince’s career. Increasingly, his marketing decisions seemed designed to alienate the public rather than to increase his record sales; meanwhile, his material was becoming consistently less accessible. The company desperately wanted Prince to come up with catchy songs that would re-establish him as a potent hit-maker and guide him back towards Purple Rain-like levels of fame. What it got instead was The Black Album. 

Despite Warners trepidation, plans for the release went forward and hundreds of thousands of vinyl albums, cassettes, and compact discs were pressed for distribution. As he often did just before putting out new albums, Prince went to a nightclub to audition it for an unsuspecting public. On December 1,1987- a little more than a week before its scheduled release-Prince went to Rupert’s, a Minneapolis dance club. Entering undetected by the crowd, he made his way to the deejay booth and played songs without fanfare to see how club goers would react. 

insert from: NightGod My source: Cat Glover 

I filmed a behind the scenes video of her modeling shoot last year (the one many of you have seen on youtube), and spent a couple days hanging out with Cat Glover. She is very open and shared some amazing stories with me. This is one: 

1987: Prince had never tried Ecstasy, and was curious about it after Cat told him what it felt like. He asked Cat to get him some (it came from her, where the common misconception is that it came from Ingrid). Cat was in LA when Prince made his request. She got some and flew in to MN and was staying at a hotel when Prince’s limo showed up. While they were both in her room, Cat suggested Prince take half a dose “because he was so small”. He took the full dose and told Cat to wait for him. He rode off in his limo and Cat didn’t hear from him until much later. 

Prince decided to go to a club while he was tripping. It was here that he met Ingrid Chavez, which eventually led them to Paisley Park. Cat said she didn’t think Ingrid knew Prince was tripping on E. Prince called Cat later from the limo and told her about Ingrid. She was riding with him at that point, and the three of them went out to Paisley, making for a historical night in Prince’s career. 

Even more interesting is her source for where she got the Ecstasy in the first place: Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

As the music played over the sound system, Prince mingled with the crowd and eventually became involved in a detailed conversation with a singer-songwriter-poet in her early twenties named Ingrid Chavez. An attractive brunette with a serious and reflective air, Chavez had moved to Minneapolis several years earlier to work on music with a friend. But that collaboration had soured, and since then she had been working alone on her poetry and spoken-word pieces. Like Prince, Chavez had grown up in a strictly religious home (in her case, Baptist), but as an adult she too sought spiritual answers outside the confines of any specific religion. 

Prince and Chavez seemed fascinated by each other despite an apperent lack of sexual chemistry, and, after a while, they drove back to the recently completed Paisley Park studio complex. They continued a lengthy and intense conversation about religious issues, love, and life fulfillment, but Prince eventually excused himself, saying he had a stomachache. Waiting to see where the strange night would go next, Chavez stayed put while Prince disappeared elsewhere in the complex. 

At about 1:30am Karen Krattinger received a strange phone call. Speaking with uncharacteristic emotion, Prince apologized for having been so hard on her, said he had trouble expressing his feelings, and that he loved her. 

At about the same time that night, Susan Rogers also got a phone call from Prince, asking her to come to Paisley Park. After four years as Prince’s engineer, she had resigned that post shortly after the completion of the Black Album i October 1987. But she agreed to go to the studio. Arriving in the rehearsal room, she found it dark, save for a few red candles that cast ominous shadows across the walls. Out of the gloom she heard a woman’s voice. 

“Are you looking for Prince?” Rogers, who would later learn this was Chavez, answered, “Yes.” “Well, he’s here somewhere,” Chavez replied. Abruptly, Prince emerged out of the darkness, looking unlike she had ever seen him before. “I’m certain he was high,” Rogers said. “His pupils were really dilated. He looked like he was tripping.” As he had with Krattinger, Prince struggled to connect emotionally with Rogers. “I just want to know one thing. Do you still love me?” Rogers, startled, said she did, and that she knew he loved her. “Will you stay?” Prince asked. “No, I won’t,” she said, and left the complex. “It was really scary,” she recalled of the evening. Matt Fink confirmed the sequence of events, saying he was told by bodyguard Gilbert Davison, who was present at Paisley Park that evening, that Prince had taken the drug Ecstasy. “He had a bad trip, and felt that [the Black Album] was the devil working through him,” Fink said. Chavez has also said that in the course of the evening Prince decided that The Black Album represented an evil force. 


But something had changed. Prince believed that he had experienced a spiritual and moral epiphany, and that Chavez, serving as a guide, had shown him the way to greater connection with God and other people. The Black Album, he decided, represented the anger and licentiousness that he must leave behind. After casting about for months for a way to truly put the Revolution era behind him, he had found one. 

Days after the ecstasy trip, Prince contacted Warner Bros. chairman Mo Ostin and insisted that the Black Album, with its release just days away, be canceled. “Prince was very adamant and pleaded with Mo,” recalled Marylou Badeaux. Although Ostin ultimately agreed, halting the release was a logistical nightmare for Warners. Five hundred thousand LPs – which now needed to be destroyed – had been pressed, and were on loading docks ready for shipment to stores. A small number of vinyl records and cds escaped destruction, and The Black Album quickly became available on the bootleg market, with fans selling and trading cassette duplicates of widely varying fidelity. 

Prince has never given a clear public explanation of the decision to shelve the album, but the program from his next tour included a cryptic discussion of the Black Album’s “evil” nature, and refers to December 1, 1987 (the night he spent with Chavez at Paisley Park), as “Blue Tuesday.” 

Having shelved the Black Album, Prince immediately threw himself into the recording of his next LP, Lovesexy, which he conceived as a document of his epiphany. 
Moreover, very few of Prince’s associates related to the lyrical messages, and also wondered why Ingred Chavez, who seemed to some a bit odd, was playing such a huge role. When band members seemed confused by the lyrics of the title track, he rerecorded it to make the meaning ring out more clearly. It still didn’t work. “I did not understand what the term ‘lovesexy’ was supposed to mean,” Eric Leeds said. “People weren’t getting it.”

The Glittering Girl in Gold

I”m only now sitting down to write my hot take on the hope-filled and flawless inauguration. It went off without a hitch, and of course the highlight was the swirling glittering alchemy by the girl in gold.


With her Whitman-esque wonder and firm belief that a song of myself can and must be a song of us as the boundary between self and society cannot be found when you really go and look for it, her poem should really be put next to his in high school textbooks, because like him she writes in the vernacular and sings. I was so thrilled to hear rhyme. Poetry should rhyme. It needn’t necessarily rhyme in the sound of the words, images and emotions can rhyme, but it must rhyme and it must have rhythm as the sister of song, and not those awful belly-gazing broken-up prosody of the New Yorker magazine. And she rhymed in all respects, in sound, in image, and in emotion. It wasn’t moon-june-spoon, but neither did she tie herself to English-lit formalities, neither the strict structures of Shakespeare nor the self-regard of an e.e. cummings, so conscious of his formal rebellion. She was more like Emily Dickenson in this aspect.

Her rhyme scheme and rhythm, regardless of all high priests of high school English, came straight from hip hop. This is how rappers rhyme, with a show-offy youthful exuberance, here in service to the highest honors of the nation, not merely her audience but her aspirations to the better angels (who were mercifully released from making their dutiful appearance, at least in her poem). Her rhymes came and went as they pleased, making opportunistic alliances, where “perfect” leads to “purpose” leads to “compose,” while I must suspect that a rhyming dictionary gave “glade” its its invitation for no reason beyond its comely smile, it is the “-ade” sound, as suffix, that winds it way from top to bottom through the poem. The hip hop rhyme scheme cares not for critics, and “arms” can just go ahead and rhyme with “arms”, and right on recklessly to rhyme with “harm” and “harmony”, and here she side-rhymes with Lincoln, replacing “malice” with “harm,” and reminding us to carry it towards none, aiming instead for harmony.

Maya Angelou, may still she rise, was clearly present, together with a large host of others, which the poet will reveal in her interviews and tweets. But “through a throttling dark we others hear” a bit of Gwendolyn Brooks, a rhymed memory where the inaugural poet spoke of herself, a nation, and its citizens (Whitman again) as “far from polished, far from pristine” while Gwendolyn Brooks, spoke of her “children of the poor” as “unfinished, graven by a hand Less than angelic, admirable or sure.” And like Lincoln, she advised them to “first fight, then fiddle” and hope that one day the moment will arrive to “be remote a while from malice and from murdering. But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate in front of you and harmony behind.” And now the “fearful trip is done,” she can ask us to “lay down our arms, so we can reach out our arms. We seek harm to none and harmony for all.”

Good writing should glitter, not just with rhyme, but with connotation, reference, and memory. Every other word should sparkle with a little flash of something we know from somewhere else. The lifeblood of poem, like songs and campaign speeches, derives from what Derrida called iterability: the knowledge that you can only construct by using words and phrases that have already been said, and already have a history, and already live in the mind of the hearer, who only understands them through a lifetime of swimming in the ocean of words.

…Oh, and Joe Biden did a great job too, and Lady Gaga, Garth Brooks and J-Lo and all the rest.

And it is my opinion now, that no matter how much he deserves it, and no matter how important the precedent. The Democrats should not bother too much with convicting Trump on the impeachment. The Democrats should not always be condemned to doing the Republicans’ dirty work for them, cleaning up all their wars and crashes and deficits and all their other messes. If the Republicans want to get rid of Trump for their own purposes, let them fight that fight on their own. Don’t do them the favor of banishing him from electoral politics just so some cynical spineless Lindsey Graham can claim some completely undeserved moral ground (I am loathe to characterize that swampy ground as “high”). Let Trump run in 2024 and call his idiot army into battle while he hides in Mar-a-Lago. Let him destroy the party that used him so callously. If they want to avoid that fate, then let them clean up their own mess and lead the way to a conviction. The Democrats pushed him out at the ballot box, they are done with him. Forget about him.

Emotional Deserts: Remembering My Friend Will a Year Later

Remembering My Friend Will, one year since an irresponsible truck driver rear-ended his car killing him and his wife, as these memories now ensconce themselves amidst emotional detritus scattered along the road of 30 years of life. This is an essay about internal memories of someone I once knew well when we were emotionally clueless teenagers who knew neither ourselves nor each other very well. As an adult I knew him only in brief oblique glimpses that took form in subjective moments that had little to do with him and the joy he carried that was still palpable from such distances but did not necessarily penetrate into my emotional world. I can’t say I know what his internal life was like at all.

A year ago I made my first trip back to Minnesota in over ten years to attend the funeral of a high school friend. Will and his wife Cully were killed when a dump truck driver, who probably had fallen asleep, rear-ended their car on a road they had driven thousands of times. They were both killed instantly it seems. Both in their late 40s, leaving behind two boys, young men on their way to college, clear-eyed, straight-backed, honest to a fault. One aimed to become a pastor the other a computer engineer. The boys had been attentively home-schooled by Will and Cully, their meals and TV consumption directed towards wholesome fare, as grade-schoolers Will had them watching episodes an old show we had grown up on, Emergency 51, about paramedics at a fire station who mostly responded to car accidents and heart attacks. I’ve seen episodes of the show on UHF channels in recent years, although the hairstyles suggest 1973, the attitude of mind is 1957, or at least the TV version of that era. The men are clear-eyed and straight-backed, honest to a fault. They carry none of the glamour that CHiPs did with their motorbikes and sunglasses. They respond dutifully and dispassionately to disasters and on rare occasions exhibit well-contained emotions: boredom, sadness, elation, and rarely, fear.

The instigator and his army

The funeral was something of a class reunion for for a nerdy segment of our high school class, a notably charismatic bunch in their python-inspired humor, among whom Will had been not so much a leader as a chief instigator. Because I was Will’s friend, and appreciated their high-concept slapstick, I was an honorary member of that crowd, which constituted 90% of the Honors English class. Will knew, without even having to be fully aware of it, that if he set his mind to something at that unremarkable high school it would be done. He had a knack for a certain set of adult-world managerial skills that really had no peer at Henry Sibley High School. Those of us among his high school friends gathered at the funeral were all contributors in one way or another to Will’s most successful project, the insurgent school ‘zine, The Insider. In regards to Will and the Insider and Will’s effectively uncontested drive to student council presidency, I was 100% committed, but as regards the politics of high school social divisions, my loyalty was suspect on all sides, but for a variety of reasons was probably safest among the crowd who wore the misleading label of ‘popular.’ We had played sports together, went to churches together, and our parents socialized in strategic ways with each other that left us bound by loyal cahoots. I drifted quite rapidly away from my high schools crowds after I left, a year early, in the process abandoning Will to a lonely presidency. My drift away from all of them is largely a result of that common pattern of American life, but more specifically a problem of emotional vacuousness that left me socially adrift starting at about age 19. And I have a feeling that Will suffered from much the same malady, which was endemic at that high school, and therefore unsurprisingly, in the community at large.

At the visitation, the day before the funeral, I stood in line to greet Will’s sons, his brother, and his parents. The boys were clear-eyed and straight-backed, and this was my first interaction with them since a very brief 4th of July evening a decade prior. The emotional impact of their loss was deeply buried under their impeccable manners, and I responded very naturally with an equal measure of business-like sympathy and queries as to their career paths. It was only another friend, the one who had had the presence of mind to alert me to Will’s death, and to whom for that reason I am forever grateful, who also pointed out the boys’ impeccable manners threatened to bury their grief so deeply as to leave it difficult to ever excavate for proper attention once the funeral had passed. His parents’ emotions lurked perhaps nearer the surface, but they likewise, in a way that is profoundly native to Minnesota, attended first to what had to be done: a visitation, guest books, photo albums, a funeral ceremony, and one can only suppose also follow up on the question of the driver who had killed their son and his wife. In the funeral itself, his brother did his best to highlight Will’s dedication to family, church, and work, and the softening element of his warm, inviting humor. With smiles, and many a glistening eye, the funeral service was faultless. It was a manner of grieving among people for whom, fundamentally, the virtue of humility prevents them from highlighting, or even acknowledging their own grief, lest it should prevent them from fulfilling the more sacred task of duty. There is much to be said for this stoic element of Minnesotan culture, but without some other source for care and feeding, it leaves the inner fields of emotion dangerously dry.

Nonetheless, in a look and a tone that ran subversively below the impeccable manners, disappointment leaked into my consciousness when I greeted Will’s mom. She had neither seen nor heard about me for 30 years. I had abandoned Will when I left high school a year early, and I imagined she was probably right in thinking that this had wounded Will, and contributed to a notable narrowing of his ambitions and his values. Will became something of a fundamentalist Christian, drifting away from his parents’ tolerant protestantism, that was once considered “mainstream Christianity.” This was not altogether surprising, they were brought up during the heyday Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor party, and Will’s teenage rebellion, like Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties,” was to become some sort of a conservative, which was not such a worry as a teenage affect, but when the adult Will demonstrated that he really meant it, his politics left some sort of a chasm between them, even if one well-bridged in familial love.

Some time after the funeral we spoke, and came to a modicum of reconnection, and in in the painful healing process of clearing out Will’s things, she ran across a painting of mine from high school that I had given him, and a few letters, mostly from the years after I left, and I suppose she realized that I had not altogether abandoned him. I had, after all written, and it is not all that clear whether or not he wrote back. That which drove us apart was a blunter exogenous force, and the letters hint at its presence looming between us, even if we could not see it for the destructive force that it was. I’m happy she sent me the letters, because it relieves me of some sense of guilt, but the pain they cause strikes even deeper, lightened only by the illumination they offer about that malevolent force that affected us like some polio of the soul, leaving atrophied limbs and myopic eyes.

What is most striking about the letters (my letters) is their emotional vacuousness. It should not be surprising that I kept none of his, so I speak only of my own letters to him, which were carefully boxed away somewhere in his garage. We were smart precocious kids, seen as mature and responsible young men by athletic coaches, teachers, and summer camp directors. What we loved in each other was the recognition of an equal in this regard, and yet one who could be equally filled with childlike silliness when the occasion allowed. We did not come to our maturity in a consciously dutiful way, it was in our nature and the quality of our upbringing. It was accomplished, in large part, because we had absorbed so completely that Minnesota stoicism, it rarely occurred to us that any aspect of emotional life had standing to disrupt the tasks set before us. Only joy and humor were allowed, sadness or anger made nary an appearance. Our existence of wholesome community, church, school, and loving parental guidance that was so complete that we didn’t really know what disappointment was, and were not even really capable of disappointing each other as our habits were so similar. There was only one time where I was conscious of disappointing Will, and that was when, as his vice-officer on the publicity committee, I was too shy to drag out a garbage can on stage at a pep rally in order to dramatize a point about throwing trash in the garbage. It was a minor disappointment that had no effect on our friendship. The bigger disappointment came a couple years later, and it was more of a mutual disappointment in ourselves, experienced alone and in parallel as each of us got lost in the emotional desert that lay within.

It began, I expect, on the day I informed him that I had been accepted into a private boarding school called the United World College, and would be skipping my senior year at Sibley high school to attend this school at its New Mexico campus. Will’s initial reaction, as this issue arose in the midst of our conquering campaign for president and vice president of the student council, was to say let’s keep this quiet so as not to disrupt the campaign. It was not so much a nefarious reaction as instinctively strategic, it spoke to his native intelligence. We made arrangements for our preferred successor to me as vice president, a girl that brought many of my same attributes. And our best laid plans were laid to waste by a resentful student council who chose more safely, and punitively, from the ‘popular’ crowd. But here I am re-hashing elements from my previous memorial written a year ago on the eve of the funeral.

The other part of that story was that, some time later, maybe later that year, maybe a year later, maybe more, I asked Will why he never applied to the United World College, and he said “well you never gave me back my brochures!” You see I only found out about this obscure international boarding school because they had mailed Will brochures and instructions for application because he had done well enough on a standardized college entrance exam, taken precociously as always a year or two before everyone else. He gave me the brochures, and I now have no idea if I ever mentioned them to him again, or gave them back to him, or even offered to give them back. I do have a vague memory of him giving a UWC cheer of some kind that constituted an implication that we would both go, and assault the UWC with the Will and Paul act. It’s probably just as well that we didn’t, as that fork in our road allowed us both the opportunity for emotional growth, had we been capable of it. Instead he submerged some set of disappointments, of which I know very few of the details, into stoic conservative virtue, and I drifted good-naturedly but unproductively until I landed on an academic island where I remain.

Again, I have no idea if or when Will might have responded to my letters. But it was era before email, and even busy young people sat down regularly to write letters, address them and put stamps on them, mail them, and read them. And, for an organized person like Will, they then constitute an archive, not a mere flood of emailed trivia, but a curated archive of things we intended to keep of palpable materials and textures and scribbles, their emotional value lies not in their words but in their texture: the frayed edge of a page torn from a spiral notebook, half-sized note paper kept apparently for the sole purpose of writing such letters, and even an aerogram fixed-rate page of lightweight blue paper that folded into its own envelope, a form I only came to know from the United World College, where the international students mailed such exotic objects to each other over the summer, on one occasion scented with perfume from somewhere deep in Europe that seemed to arrive from some place where Humphrey Bogart might have frequented. I mailed Will one of those from Venezuela, and that may have been our last communication until he invited me to his wedding some years later, and I was too preoccupied with my uneventful life New York City to go. I did not refuse the invitation out of any sense of spite or disappointment or hurtful intention, just self-centered vacuousness. It did not occur to me that a wedding of a once-close friend was so important as to disrupt whatever business I was up to in New York. I think he even asked me to be his best man, and I don’t know if I ever even replied. I believe his mom confirmed this in our conversation after the funeral, and it was the main source of her disappointment in me.

Neither Will nor I had dated much in high school, at least to any extent that we shared with each other. That was pretty well beyond the emotional capacity of our friendship, and did not lie very near our core interests. To even acknowledge the softness of heart of attraction to a girl, to risk the moral weakness of navigating a relationship let alone the distant possibility of sexuality was really beyond our moral imagining. Will made some evident progress on that score during college, but I had not. I still had no appreciation for the emotional stakes of marriage, although I’m not certain that Will did either as he launched into it, at least any stakes beyond his instinctive sense of duty and service above self, even though once in, the maturing fire of marriage certainly expanded his sense of life’s responsibilities. In Cully he found a worthy partner likewise dedicated to a fading value-system that hearkened to another era, sometime before the 20th century had even begun. They were scions of the same value system that had formed their grandparents, a set of virtues that sacrificed emotional awareness for the demands of duty. We read about the formation of this culture in the Minnesota author Ole Rolvaag’s great novel, “Giants in the Earth,” about settlers on the Minnesota prairie who carve out an existence in a hostile land that they know, secretly, is not theirs. The man plows through his emotional turmoil in his daily labor, while his wife slowly loses her mind on a barren prairie, where, as she puts it in the novel, “there is nothing to hide behind.” As that culture took form, in an ever more prosperous community, there was all too much to hide behind. That is the culture in which we were reared, and we had plenty of achievements and petty entertainments to hide behind.

So, when we abandoned each other, we were as callous with ourselves as we we were with those around us. I’m sure Will was less guilty of this than me, but I have no doubt that the emotional vortex into which he descended during college was a result of his one weakness, his inexperience in life-itself. Marriage presented a salvation, but not necessarily a fertilization of the desert within. I came to some emotional maturity by means of a few cautious romances. They were innocent and harmless enough in the 1990s. In the 2000s I finally threw caution to the wind and embarked on a more purposeful and reckless experiment in dating, and left a good deal of emotional damage along the way before stumbling into a a fruitful marriage. Needless to say, Will did not attend my wedding, and did not respond to my impersonal invitation. He did, however, receive us for that 4th of July weekend the following year, as a sign of forgiveness. Yet the conversation was that of two emotionally-stunted teenagers, filled with mischievous silliness but no reckoning with emotion. That was where we had left off as friends and there was no path to lead us beyond. It did not fully occur to me, even then, why exactly he had not attended the wedding. I just took it at face value that he simply couldn’t make it. As I said, we were not capable of disappointing each other, and my emotional life was still too barren to realize both that I had disappointed him, and that I should have thereby been disappointed with his absence. As usual, I had plenty to hide behind, even as I was fully aware in a part of my heart that I never shared with him, that my emotions were seething for reasons far more proximate than high school friendships.

All that is preface to what I really wanted to write about, which is the letters themselves!…Even though I’m sure no reader will grant me any more patience for another chapter of these indulgent memories, I will address them in more detail soon.

Cancelling Ourselves

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in front of my building, 1994

When I lived in New York, a student at NYU, I lived for several years in Brooklyn. I went to a church in Alphabet City, on the far side of Tompkins Square Park, where the church had changed with the neighborhood around it over the course of a 150 years. It was then a holy mix of good people of all types brought together under a dedicated traditionalist Lutheran pastor, a son himself of a Lutheran pastor. I often worked in their homeless shelter, spending nights there as some sort of a neutral observer. I worked their afterschool program and summer day camp. My other summer job was a bike messenger, careening between Wall Street and Midtown mostly. My NYU roomates and I moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn in 1993. At that time you could rent a half a floor of a tenement building for $1000 a month at Court Street and Atlantic Avenue. We had three bedrooms, me being the problem solver took the smallest which was more of a corridor than a room, but it sufficed for a desk, a bed, a cedar wardrobe purchased a couple blocks a way on a more puerto rican block than the yemeni block that we were on, with the halal butchery and bodega on the first floor. Locals congratulated me on the good purchase of the wardrobe as I wheeled it three blocks back to the apartment and we wrangled it up three flights of stairs. Below us lived an older Puerto Rican couple above us a Yemeni family, and my bike blocked half the stairwell they rounded our door on the way up the last flight of stairs. The building wasn’t great, sometimes the heat went out mid-winter, or the bathroom ceiling collapsed, or the front door on Court Street would be broken for months, years? And a homeless man slept quietly in front hall. I only knew this because in my senior year I was on NYU’s fledgling rowing team and would leave at 4:45 in the morning to bike across the Brooklyn Bridge which was normally empty except for a couple glimpsed as I flew by, and the man knelt down before the woman’s skirt who gasped audibly and sexily. I read Gravity’s Rainbow in Prospect Park and biked out to Coney Island and took long walks via Bedford-Stuyvesant where black kids threw rocks at me. In a moment of courage born of a summer’s depression about the collapse of a budding romance with a dressmaker named Goldberg who lived with her puerto rican grandmother, I met a woman at the chinese-owned laundromat and took up the guts to ask her out in manner so smooth that even impressed this spawn of the streets of Brooklyn with her smoky voice, knowing eyes, little dreadlocks, and always-ready-for-trouble attitude, she invited me out for a picnic with her friends that same day, and then with self-satisfied pride “broke my virginity” that same night in an otherwise awkward encounter with a rank amateur. The next week she kicked me out of her bed and on Labor Day when I joined her and friends for the West Indian Parade she signaled that I should come by later, and I of course did not understand the signal, and did not come by and was scolded for this. We drifted apart when I joined the rowing team and my senior year began and she took up with more sophisticated men. It was home, and it doesn’t take long to become a New Yorker, so long as you absorb the attitude and lifestyle, take the subways, and generally dive into life, and you’re a New Yorker. And one night, inspired I supposed by a guy who worked at the Italian restaurant where I worked as a delivery boy on 1st Avenue near the church who, insulted for some esoteric reason by a local business owner, threw a bottle through his window, or something like that, I was awakened by a car alarm going off incessantly and I hated those stupid things, and so annoyed by my lack of sleep I wandered out the broken door and walked up and down the block to find the offensive vehicle. Two men in a car rolled down their window, and in my hearing said “take care of it.” So I walked down the street and threw a bottle at the car’s window, which fortunately did not break the window, because the two guys were almost instantly upon me, grabbed me from behind in an embrace of uncertain intention. “What the fuck are you doing?” “I thought you said ‘take care of it’” I answered. He said that he said “We’ll take care of it”. He said “You’re from around here right?” And, fearful that the wrong answer would lead to a more severe New York style ‘warning’ I wisely said “yeah.” His understanding of “from around here” probably entailed being born and raised somewhere in the hinterlands of Brooklyn with a concrete jungle high school and a bodega diet. But, opportunistically, I passed as a local.

The point here being that in many ways I had become a New Yorker, but I was not “from” Brooklyn and only made that identity claim to save my skin. Perhaps it was in that moment of deception in the face of a possible beating that I truly became a Brooklynite! I regard those years with a great deal of warm feelings, for a little while a very white kid from suburban twin cities actually gave himself over recklessly to life, growing in the process into a new person, as a young man should. As I would do repeatedly in life, lacking a clear direction, I retreated from that foray into adult life and tiptoed back into late adolescence, always optimistic that I would have the strength to mobilize endless assaults on adulthood, and realized with a disconsolate shock at age 35 that it was too late for another sortie, I was stuck in late adolescence forever.

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling
over opinions. (Romans 14:1)

Google fed me a story about my fellow UW graduate Jess Krug in London’s Guardian newspaper last weekend before her story hit the American press. I think I had just tried to look up her book in the course of researching lecture for my pre-colonial Africa course which I’m in the midst of putting online. Jess joined the august African history program at UW-Madison just around the time I was finishing up. I vaguely remember some brief interactions with a young white woman of a certain strong-willed type not unlike myself on a good day. A year or two ago I attended one of her panels at an American Historical Association conference, where she dominated the panel about her high-concept research, answering questions in a manner that said she’d thought far more deeply about this than you had, and to the extent that I followed her, it was impressive. She was asking questions about the entire discursive concepts of race and periodization and geography, and marking herself as a scholar to be reckoned with. That’s what you do as a young scholar, either that or you sheepishly present your conventional research questions in a manner that is entirely forgettable. Ada Ferrer was in the audience. She had been a young professor at NYU when I was there, and I had a class and an independent study with her. I did okay in the independent study, but was less than impressive in class, where I believe I might have fallen asleep on at least one occasion, but believe I should be forgiven for that because I was just falling ill of the flu one week, and on the next week was a little high on cough syrup, which if I didn’t take I would disrupt the class with dry hacking, so she should have been thankful. Nonetheless, I suspect, without good evidence, that she wrote a pretty negative letter of recommendation for my grad school applications and it is only fortunate that Tom Spear, the chair of the UW program, in his good-natured faith that enthusiasm was all that was really necessary for success allowed me in the program. I wanted to say hello to Prof. Ferrer, and at least make the point that I had written and book and was making it, but she walked out before the end of the panel, my impression being that she was just there to see Jess, and wasn’t to be bothered with the rest of the panel.

Jess, by that time, had taken on a more goth look, having dyed her red hair black, accented by black lipstick and thick mascara. A look not at all inappropriate to her personality. I greeted her, and she greeted me by name and otherwise blew me off. But that is not an unusual occurrence for me at academic conferences where tall bland white guys like me are a dime a dozen. I tracked down some other UW acquaintances at their panels and was learning quite a bit, nice to see those other eternal adolescents had likewise sallied forth into teaching and publishing their books. It is a profession, I’ve come to realize, filled with eternal adolescents, still eager to please, many still attuned to open-ended creativity that this kind of peter pan existence allows and others wielding ever more dangerously a kind of categorical thinking typical of know-it-all teenagers who happen to be smarter than their teachers. I chatted with Jess’ amiable UW advisor at a reception that evening, and told him that she was quite impressive if a little domineering. “Yeah” he said, “she’s always like that. I’ve washed my hands of her.” I was a little taken aback by this funny turn of the conversation. He just said he had taught her everything he could, which is considerable, and she was off in her own directions. I found the whole thing funny, and not unusual, young scholars are like this, upturning a field is really part of the job description and it takes a little bit of mojo to do it well, and Jess was well on her way.

So it was surprising to read her Medium post on how she had been passing as something-other-than-white for years, but the gonzo nature of her act made some sense given her gutsy intransigent character. It was hard to believe that anyone would take for anything but white, but at least one post-outing commentator said that she understood her to be basically white but perhaps getting in touch with a distant branch of latina identity somewhere in her family tree. I could see that. Apparently the act when far beyond that, and she had become a Bronx barrio chick Jess La Bombalera. It is, I suppose comical when such adolescent acts spin out of control, but what is striking is the merciless quality of her confession and the merciless response. Merciless marks our cultural age, I’m not quite sure what drives it, other than that it is the discursive antagonist to this generation’s performative empathy. But compassion has no place here. As Jess says herself, she believes in cancel culture as a means of power for the powerless, and I would add those who feel themselves to be.

I read her post over a week ago now, and have not re-read it, nor much of the commentary, and I firmly believe that compassion is something other than intersectional alliance, something other than an act of loyalty. Compassion is an act of the spirit. And I know the weakness of my own spirit, and the limits of my compassion as men stand on street corners with cardboard signs or ask drunkenly for bus fare. In a pandemic, families face destitution. For what little I do I should perhaps also be cancelled. Like bad TV shows we imagine that if we just cancel all the bad ones we’ll be left with a good night’s entertainment. What exactly is the nature of the power of cancel culture?

I’d like to explore that, but if I start doing so now, I’ll just get lost in this essay for a week. What is clear is that whatever Jess’ path was to La Bombalera it was not in bad faith precisely. It was not an evil scheme to take advantage of affirmative action privileges or grab a reparations payment for sufferings to which she has no claim. It is something more esoteric, something more schizophrenic, and the merciless response of so many online voices speaks less to what Jess did or did or did not do.

Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Romans 14:4)

Some critique her prose, as if her sin was bad writing and not deception, some take her writing to be good and say she is angling for a book deal on her experience…These are the responses of aspiring writers who seek to ride their influencer status to a book or a regular gig at a paying publication. Others assume that Jess was claiming minority status in order to get jobs and fellowships. These are other scholars who compete for fellowships, and whether they compete for restricted or open opportunities, the idea of unfair advantage hits at something that is a major focus for them. Others suspect that she has anonymously judged others as a peer reviewer for publications or fellowships. At her level, I doubt she has had a deciding voice on very many publications yet, and there is no reason why her public identity should have shaped her anonymous judgment of others’ scholarship, and I doubt her identity had much impact on the decisions of peer reviewers on her own work. Such critiques tell us more about the critics than the critiqued.

A psychologist, perhaps a little critical race theory might help here. But ultimately we just have a case that is not unusual among scholars. An audacious dive into a reinterpretation of a scholarly field entails a type of mind meld with your subject as it comes to occupy your thinking day and night. Scholars must become part of communities, not only scholarly communities, but cultural communities, where the memories of their subject matter remain alive among people for whom some conception of the events form an essential part of their own identity. We can think critically, broadly, of what it means when scholars study topics outside their own cultural context, but to simply say that they should not do so is philosophically untenable, and would create another far more fundamental critique of why certain topics become ignored in scholarship. African history remains an under-researched field, not an over-researched one. There is a need for more African scholars in this field not less, but I would seriously doubt that anything that Jess did prevented any African scholar, or even any African American scholar, from speaking or publishing on African history. In fact, from what little I saw of her, she in fact aimed to bring African scholars to the table, and her wild efforts to identify with African American or Latina scholars strike me as an effort, perhaps misguided, to support these scholars and these activists.

I’m seeking to express compassion, not any particular alliance with Jess’ efforts, but I doubt I would disagree with most of her goals, even if I think that her deception of herself and others was also hurtful to herself and others. My compassion for her stems from my sense that what led her down this path was an internal quest residing below the level of her consciousness. She must have been aware at some point, at a conscious level, of the deception, but her drift into it stemmed from no particular decision. She found some anchor in the possibility of Algerian heritage that became the rationalization for the continued drift which was then fueled by an increasing ideological identification with causes important to the African diaspora. To speak in in this community she somehow felt she had to be a member of the community and generated an identity to accomplish that. Her goal was not to take away from the community but to add to it.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. (Romans 14:7)

Something else arises in the complex debate about who can speak for what issue, and the way that identity permits or forbids people to speak on different issues. It is reasonable to insist that on certain close-to-the-heart issues members of an affected community have a particular credibility to which others concerned should be attentive, and that there are certain insights into life and social structure that can really only be known by those who have experienced the impact of the social structure on a daily basis. And as much as it is true that most societies on earth are quite profoundly structured by racial ideologies, such questions of experience are not essentially racial but sociological. Race, after all, is a social construct.

And it is here that the outrage around Jess Krug or Rachel Dalzel strikes at its own foundation. The outrage arises because it is an outrage geared towards the policing of racial identities. Such policing is largely the province of structurally racist societies (and often their police in a literal sense), but precisely because of that structure and the need to speak back to it, those whose racial identities are thus policed insist on being heard and find offense when those whose racial identities are granted favor in such a structure.

But if race is a social construct, as is gender, then why should a Jess Krug or Rachel Dalzel not claim a trans-racial identity and a sense of racial disphoria in the manner of transsexualism? I suppose one can argue that sexual disphoria is a genetic condition that generates an inner need for recognition in society while race is a social construct that imposes a particular recognition in society. But there seems, on the surface, to be something more unfair about a “trans-female” athlete competing against “born-female” athletes than for a “passing-as-black” scholar to compete with a black scholar for research funds. The bigger danger arises in the need for very specific and accurate witness to be communicated about the violence and unfairness of the racialized social structure, and to have those who have not experienced these injustices in their entire upbringing to speak on these issues raises the possibility of confusing the waters, and pressing for the wrong solutions.

But if that is the case then we are confronted with a much more complex question of who should speak and who can be adjudged to have the right experience to authentically address these questions. It raises the possibility that the types of radical solutions and esoteric analysis offered by the scholarly crowd of all races may not speak authentically to the issues at stake. Does someone like Barack Obama speak authentically in this context? He is in no manner African American except by fact of birth as a baby of recognizably African descent in America, and perhaps by the imprint left by a few experiences of everyday racism of the type that structure the society, and perhaps the complex formation of identity that he went through in the quest to figure out what his identity should be, given the way he appears in American society. But he was raised entirely in a white family and in white communities, with the exception of a period of expatriate life in Indonesia with his mother, which remains an essentially “white” experience given the way such expatriate lives are structured. At what point does Barack Obama become a credible voice for African American experience?

We have a lot of books that were given to us when our daughter was born, I don’t know where most of them come from. We were given this one, about a little black girl, it would appear, and the message is something akin to Mr. Rogers’ assurance that “I like you just the way you are.” But it also struck me that, for a million complicated reasons, it was unlikely that a black author would have represented this message through this representation of a little black girl. And indeed both the author and illustrator are white. What exactly are they guilty of here? I do not doubt their good intentions, although I’m suspect about that general message to children that they must “like themselves” as if that were the highest virtue in life. But, yes, you can’t go through life hating yourself. But do we need white writers telling us this is a quiet masquerade? But if they didn’t, would we then complain of the lack of black faces in children’s books? I distrust this book, for reasons allied with the reasons that Jess Krug’s masquerade generated such outrage. But I start with compassion for someone who started out with good intentions.

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Do such authors pass as other than white?


Bend the Knee

Get behind me Satan!

Were it not for its direct Biblical origin this line would otherwise belong somewhere deep in the American songbook, somewhere amidst gospel, the blues, and the deepest Appalachian coal country terrors. Jesus’ cruelty here to his most dedicated of followers, his exclamation point, and categorical confrontation with his own temptation. For that is what Peter presented to him, the same temptation that the devil himself offered him high upon the mountain, of kingdoms beneath his feet and people like Peter as his executors. We give ourselves so wholeheartedly to alpha males. We allow them to be our godfathers. The classical patriarch the ancient world, the one who conquers to sate himself and his followers choose to do his bidding for the same reason, in a cruel hierarchy of wine, women, and song. Jesus might here have grown fat and old and sexually spent, ruling from Herod’s palace. Or, in kinder counterfactual he may have lived and died sword in hand, the sexy swashbuckler with Magdalene at his side. We can only imagine the orders and revolutions of our fairy tales, and they tempt us. And when we rise to power and influence, still they tempt us, our friends facilitate us, society supports us, all in love with power. Mammalian after all we are, creatures of packs and herds and pecking orders.

Jesus’ refusal here, the slashing sarcastic rebuke that must have cut very deep, is the foundation of Western Civilization, always honored in the breach in real life, but always honored in the spirit, and by slow grinding cycles of history becomes the only basis for authority. We honor the leader who resists the temptation of power, we honor the leader who is, in the final hour, a servant and a sacrifice. We honor thereby the social order itself, its philosophy and functioning, rather than any one man or tribe or cabal. It is not an easy task, it requires a mental restraint of the type demanded of middle managers, the leader’s charisma blanketed by genuflection, which we then ascribe as decency. The leader can only nip and mock sting his closest followers, while bowing to the social order. It is at this moment that Jesus demonstrates most clearly that he is both the alpha and the omega, not just of human history, but his own social order.

The pastor this morning pointed out that the Hebrew root whence we get the name Satan meant adversary or obstruction. That may be, but it would lose too much in such a translation. Never one to mince words, Jesus meant exactly what he said here. Peter was not an adversary or obstruction, he was speaking as the devil himself, the devil who tempted Jesus on the mountain top, and tempted him to prostrate himself, to kneel before him. And Jesus rebuked him, not by proclaiming his own dominion, not by humiliating Satan and forcing him to bend the knee, but only by saying that he worships another lord, serves another father.

Today there is an odd swirling of signification surrounding the phrase “to bend the knee.” The very act of genuflection, the act that enacted the idea planted by Jesus of the servant king, the idea fulfilled in the ritual of the knight taking a knee before another lord, another leader, a bishop or a pope, who places a sword upon his shoulder. Every man is another’s servant, and even if honored in the breach by warlords full of violence and gluttony, it is this we remember as the sign of honor that survived from that cruel social order, the sign that continues to anchor political systems today. The prime minister no longer kneels before the queen, but he might as well do so, before her he kneels before the people whom she now represents as an artifact of other orders. Presidential candidates saying they are honored and humbled to serve us. We take the humility to be entirely rhetorical, it seems silly to be raised as the people’s hopes and dreams and yet insist on feeling humbled, but we take it. We take it as a sign, that at least in theory, they will one day carry their cross, not merely humbled, but humiliated. And indeed, with the press and social media, we can humiliate, dig up every misstatement and sin, and humbled they will be. “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” It is as it should be. It is a sign of faith, that the leader’s service lies in the hands of yet a higher authority. It may be God, but it is in this relation that Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. The son as servant, the Man, in this phrasing, is all of mankind. In him humility and humiliation are made one, the alpha and the omega.

It is a phrase that appears in many an old hymn. Its origin is in the book of Isaiah, quoted by the apostle Paul on more than one occasion, establishing Jesus, the humiliated and crucified, the failure Jesus, as the lord before whom we bow and take a knee. And now, apparently in reference to the pagan paean blockbuster Game of Thrones, politicians speak of “bending the knee” as a slightly cleaner version of what homophobic teens once imagined as the humiliation of bending over in an anal rape. So the secretary of state now quotes this suddenly pagan sign that “If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of Chinese Communist Party.” No longer a sign of honor, but a sign of mere humiliation, where humility is mere capitulation in a warlord order.

What the United States chooses to do in its China policy is erased in this pagan reference. The Gospel has disappeared. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is forgotten. It is now a fight to the death, with dragons if possible. And those who bend the knee in honor of their own society are condemned, and it is fitting that they should be the ones who are humiliated like Christ, and to whom we can only choose to bow before. We take a knee before those who seek to serve the society, to those who bend the knee in honor of the innocents who have been sacrificed.

The pastor this morning pointed out that when we talk of following today, we talk of a passive act, following celebrities on social media, following news events, and TV shows, we follow for our own entertainment, and we thereby follow blindly. We can hardly imagine the type of followers Jesus asks his disciples to be, not blind followers, but followers who choose a path of self denial, who choose to lose what the world has to offer in order to choose life for all. To bend the knee, Colin Kaepernick style, is such an act, and it turns the paranoid politician’s fear of humiliation into an act of self-abnegaton to a greater service. To bend the knee is the act of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

Who sinned? This man, or his parents?

Sin and Complicity

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

I went a protest this week (now some weeks ago, as I finally post this) with the baby. A small group of people, most of them the regulars who come out day after day, protest after protest, hope against hope, to seek and to demand attention to their voices, voices not merely drowned out, but excluded from those rooms that were once smoke filled but which are now merely money filled, not in the sense of glad-handing cigar-chomping bribes, but just the assumption that what makes money is thereby an ethical good, and therefore the rooms in which they gather are thereby defined as gatherings of the good, while on the street corner the small group of protesters are thereby defined as those who hate America, the America of the good, America the greedy, and in this dichotomy the protesters, in hopefulness, stand and shout out to passing cars “honk if you want justice for George Floyd.”

And many honked. Many more honk than they ever did for other protests on that same corner. They are the so-called “liberal” “left” “progressive” protesters, those who the local talk radio hosts non-chalantly believe to be dedicated to destroying America. It is, obviously, exhausting to live in a society where claims to truth are so cynically politicized. It is no longer a question merely that people see the world differently, and therefore disagree, that people balance complex ethical questions differently, and therefore disagree, that people have different class interests, and therefore see the world differently, although this final one comes closest to the situation. Truth has become a question of loyalty rather than judgment, of commanding obedience rather than discernment. The ostensible right, as practiced on talk radio and in the Republican party, are far gone in this regard, but I will also allow that those justice-seeking left liberal progressive protesters are also drawn into games of mere loyalty via adolescent habits that find their home in college campuses, and now on social media.

The people passing by, in cars and pick ups and motorcycles, the people who honked, however, did so not to claim the rewards of loyalty, not because of the quest to conform, but simply out of the good-natured discernment of their hearts: that these protesters whatever they were saying or doing, whatever was written on their signs, were speaking for very basic expectations of citizenship, for speaking against nothing more complicated than the unending habits that make police officers escalate innocuous interactions with specifically those citizens who our shared history has established as “black” amidst all sorts of cruel reasons within which people repeatedly reiterate “and still I rise.” People honked. In a discerning, independent-thinking, non-ideological way, people honked because George Floyd was murdered, and it was not just a one time thing, just a couple weeks later Rayshard Brooks was murdered. In both cases, there was just no reason the interaction needed to escalate as it did. Regardless of any debates about whether or not either one of these guys had done this or that wrong in the past, or whether they did or did not resist or whether the officers feared for their safety, regardless of all that. Were it not for this thing we call race it is hard to imagine either one of those situations escalating into a decision to kill. Race and racism are not yes or no questions, they are not on or off switches, they are shaping forces that establish enemies and thereby turn minor incidents into confrontations, that turn everyday disputes into fights to the death.

So people honked, happy to see that a small group of people is trying to find a way out of this. We won’t succeed, of course. Not in the instrumental way that we imagine. Our racism and our racial identities live below the level of policies and politics. They shape everything we do, good and bad things, they shape them, they shape decisions, they shape actions, they shape art. Race and what it may or may not mean lives on the first floors of our consciousness…maybe even the basement floors, attached to the foundations. Race can shake the whole building, but the building cannot shake race, unless it collapses altogether. And racism sits just above race, it lurks in the stairwells and elevator shafts, in the hallways and doors. There are a lot of people living in the building, of all races, and even though we point out, and perhaps resent, and see the injustice of who gets to live in which room on which floor, it is simply not possible, unless by act of callous terror, to destroy the building simply to rid it of race and racism, and it is not at all certain that a new building built on the same site would not also be built with the same materials, even if designed a little differently. Race is here to stay, and by race I mean the idea that cultural and even biological difference must needs also delineate loyalty and therefore establish lines of enmity. And for all these reasons people honked, and thereby breached the lines of enmity.

And when people yelled “Hands up, don’t shoot!” the baby yelled “Apple juice”. That is what happens when we bring our context to bear on the words of others. Among adults this sort of misunderstanding tends to result in outrage, because “we want to be understood and it’s YOUR fault if you don’t get it!” But we give a pass to the baby. There is no reason, as far as she’s concerned, why people should not chant, even angrily, for apple juice. APPLE JUICE!

And of course race does not really exist for her yet. It has not been infused with meaning. She looks at a picture in a sign language book of a black man with his daughter on a bike. She exclaims “bike!” “daddy!” She looks at a book about white parents and their toddler and a lost fluffy toy bunny, and she exclaims “doggie!” and “mommy!” And I am thankful for the efforts to make children’s books and shows diverse, because one day she will become aware of race and wonder, silently, why certain patterns emerge in all that she sees. She is increasingly aware of patterns and the silent way they communicate the real truths about the world.

As with everything we touch and feel and see and hear, race will soon be infused with meaning, and the meaning will derive from the cultural setting in which she lives. It is, as Isabel Wilkerson wrote recently, a caste system. She will absorb and become complicit in America’s so-called original sin of slavery, and the lingering politics of caste derived from it. She is neither white nor black, she is both white and black, and not primarily because she has a white and a black parent, but because she still yells “Apple Juice” rather than “Don’t Shoot!” She will, I suppose have to resign herself to being black, and celebrate it, for it is certainly a matter of celebration that she can claim inheritance of all that is resilient black America, even though technically she has little share in it as the child of a white American and an African who only becomes black in a global culture in which that has meaning, and an African culture which bears some shallow traces of that aspect of global culture that we call European colonialism that had a shaping influence on the nation her mother calls home. But it is also a resignation, in the sense that all racial identities are resignations to societal impositions. They are signs that we are ineffably products of our societies that our identity is always dependent on society, even if we construct an identity in opposition to society. Despite our individualistic fantasies we are creatures of social process and not separable from society, we are rather the material of society itself, that Leviathan, which lives in some hive-like nature beyond the reach of our cognition. We see it only vaguely, we shape it only peripherally.

But apart from the pass we give to babies, and the bromides that children don’t see race, the rest of us stand in complicity to this caste system. Many may protest that perhaps I am complicit but they are not, and that is precisely the problem with the concept of complicity. Complicity implies a certain sort of sin of omission. Those who are silent in the face of state atrocity, atrocities done in their name. Those who eat berries picked by undocumented immigrants, while voting for those who proclaim them illegal. Those who smoke a little marijuana while the state proclaims it illegal and the search for those who deal in it (as opposed to those who actually buy and consume it) becomes the most basic technique by which the well-known patterns of prejudicial policing come into play.

Our sense of complicity, and our reaction to the accusation of it, imply that we can cleanse ourselves of it, that we can somehow be woke enough to escape it, and thereby become pure. We protest most loudly among those who agree with us, not to change our society and all of its complicit patterns, but to shed ourselves, or maybe simply mask ourselves, and our inescapable complicity. We launch the accusation, as a means of distraction. We imagine that there is some pure state of non-complicity.

And this, I will propose, is not only dishonest, but dangerous. It is the powerful act of all cults and fundamentalists, to divide the world into the pure and the impure. To preemptively define who is impure and allow them no means to purity except by way of the salvation they offer. It is a means of group-building that has its battlefield uses I suppose, when in the face of danger the group needs loyalty and needs to face the fire locked arm in arm. But it is also the habit of tyrants, because by means of defining the pure and impure, they gain the power to purge. The sins of the complicit need only signal their wider guilt, even a sin of omission stands as a mark of their impurity, and their disutility. They can no longer stand in polite company.

Among the chants at the protest, all of which are complex statements, when we “say their name”, when we insist in the face of so much evidence to the contrary that “black lives matter”, when we perform the act of “hands up don’t shoot” that is tragic because of the violation of social norm that it emphatically implies, and likewise when we say “I can’t breathe,” we don’t merely quote the dying words of more than one black man dying in the midst of a battle that by that point is not really about the trivial crime or even the slippery concept of resisting arrest, but it about a fearful fight to the death that has been initiated by someone, typically a white someone in a uniform, who has to perform an act of domination, who has to demand absolute obedience, whose act already presumes the complicity of the victim in the subtle patterns by which impurity is expressed, in this case that whatever dumb thing they were doing, selling cigarettes, passing funny money for a trifle, is a sign of a wider world of disobedience that the uniformed someone is there to enforce. The caste system is under threat. But then there was a coded chant, “A-C-A-B” I did not know what it meant, it was the language of insiders, and in my ignorance of it I marked myself as an outsider, as one thereby impure and complicit, next to these pure protesters. Perhaps that alphabetic code was one the baby could proclaim…and perhaps one day she will, although I pray that she won’t. “All Cops are Bastards.”… I was told…this is because by some logic anyone who joins a police force at this point knowingly enters into a racist oppressive institution, and is thereby complicit. Perhaps that was true of joining the Gestapo, but we know that it is not so simple in the United States today.

The identification of complicity is at the heart not only of efforts to illuminate the complex and hidden means by which racial caste systems are realized, but the presumption of complicity is also the means by which those systems themselves are realized, not merely in the silent complicity of those who are not targeted, but also in the implication of complicity of those who are. Thus George Floyd becomes, in the eyes of police complicit in some vast landscape of criminality that begins with the someone who buys a bit of marijuana, and through the magic of commodity fetishism the illegality of that act falls upon some kid on the street who is the sign of that entire underground economy and the caste system can the thereby be enforced upon that kid regardless of whether he is specifically involved because he is, after all, complicit in his clothing, in his tastes, in his loves, in his mentors, in his protectors, in his color that signifies all of these, in the pattern of intimidation and murder that constitute the judicial system for underground economies.

What the concept of complicity primarily lacks is mercy. The accusation of complicity often lacks self-critique, but the concept of complicity is all about self-critique, it is, in the end, about discipline in that postmodern Foucauldian sense. But more importantly it lacks a concept of mercy precisely because it is a system of power, as Foucault would have it. It lacks mercy because its intent is precisely to be unmerciful. It is in the power to condemn that it becomes effective, and can then allow for unlimited escalation.

The concept of original sin is widely panned because many, quite reasonably, resist the idea that someone else can presume me a sinner, that someone else can call me complicit. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” Patti Smith memorably said in the opening line of her public life.

Yet, original sin is a theology of complicity, and in its claim to universality a theology of mercy, in its attachment to a human sacrifice, an execution, a death penalty in which the entire society is complicit, and the proposal that in that death lies some sort of miraculous salvation from precisely one’s complicity in the unjust execution itself, we find an inescapable presumption of mercy as the underlying magic of life on earth. It is telling that those who turn the story of that sacrifice into a story of complicity, that someone did wrong in order to accomplish that act: that Pilate or Peter or the Pharisees are complicit. Certainly they all are. They are all guilty and that is illustration of Original Sin. But it is telling that those who turn that story into one of complicity thereby find in it a justification for anti-semitism, that grand accusational narrative of complicity that justifies genocide, it is telling that they turn that story that emphatically calls us to realize our own sin into one that allows one to deny his sin while casting it upon others, it is telling that such an act is a violent one.

Original sin is a theology of complicity, and it guides us to the only exit from complicity, which must be in mercy.

Like a Whisper

Friday (afternoon) is my (personal) writing day. We’ll see how long this lasts. I do need—psychologically, politically, analytically, ideologically— to write a memoir, and need to someday start. But I really don’t feel like dwelling on myself today…even though I know that all writing is essentially self-dwelling…it is also communication (if anyone reads or hears, and I have no good case to make for why someone should). It is an indulgent activity when I should better be doing my work of analyzing the work of Julius Nyerere who actually did try to institute a peaceful revolution, not being unafraid of violence, but fully cognizant of its costs. This is not even an eloquent essay, but the songs are eloquent.

So today I think I’ll write on Revolution, which will provide a good rejoinder to the last post. I’ve been thinking about Lauryn Hill’s “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel)” as sung on her MTV Unplugged album and wish I could find a video of the performance. A bare, unpretentious, even pedestrian lyric that floats gently into transcendence, thereby accomplishing what every great song accomplishes. Conversational prose merges imperceptibly into poetry, not merely in rhyme but in transcendent resonance with some spirit circulating at the level of myth, where meaning is born. Jerusalem is Jerusalem is Jerusalem.

Tracy Chapman did the same on her unequaled first album. I can’t think of anyone who put out something quite so peerless as that heartbreaking album… as her first try. Not Sinead O’Connor, not Suzanne Vega, maybe the BoDeans Love&Hope&Sex&Dreams is similar in its consistency but is not half as ambitious. This is not the place for a debate about best first albums, but hers must rank very close to the top. And I’m sure whoever might be deemed to outrank her cannot approach her compassionate moral wisdom. Maybe only Mountains O’ Things falls a little flat, but you can hardly argue with the wisdom, or its relevance to Across the Lines, (written long after the 1960s and an epoch before Rodney King) “who would dare to go, under the bridge, over the tracks that separate whites from black. Choose sides. Run for your lives. Tonight the riots begin.”…and “all that you have is your soul.

This week Chapman’s song on Revolution resides next to Lauryn Hill’s call to arms. Both finally get stuck on one word. Chapman sings “Don’t you know you better run, run, run, run, run….” Hill sings “So what I have to say, so what I have to say is rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel” Chapman does not specify whether it is a running away or running towards, and Hill does not specify the nature of the rebellion. These are calls to action, and they leave the nature of the action to the hearer. And we do not criticize poets for lacking detail in their policy formulations. They call our souls into action, filled with love and hate and outrage. It is up to us to conjure the policy, while they conjure the courage.

They conjure the courage. We live in the world with them. We have to tell our stories and thereby communicate. And we do the world a favor when we are honest…thus my reluctance to begin writing a memoir. Courtney Love asked quite honestly, I believe, “what do you do with a revolution?” when you went to school in Olympia and everyone’s the same, we talk the same, we are the same, we even fuck the same. Such is life in most human communities. We are creatures of each other’s habits. We are creatures of each other’s stories.

And we devolve into the miasma of pop culture, revolution fades from call to arms to pose. But when we live in each other’s stories how can we be anything but poseurs? Meaning, the postmodernists tell us, happens in the interaction, in the call and response, not in the enunciation. We cannot have meaning without responding to another, and without a hearer responding to us. Words take on meaning in their use and get lost in disuse. When we call for revolution because we cannot pay off college loans, we run up against the poseur’s revolution, and then all the other revolutionaries mock us for being lame, for being naive, for being insufficient, for being innocent of crueler realities. We dilute and kill the revolution, we might as well go home…come back when you are ready to die. The revolution will not be televised. But how will we even know what a revolution looks like if we don’t see it on TV? What’s going on?

The revolution will not be televised. We only know what it WON’T look like, we have not idea what it WILL look like. And yet, again the post-modernists tell us that we only know what a word means by knowing what it does not mean. Meaning, they tell us, is generated through differentiation. The revolution, at its core, is the attempt to make all things different. There are two fundamental issues every revolution must address: the first is the power to accomplish it. And power corrupts. The second is what to make new when it is accomplished. A revolution must also be a revelation.

He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’

The first issue dictates that the cost is going to be high. And we must be ready to bear the moral responsibility for that cost. Normally it is only sociopaths who proclaim themselves ready to bear moral responsibility for such events. A bourgeois child such as I can only sympathize with the Beatles’ counter-revolutionary compassion for those who actually live in the status quo. They and their cohort allowed a path to something other than a revolution, but something important nonetheless. They led the way towards something like a revolution and only sociopaths and the small-minded would deny this. Nonetheless they also thereby paved a path back to pre-revolutionary complacency. And so, here we are today, inequalities, police brutalities, and robotic atrocities a half century after the revolution that never happened. Did it happen because we loved each other too much or because we lacked the raw power, or the stomach, to institute it?

Suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.

The revolution will not be televised because it’s going to be fucking bloody. Cameramen will not be led away in cuffs, or tear gassed out of the way. They will be shot. By one side or the other. They will be shot. Revolution is war. Revolution is taking from them who have, and then deciding for ourselves, if victors, who to give it to.

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves….Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death….Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.

It was not only the Roman occupiers who would put down the revolution, it was the revolutionary society itself. Because all revolution finally meet that second challenge. Even if, by some combination of fearlessness among revolutionaries, terror towards all counter-revolutionaries, and compassion for those caught in the middle, a revolution can succeed. Who decides what to build? The revolutionaries can only be children of the society that gave birth to them, the one they just overthrew. They can only bring with them some pieces of what they already had. They can only proclaim in words those things that were already proclaimed before they departed for the battlefield.

So we are left with the depressing and unrevolutionary need to define policy and find a way to retain the power to implement those policies among a populace who were already in such a state of disagreement as to kill each other in the streets. It is a high cost for free college tuition. Something much greater must be accomplished at that cost. We need to decide upon what is to be accomplished before the journey to the battlefield. And that means we must imagine it, imagine the policy, imagine its implementation, imagine the societal governmental organization that can accomplish it. Imagine the culture that can sustain it.

Revolution has to take place at the level of culture first in order that the revolution’s accomplishments might be instituted. And if the revolution takes place at the level of culture, is the war of domination any longer necessary? Has not the battle been won?

For James Brown it was a Revolution of the Mind that had to begin all things. Soul Power, some panracial Black Power or some Afro-Americanized satyagraha. Get Up, Get Into It, and Get Involved, and this meant only two reformist tools were necessary: Education and the Constitution. Nothing but a poseur. But in posing as a Huey Newton being released from prison he reiterated something about the Black Panthers into a new context, not merely a revolutionary context but a cultural one. Like the Beatles he defused the revolution in an attempt to occupy minds rather than lands. Domination of the spirit rather than the streets.

So, that means it is art, writing, marching, ways of politics, Facebook debates, and some attempt to wrest Twitter away from a vulgar president. The culture is so firmly formed by the vulgarity of our popular culture that it is difficult to rise above it. Yet the best artists do this all the time, and even transform vulgarity into virtue and thereby transcend.

Rioting in our Temples

Preface to a Memoir

This is an essay intended to be about the social circumstances surrounding the murder of George Floyd, but it exists amidst my long-standing intention to write a memoir entitled “The Third Servant” which is a reference to the Biblical story known as “The Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). Exegesis about that story will follow in the memoir. After two months of babysitting, the baby is in daycare again. I thought I would write a bit each day, but now I’ve decided to set aside Fridays for the task, and hope to begin soon. It is an entirely selfish and self-centered task that seeks to solve no one’s problems but mine. It is a therapeutic task. It is a diagnostic task, seeking the source of both infections and strengths. Its goal is to establish a stable reference point from which a map can be oriented to guide my path as father and elder. I now remain with less than half my time on this life’s journey, and cannot even calculate how far I am from the intended destination that I have now accepted that I will never reach.

For now, suffice to say, I write as the person (the speaking subject) who is to be documented in that memoir, and I write about circumstances that I cannot fully grasp as the person who is author of that unwritten memoir. That person cannot grasp the experience of ongoing witness to the pattern of repeated and regular murder of African Americans in particular at the hands of police. These killer cops are, without out doubt, “bad apples” who do this, but when the bad apples come so regularly and consistently, then there is a bad branch, and it causes us to ask whether we need to cut down the whole tree.

[Jesus said] “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13: 6-9)

The gardener asks for one more year. How many more years do we give to this tree that produces so many bad apples?

A society is not a machine of so many component parts. A bad apple is not a bad transistor or spark plug that can be easily replaced. A bad apple is the product of the tree itself, not some factory in Mexico or Malaysia or Michigan. The tree is a living thing whose produce results from its own life processes: its consumption of water and nutrients, its absorption of sunlight, its cultivation by external forces (namely people) whose habits it cannot control. And the tree itself is simply an evolutionary product of competing organisms that have come into certain forms and organizational patterns as a result of their own life processes, and their habits are not always helpful to the tree. Pruning by that gardener, that external agent, that is to say the cutting away of bad branches, redundant branches, and bad fruit often helps the tree grow stronger and survive longer. Yet, it bears fruit for the sake of its own reproduction, and extension of its genetic legacy, and that fruit is appropriated by that external agent, that gardener who eats the fruit and shits out the seeds into a lightless latrine where they rot and die. The tree becomes utterly dependent on the gardener, it has no life without that gardener who wields an axe of life or death.

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:12-21)

How do we wield an axe? How do we wield a curse?

The parable of the gardener who wants to give the tree a second chance, and thereby begs for himself a second chance, has an element of mercy and patience that we usually associate with Jesus. But that is just a parable, a story told by Jesus. The curse of the fig tree is not a parable, but a story about Jesus, a story told in what is normally considered the most reliable of gospels. It is the act of a fickle tyrant, something we would associate with the mad king of a fairy tale.

With nothing more than a withering gaze, Jesus cut down the tree. Had the year passed so quickly?

He told the parable of the merciful gardener sometime after the Transfiguration, as he began his slow journey to Jerusalem, preaching in villages across Israel. He killed the fig tree in a village just outside Jerusalem, and the next day he went to the temple and threw his most famous temper tantrum.

Rembrandt: Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (via Alamy Stock Photo)

Jesus instigates a one-man riot in the courtyard of the most sacred place in Israel. The temple is that tree, and its demise was not to be so faithful. An occupying force of Roman soldiers destroyed the temple a generation later. The historian Flavius Josephus described the atrocity:

As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command. Crowded together around the entrances many were trampled by their friends, many fell among the still hot and smoking ruins of the colonnades and died as miserably as the defeated. As they neared the Sanctuary they pretended not even to hear Caesar’s commands and urged the men in front to throw in more firebrands. The partisans were no longer in a position to help; everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom. (Josephus, The Jewish War , Book 6)

Are we to understand in the parallel between Jesus’ curse of the fig tree and curse of the temple, that Jesus brought this destruction upon his own people?

Jesus is most human at emotional, impetuous moments like these, as when Mary wiped fragrant oil from his feet with her hair, and the day that Lazarus died. That humanity is essential to the entire Christian theology. Jesus’ dual nature as human and divine brings a miracle into everything he does. The emotional messiness, passion, and violence of human life are made sacred in Jesus’ life on earth. We are forgiven for sins committed in this mess, but not all that we do is sinful, and much of the time we don’t even know. God’s story unfolds over the course of millennia. God’s story, as told in the history of that mammalian species that bears a divine spiritual likeness, is the story of a species, not individuals. The rotten tree must wither and burn, lest its bad seeds infect the whole species.

Yet, we are not Jesus, we are not God. We sinful people, given that power of destruction, given the power to kill with a glance, let alone a knee to the neck or a baton the throat, we sinful people will commit genocide if told to kill the bad seeds. Jesus acts the tyrant only with a dying fig tree, just a fig tree, that was no longer producing fruit. When he entered the temple he did not kill, he only overthrew the tables of money changers, a clear and deliberately symbolic act, linked in his own words to older prophetic voices. It was not him, but the collaborationist king Herod who sent out word to kill all the babies in Bethlehem for fear that the seed of his destruction had been born among them. That is what we sinful people do. But to riot like Jesus for a righteous cause is to take a step towards the divine.

Should we be surprised that our rioters attack and loot the temples of our consumer culture? Jesus did not then stop to gather up all the coins in the skirts of his robes, so we shall not call him a looter. Looting is ugly. Destruction is ugly as well, but few will mourn the loss of commercial real estate. It will be rebuilt as ugly as it was before. Jesus sanctified the temple in his action, and left it to stand as a public place and holy monument. But it did not stand for long.

As humans prone to mistakes and sinful selfishness, we should be reminded here that Jesus’ riot will turn him into a martyr to be tortured and humiliated and never know the impact of his preaching in his lifetime. His followers were humiliated with him and run into hiding. The Zealots, among whom Judas Iscariot (Sikarii the men of the knives) counted himself, ached to launch a revolution against the Romans. And with great righteousness in their cause, they did. And they brought down imperial wrath upon Jerusalem. We cannot blame the Zealots for the destruction of Israel. The Roman oppressors did that. But destruction gives birth to destruction. This is war.

We tear down the system without heed to what will follow. What then is a righteous act? In Jesus, in his initiatory riot, we can trust that attacking a greedy system, at least in his hands, is a holy act. But it meant a millennium of humiliation, of a scattering and loss of a homeland, of sacrificial spectacles…and for what? For the establishment of a church and a Christian society full of war and atrocity?

Did not Christians enslave and commit genocide? Did not Christians annihilate two cities in Japan? Do not Christians put knees and knives to each other’s throats and kill while a grown man begs for mercy?

We cannot trust people. We cannot trust each other. Even in revolution. Do not allow yourself the fantasy that racism will not find a home in the hearts of the Antifa Zealots. What if that mass of moderate black voter impedes their revolution? Do not allow yourself the fantasy that the gun-toting poses of some new Black Panthers do not bear the same infections that also inhabit the bad apples in blue. Allow yourself to inhale the tragic requirement that we must specify that “Black Lives Matter.” Despite the tragedy of what is unspoken in that phrase, it is a hopeful prophecy. It is the other side of a coin that reads on its obverse, “I Can’t Breathe.” Given this reality, we must start with the reassurance that Black Lives Matter. In our particular culture this is to acknowledge that Divine Lives Matter, precisely because black lives came to constitute what Gwendolyn Brooks called “quasi, contraband.”

Racism infects systems to be sure, but that is not where it ultimately resides. It lurks below that level. It lurks in culture itself. Systems at best treat cultural infections. Maybe, just maybe, a good system can cure the infection. But the system is a construct of the culture. A healthy culture might have an opportunity to construct a good system. More often an infected culture constructs and infected system. And then Jesus glares at it, and it withers away and dies. It is thrown into a fire and burnt. And the cattle of conquerors trample its ashes into the dust.

After Jesus rioted in the temple and killed the fig tree, he told his amazed disciples to wield their faith carefully. He tells them that when they pray for the petty things people pray for, they should simply believe that they have received it, and trust that it will come in God’s time. If they pray for the Pharisees and Herodians to be removed from their judgmental thrones, trust that God will give the Romans passage. God never gives the answer you imagined, he gives an answer to your prayer. Jesus told them as they gazed fearfully upon that withered fig tree, the greatest power that fallible people should wield is that of forgiveness, because sometimes we need forgiveness for the very things we prayed for.

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”