Sin and Complicity
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.