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From Ashes

Renewing the world in an age of crisis

Susannah Black
Susannah Black
Susannah Black received her BA from Amherst College and her MA from Boston University. She is an editor at Mere Orthodoxy, Plough Quarterly, Postliberal Thought and its journal New Polity, and The Davenant Press. Previously, she was an editor at Providence and Fare Forward. She's a co-founder of Solidarity Hall and The Simone Weil Center, and is on the boards of the Distributist Review, The Davenant Institute, and The Simone Weil Center. Her writing has appeared in First Things, The Distributist Review, Solidarity Hall, Providence, Amherst Magazine, Front Porch Republic, Ethika Politika, The Human Life Review, The American Conservative, Mere Orthodoxy, Fare Forward, Postliberal Thought, and elsewhere. She blogs at Radio Free Thulcandra and tweets at @suzania. A native Manhattanite, she is now living in Queens.

It’s a strange time to build.

We’ve lived through what seem to be many worlds since February. They come in quick succession, as the layers of the everyday have been, so painfully, peeled back to reveal stranger and more frightening landscapes.

Given that reality, how can we have the heart to begin a project? So many of the thoughtful policy analyses and cultural reflections of January seem hopelessly naïve, aimed at a world so much more stable and tame than the one we live in now.

One of the things that this Breaking Ground project is meant to do is look, carefully, at where we are. Where, then, are we?

Well, in the middle of a pandemic, for one thing. Not top of mind in the last few days, but that fact remains. And it’s taught us some things. We’ve been isolated, physically, these last months, but the world before COVID-19 had allowed us to be isolated in other ways. We had thought that we didn’t need each other, that our choices affected only ourselves.

But the first thing this epidemic did was reveal that as a lie. We are deeply embodied beings. And the first thing we did was respond, for the most part, to the call to socially distance as a way to care for each other with our bodies. Given the reality of a virus that can live in the air between us, we can no longer look at questions of care and responsibility and even nonviolence in quite the same way. Voltaire famously said that “my right to punch you in the nose ends where your nose begins.” But the method of transmission of the COVID-19 virus is a synecdoche for the fact that an individualistic, rights-based discourse that sees our responsibility as ending at the barrier of our own skin is profoundly inadequate.

We can see more clearly than at any other time in recent memory that this is a problem which must have a society-wide response; at the same time, however, what each of us chooses to do from day to day matters vitally. We can see vividly that wisdom in leadership matters, and that wisdom in “followership” matters too. We can see that both local networks of friends and larger political bodies are absolutely vital in helping us survive. And we can see that death is real, that it cannot be dodged, and that this requires a certain reckoning. We’ve been thrust into a mass memento-mori moment.

We had thought that we were, perhaps, immune to the human condition: that death might have a technical fix, that politics might be brought down to a manageable level where neither real conflict nor real love had a place, that history might have drawn to a sort of stultified, if not entirely satisfying, conclusion, that questions about what lies beyond this life and about the mysterious nature of our selves might be . . . well, shelved, in favor of complimentary two-day shipping on our tchotchkes.

That is, very obviously, not the case. The metaphysical questions that we have always asked are very much alive: is there a Good to which just laws, and their just and honorable enforcement, correspond, and against which bad laws and the abuse of authority may be judged? Is there a future for us, as selves, beyond death, and is there a possibility of true fellowship and loyalty in our lives together here, even if only an imperfect echo of something we hope for?

Can we hope for peace?

These questions have, in the past few weeks, been brought even more sharply into focus. I found myself, in the midst of the news about George Floyd’s death and the protests, nostalgic for two weeks ago, when we had seemed to be united against the disease, at least: simpler times. But we are now living after that murder, reminded once again of the fact that for many in our society, the pandemic is not the only thing to fear, and that the just peace which is the common good had been very imperfectly realized even before this latest pandemic. Police should be, are meant to be, the agents of true and harmonious civic order, acting to preserve peace by securing justice. In far, far too many cases, they have failed in this. The civil order that had felt pacified is not one that has been experienced as peaceful by many. Black Americans and others, not least those left behind by a runaway market, have often not experienced this land as safe, or as welcoming, or as theirs. They have not reliably experienced themselves as represented by the government; it has not as effectively as it must borne their image into public; they have too often not been able to say, This is our government.

In a time like this, peace seems simply a hope. At the moment it is easy to feel as though, at root, the world simply is clamor and violence. Perhaps history has only ever been an ongoing, slowly-rolled-out tragedy of incompatible demands clashing by fire and flash grenade at night. Perhaps reality is not, after all, to be trusted.

~

Early on in the virus there was a common refrain invoked almost without thinking—namely, “When life gets back to normal . . .” But now, in view of all that’s happened, what is the normal we will go back to? More lockdown? Unemployment? The fear of each other as carriers of disease? Our elders locked away in nursing homes, neglected, to die alone? This is not, we may think, the part of history we signed up for. And because we tend to have such short memories, it may seem as though there is no hope, no way forward.

That’s why another part of the Breaking Ground project will be a consultation of our cultural memory. Our cities, our societies, have memories of pandemics, of war, of massive disruption. These are the things we read about in the Scriptures, in our history books. We have been, to a large degree, insulated from the reality of how the world is. But now, as we say the daily office or pray the Psalms, we find—I have found—a shock of recognition. Yes, the world the Bible describes is, simply, our world—complete with a natural world that we don’t fully control, with injustice and civil strife; complete, too, with God’s care for us, and his rule, and his audacious, militant challenge to the dominion of death. It’s all real.

These are the times that test what we are and whose we are. Where is our allegiance? For those who claim to know Jesus, has our Christianity been a game, so that when the evils that we said we knew were in the world, and in our society, show themselves plainly, we are caught flat-footed? To say that we have hope, and love for our neighbor and for our enemy, and faith in God’s goodness and power, when we are comfortable, is one thing. To call ourselves Christians in the thick of battle, when the world seems to have had its pretty veneer ripped off—that’s another thing altogether.

That battle is joined, and it is against all the enemies of the human race: against disease and poverty, against the wrong in our society and in our own hearts, the greed that would measure human lives by lost corporate profits, the vicious callousness that would turn an arrest into a murder, the intemperance that would turn a protest, through the alchemy of escalation and retaliation, into a vicious cycle of violence, and perhaps above all, the cowardice and love of comfort that just wants it all to go back to normal, that tells us we shouldn’t have to deal with this, that it’s not fair, that somehow we can opt out of being where and when we are.

But this time is our time. This is our struggle, and we are called to walk though it together. In the face of the pandemic and all its myriad consequences, in the face of George Floyd’s murder and our clashes over what to do and how to respond, we must not abandon each other.

 

In any successful political movement, the crucial element is solidarity. A group bound together in a good struggle that allows itself to be torn apart by factionalism, or by suspicion and resentment, or by ineffective leadership unable to address injustice, will fail. This past Sunday, we Western Christians celebrated Pentecost. “Lord, send out your Spirit,” many prayed, “and renew the face of the earth.” What Pentecost is is the inauguration of God’s political movement here on earth. And the solidarity that we must have is solidarity among all the members of the human family.

That solidarity will be attacked. Every opportunity will be used to destroy the bonds of fellowship between those who ought to know each other as brothers and sisters: human beings, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. What will be most sorely tested are the faith, hope, and love that prevent us from despairing that peace, that wholeness and health, will ever be ours.

It seems like a fanciful thing to ask for. Peace? What is it, even? Is it a cop-out? Is it entitlement to ask for peace or hope for it?

I think that that depends on what you mean.

We have no right to go back to normal, and we have no right to an existence without conflict. We have no right to be just left alone, to not need to ask questions about what justice looks like and where it has gone wrong. In that sense, we have no right to a peace that is pacification, that is an end to the conversation.

What we have instead is a calling, a duty, to fulfil our natures as the political and social animals we are, by learning to live in just and honest friendship with each other. It’s not easy, because it does take realizing, if we’re white, that we don’t know what it is like to be a black person in America. It’s all right that we don’t: no one can inhabit another’s life, and no one should. But again, we have the calling, the duty, to learn to live in friendship with each other: not by erasing difference or denying it, but by seeking the justice, the equity that gives to each man and woman what he or she is due. One of the things that we owe each other is listening ears, and the conversation that, through language, can lead us humans to true communion with each other. We don’t get to opt out of that conversation, because we are part of each other’s political community and each other’s lives; because beyond America, we are families, ethnicities, nations that are given to each other to be part of the community of communities that is this world, called to paint a picture of the peaceable kingdom to come.

That peace is not a cease-fire, and it’s not an uneasy coexistence. It is the rich and just common life that allows each man and woman to find his or her fulfilment in the common and, ultimately, joyful project of a harmonious polity. We need each other for this. We cannot do it without each other. We cannot, finally, be ourselves without each other.

~

As we watched, all too able to believe what we were seeing, as George Floyd’s breath was crushed out of him—as we watch, unable to believe what we’re seeing, as our cities seem to be turned to places we can’t recognize, and as just protest is in danger of being drowned out by the white noise of chaos and confusion—as we dread what retaliation will look like, picturing a cycle of escalation that leaves those cities wastelands—as we crave just and responsible leadership, the first thing we have to do is lament.

The virus attacked our bodies, the bodies of our elders and those weakest among us. The shutdown attacked our spirits and our hope, as savings—if there were any—dwindled, and as we all tried to see into the mystery of the future we had assumed would be more or less like the past. This murder, and what we have seen since the murder, reveal a society profoundly fragile, still riddled with racism and racial division, attacking itself like a body with an autoimmune disease. And I’m writing this on Monday night, when the president has just declared that he is going to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which will allow the military to be deployed against US citizens on US soil. You who read this will know better than I what will happen in the next several days. How can we even talk about the concept of a common good, of shared justice, of peace, when everything that comes across our screens seems to sneer at the idea?

But we are going to do just that.

It’s a strange time to build.

But what we are building is, we think, one of the things needed right now: a media project and community that is an attempt at a wise response to an unprecedented time; a response that both accompanies readers and contributors through this time, and helps us think together about what might come afterward. Because the third major aspect of the Breaking Ground project is to imagine, and work for, a future that is profoundly better than that half-forgotten world of December 2019. This is an opportunity. To build this now is to take responsibility for the moment we are in, and to respond in such a way that, when we look back, we will see blessing, and see that we were able to be a blessing to others.

In 1977, Óscar Romero was appointed archbishop of San Salvador. At the time, El Salvador was a nation in violent upheaval: in response to long-term structural injustices in Salvadoran society, which was sharply divided between rich and poor, left-wing guerilla groups, supported by the Soviet Union and by other Soviet-bloc countries, staged incursions against the right-wing junta in charge, which was supported by the Carter administration in the United States; the government’s death squads, in response, carried out kidnappings and assassinations on a large scale. Romero saw both the leftist groups and the government as his children to shepherd—baptized Catholics, they were, almost all of them, who may or may not have been practicing, whose practice may or may not have been a show of piety. He spoke to all, commanding repentance and forgiveness: a repentance and forgiveness based on acknowledgment of truth. And he was killed for this, by agents of the state police, murdered as he was saying Mass.

A wise and careful pastor, he found that his role was to observe and condemn patterns of injustice and oppression—but to remind his flock, too, of the need for personal holiness, loving obedience, and solidarity at every level. He was scathing in his condemnation of particular crimes by those in the government who ought to have been, whose calling was to be, the agents of God’s just order in the country, but he refused to condone violence in response. He never for a moment lost sight of God’s love for each person in his care, even when those persons could see in each other only the face of an enemy. He never held out forgiveness and reconciliation as easy tasks, but he never ceased to command them—for all. And he reminded his people, always, that this fruitful and honest unity of justice and peace in their country could only be the work of God himself.

“We are simply preaching the kingdom of God,” he wrote, “which means pointing out sin in any human situation, even when the sin is found in political and economic situations. . . . Those who are in sin must . . . renounce all forms of injustice and selfishness and violence.” But he wrote too that “there can be no freedom as long as there is sin in the heart. . . . What’s the use of violence and armed force if the motivation is hatred and the purpose is to buttress those in power or else to overthrow them and then create new tyrannies?” he asked.

What we seek in Christ is true freedom, the freedom that transforms the heart. . . . That doesn’t mean accepting the situation, because Christians also know how to struggle. Indeed, they know that their struggles is more forceful and valiant when it is inspired by this Christ who knew how to do more than turn the other cheek, and let himself be nailed to a cross.

He knew the passion for social change, and saw in those who had it the seeds of a calling from God:

This liberation is incomprehensible without the risen Christ, and it’s what I want for you, dear sisters and brothers, especially those of you who have such great social awareness and refuse to tolerate the injustices in this country. It’s wonderful that God has given you this keen sensibility, and if you have a political calling, then blessed be God! Cultivate it well, and be careful not to lose that vocation. Don’t replace that social and political sensitivity with hatred, vengeance, and earthly violence.

He refused, under much pressure, to countenance violent uprising, just as he refused to keep silent and thereby countenance the violence done by the government. Peace for him was a rich and substantive state of being, not passivity, not pacification. “We want peace,” Romero said over the radio on October 8, 1978, “but not the peace of violence and of cemeteries, not peace imposed or extorted. We want peace that is the fruit of justice, peace that is the fruit of obedience to God.”

And he never lost sight of the fundamental task of the Holy Spirit: to create one holy people, one people who love each other with true, delighted, self-giving love, to present to Christ as his Bride:

There is no longer distinction between Jew and Greek. There is no longer a privileged people and a marginalized people. All of us are coheirs in the mystery of Christ . . . in Christ all human beings are called to this wealth of God’s kingdom. We are members of the same body. . . . God did not make us to live dispersed and separated. We need one another. . . . All the members, each in its proper function, are members of the living body.

Our situation is not Archbishop Romero’s—St. Óscar’s, I should say; he was canonized two years ago. The situation in El Salvador, the breakdown both of civil order and of basic justice, was worse than what we are experiencing. So much more, then, can we take heart from his words; so much less can we think we have the right to disregard them. I have quoted them because I trust them more than my own, as I trust his wisdom more than my own, and because his gift of words across the decades points to one major aspect of this project:

Now more than ever, ressourcement is crucial: digging deep into Christian memory to find tools and ideas for how to respond to massive disruption and infectious disease, to injustice and the possibility of something like civil war, and how to think about, and build for, what will come after.

Because we can’t go back to normal. We shouldn’t. If this crisis is a kind of apocalypse, revealing a country that is a tinderbox, ready to burst into flame, we can’t simply put the lid back on and pretend nothing happened. We have to build: but we have to build something better than what was here before. We need, at the very least, to try: to sow seeds for a just political economy based, truly, on the common good. We know that nothing good we do will be, finally, lost; and that every sickroom that’s the site of honest lament or of the fever that breaks, every hospital that is a barracks against the dominion of death, every outpost of peace and justice and wholeness and friendship that we create is, in some way, part of God’s kingdom. And we know that all this is enabled by that Spirit of love who, at Pentecost, revealed himself as flame, and who gave language to the disciples so that the divisions between the nations—and within them—might, finally, be healed.