“The only solution is love”—Remembering 9/11

A decade ago, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday when I was the preacher. The Scriptures for that day were strikingly apt, a divine Word spoken directly to us in the turbulent here and now. The questions which 9/11 raised about the American future—and the human future—have not gone away. They have only grown more urgent. The text of my 2011 sermon is below.

9/11 Memorial & Museum, NYC. Virgil’s words from the Aeneid were forged from steel remnants of the Twin Towers by Tom Joyce. The background—2983 unique shades of blue painted by Stuart Finch— is entitled, “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning.”

It was one of those perfect late summer mornings, the sky above an impossible blue, the city below humming with life. Suddenly, without warning, the world ended in smoke and fire and falling dust. 

On that day, a great city, and all of us who watched at a distance, suffered a kind of violence strangely new to American experience. In an instant we became citizens of an unfamiliar, nightmarish world. As a Catholic poet noted at the time, on 9/11 “the united states of america spent a night and a day in beirut… walked the length of somalia… entered the gates of auschwitz.” Or as the writer Don DeLillo said about this demise of American exceptionalism, “Parts of our world have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage.”

On the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, the Lectionary speaks to us with an eerie timeliness. From the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear the story of the Red Sea, where Pharoah’s entire army is drowned by an act of God. 

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians;
and the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

Thousands dead. An act of God?

Now the miraculous deliverance of unarmed slaves from a pursuing army that wants to slaughter them is not the same thing as deliberate acts of violence committed in God’s name. The Red Sea was not an instance of religious terrorism. But the Exodus passage does raise the uncomfortable topic of sacred violence, where God, whether by proxy or direct intervention, saves some and lets others perish. In God’s defense, such actions are always on the side of the powerless and the oppressed in the Bible. As we recite in the Magnificat at Evening Prayer:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

We find a lot of this casting down in Revelation, a book written to encourage persecuted Christians: Don’t worry. The day is coming when mighty Rome will fall. While consoling to the downtrodden, this is not good news for the powers that be. The 11th chapter delivers this chilling line: the time has come to destroy those who are destroying the earth.(Rev. 11:18). 

These words express the eschatological hope for a better world, but they sound uncomfortably close to the kind of writings that informed the pious, angry young men who hijacked those planes to strike a blow against “godless” modernity. 

John Brown, painted by John Steuart Curry in 1939. After visiting the 9/11 Memorial in 2019, I saw this unsettling portrait at the Whitney Museum. The accompanying commentary strikes a chord in the America of 2021: “Brown’s crazed expression suggests the messianic fervor and wrath that fueled his opposition to human bondage through armed rebellion.”

A critical examination of sacred violence—the blood on religion’s hands—and the way such texts are countered with more life-affirming scriptures—these are complicated subjects for another time. For now let us simply note that passionate religious certainty, and the tendency to escalate difference and conflict into a cosmic struggle between good and evil, is not exclusive to the jihadists. We can find it in our own scriptures. 

On a different day, the Red Sea story might be a joyful celebration of God’s defense of the powerless, or an image of baptismal passage through the waters of death. But on this day—ten years after 9/11—it may simply want to pose a troubling question, lest we be too eager to say that God is on our side. We can’t just dance with the Israelites anymore. We must also weep with the Egyptians. 

A litany published the week after 9/11 embraces this inclusiveness, affirming that Jesus is carrying the “dead, the wounded, and those who mourn; the killers and those who were killed; the frightened, the angry, the sorrowful – Jesus is carrying all of this, all of us, every part of us, into the loving heart of God.”

Our second reading offers the comforting assurance from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that we hear every time we bury a loved one: 

Yet none of us has life in himself or herself.
If we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die, 
we are the Lord’s possession.

The shock of 9/11 inflicted enormous trauma upon the American people, a trauma that still lives in our bodies. We have never fully worked through the grief process, so eager were our leaders to launch into war, short-circuiting the work we really needed to do. 

A recent PBS documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, explored a wide range of religious questions arising from 9/11. And one of the things people talked about in interviews was the presence – or absence – of God in the face of such evil and suffering. There were no easy answers. 

As one rabbi put it, “Since September 11th, people keep asking me, ‘Where was God?’ And they think because I’m a rabbi, I have answers. And I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. If God’s ways are mysterious, live with the mystery. It’s upsetting. It’s scary. It’s painful. It’s deep. And it’s interesting. No plan. That’s what mystery is. It’s all of those things.”

The rabbi goes on to say that he resists any answers that get God off the hook, because “right now, everything is on the hook.”

And yet, wherever or whatever God may be in this, and whether we find ourselves among the living or the dead, we always remain inside the divine mystery, enfolded in the loving arms of God. If I make the grave my bed, you are there also, says the Psalmist. Only such a faith can deliver us from the icy grip of fear and dread. 

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm, 1859 (detail). Painted on the eve of the Civil War, the figure peers into the imminent darkness with extraordinary calm.

Today’s final text is from Matthew’s gospel, and what a gospel it is for September 11th! “How long should I keep forgiving, Lord?” And Jesus says, “Oh, about a billion times.” The text actually says seventy-seven, or in the math of King James, seventy times seven. But the point is: stop counting. Don’t keep track. Forgiveness isn’t a one-time transaction; it’s a practice, a way of being. 

We exist to forgive, to reconcile, to mend, to heal— 
generously, unreservedly, endlessly.

A recent feature film, Of Gods and Men, tells the true story of eight French Catholic monks who lived in the mountains of Algeria during a time of civil war and terrorist violence in the 1990s. Their monastery was at the edge of a poor Muslim village, where they lived in harmony with their neighbors, providing the only accessible health care. As the surrounding political violence escalated, the monks were warned by the government to leave the country. But they felt called to remain among the people they served, despite the high probability of martyrdom. Despite their own fears.

Their abbot, Dom Christian, wrote a letter to his family in Advent, 1993, two years before he and his brother monks were killed by terrorists. Anticipating his own martyrdom, he insists that he is not exceptional, since so many others in that land were also at risk.

“My life,” he wrote, “is not worth more than any other — not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon … and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity him who would attack me…”

What an extraordinary thing to say: Here is a good and humble and holy man confessing his own complicity in the evils of the world. And what does he hope for? He hopes for the presence of mind, in the very moment of being murdered, to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness not only for himself, but for his killer as well. 

The end of his letter is addressed not to his family, his loved ones, but to the stranger who will one day kill him, the stranger whom he calls “my friend of the last moment.” 

“And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this “A-Dieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father.”

Such faithfulness to the way of Jesus is sheer nonsense to the world, and perhaps to many Christians as well. 

How dismal a contrast we find in the official government reaction to 9/11, when our leaders, most of them Christians, set out to hunt down and kill the “evildoers.” Their violent, retaliatory response bequeathed a dark legacy which continues to poison our common life: the politics of fear and division, the launching of endless war, the shameless profiteering that feeds and encourages armed conflict, the stain of Guantanamo and the worldwide network of secret prisons, and the outrageous authorization of torture as national policy. 

In an article entitled “Did Osama bin Laden Win?” —written just after bin Laden’s death—Mark Sumner offers the analogy of the human body’s autoimmune system, where the worst damage is not done by the original disease, but by the overreaction of “the same systems that fought off and destroyed the invader. Long after the bacteria is excised by the body,” he writes, “the damage lingers.” Then turning to the overactive immune system that gave us two ruinous wars as well as the corrosion of the American conscience by torture and other public sins, Sumner points out that “it wasn’t bin Laden who did this. He could never do this. It’s our response to bin Laden. That’s what has already crippled us, and what may yet kill us.”

But there is an antidote for this poison, and it too rose out of the ashes of Ground Zero. A sample of this antidote is contained in a statement by the Catholic Worker communities of California ten years ago.

The Catholic Worker movement was co-founded by Dorothy Day, one of the true saints of the last century. As an eight-year-old child, she was in San Francisco during the great earthquake and fire of 1906. When she witnessed on the streets of San Francisco the same kind of care and camaraderie among strangers as we saw in New York after 9/11, she asked, “Why can’t people live like this all the time?” 

When she grew up, she explored that child’s question through a network of small lay communities who today continue to live among the poorest of the poor to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and visit the sick and imprisoned. 

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this is what the Catholic workers had to say: 

Even after all this… 

Our grief will not be short-circuited with cries of vengeance nor with acts of retribution. We will not cooperate with incitements to become that which we most oppose, namely perpetrators of violence. 

We will honor the deeper levels of grief, acknowledging the woundedness inflicted upon us, and the woundedness that our nation has inflicted upon others…

We invite you to participate with us in all our wildest dreams and visions for peace. For now we sadly know that our affluence, our power, our possessions cannot serve as protection from harm. We invite you to clamber off the wheel of violence. It is the only worthy legacy we can offer to those who have died…

We are Catholic Workers and we still believe… the only solution is love. 

More love, more love … the angels are calling: Oh children, more love. The love that birthed the universe into being and raised the dead. A love as defenseless and potent as Christ on the cross. 

You can’t build empires with it, 
but it is the only true way out of the abyss, 
the only antidote for evil’s poison.

We saw love at work in countless ways in the days after 9/11: 
So much solidarity, generosity, selflessness and compassion, 
so much courage and resilience, 
so much caring for one another. 

We’ve all been moved by the stories. One of my favorites is of a man in Manhattan’s Union Square. Just as people were filing out of a memorial service, he began to sing: “Start spreadin’ the news…” And one by one, others joined in, until hundreds of people were singing “New York, New York” at the top of their lungs, in streets still swirling with the dust of fallen towers. Who knew there was a resurrection hymn in the Sinatra canon?

Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! But is this enough? Can love’s fragile flowers break the rocks in the desert of abandonment and lament? Can they get us through the time of trial? Can they deliver us from evil? I will let a New Yorker answer that question. 

At the end of the documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, we hear several voices reflecting on the haunting televised image of two anonymous people, co-workers or strangers, we don’t know, who jumped together from the south tower. Just before they jumped, they reached out to take each other’s hand. Then they fell into space. Holding hands. 

For an unbelieving novelist in the film interviews, this was an image of human desperation and despair in an indifferent universe. For an NPR correspondent, the gesture of mutual touch was a frail sign of hope that we are not totally alone when we face the abyss. 

As we hear these voice-overs, we don’t see the image they are talking about. That would be unbearable. Instead, we are shown nighttime shots of the two vertical columns of blue light that shine every year on September 11th in the empty space left by the collapsed towers. Emanating from 88 searchlights aimed straight at the heavens, transparent twin towers: ghostly evocations of presence and absence, absence and presence.

The voices continue over these shots, and finally we hear from a Catholic writer, Brian Doyle, a New Yorker by birth. His words speak for all people of faith:

A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met, and they jumped. I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her hand, nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love. 

It’s the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It’s everything we’re capable of against horror and loss and tragedy.

It’s what makes me believe that we’re not fools to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them, like seeds that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what we were, to believe, against evil evidenced hourly, that love is why we are here.

Celebrating the Fourth of July When America is in Doubt

Frederic Edwin Church, “Our Banner in the Sky” (1861)

Insofar as the Fourth of July is the American Midsummer Day, full of warm weather conviviality, playful communal rituals, and the climactic glory of fireworks, it is a day of pleasure and joy. As a celebration of our founding ideals, however, it has always been fraught with the ironies of our national and cultural imperfections.

I have noted these troubling ironies in recent years. “Your Celebration is a Sham”—Indepedence Day in an Age of Cruelty (2019) and Fourth of July 2020: Last Rites for a Dying America? are the most recent examples. In light of the January 6 insurrection and all the calamitous behavior in its wake, one could write volumes about the weird vibe of this year’s holiday affirmations about “America.” But a separated shoulder suffered a week ago, when I flew off my bicycle for a painful meeting with unforgiving concrete, has momentarily limited my ability to sit for long at a computer, and I need to go into the garden now to renew my love for America in conversation with Dickinson and Thoreau. But let me pass on a couple of things before I do.

When a friend posted Church’s 1861 painting, “Our Banner in the Sky,” today, it struck me an image of where we are as a country today. When Church painted it at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was expressing his support for the Union cause. In the most tempestuous of times, he assures us, our flag shall yet wave. But to me the painting seems fraught with fundamental tensions. Is that sunrise or sunset in the background? Does the flag made of colored clouds and a patch of clear starlit sky promise the endurance of an ideal written in the heavens, or does the dematerialization of Old Glory signify the vanishing of a perishable dream? Does the withered tree anchoring the flag imply death—or resurrection? In America 2021, the answers seem no more certain than they did 160 years ago.

Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Fourth of July was an occasion not only to celebrate our ideals, but also to educate the public in the habitual virtues of public life by which those ideals might continue to be realized. A central part of this educative function was the Fourth of July oration, a usually long-winded address that recalled the great deeds of the past, tabulated the growth and progress achieved over the years, and exhorted the listener toward the same zeal for liberty and the common good that had inspired our founders.

In 1852, the eloquent abolitionist and former slave Fredrick Douglass was invited to give such an oration on July 4 by the Ladies’ Antislavery Society of Rochester, New York. But due to the absurdity of celebrating Independence Day while slavery persisted, Douglass chose to speak on July 5 instead.

“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers,” he said, ” is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”

For Independence Day 2021, in a country still beset by rampant racism, National Public Radio invited young descendants of Frederick Douglass to recite portions of that 1852 speech, followed by brief reflections of their own. Like any truly prophetic text, Douglass’ address condemns our sins, urges repentance, and preaches hope. This video is a compelling and moving updating of the traditional Fourth of July oration, and I hope you will make its viewing (and sharing) a part of your own celebration this year.

Juneteenth: Recalibrating the Narratives of Race in America

Enslaved African Americans in Virginia, May 14, 1862 (Library of Congress).

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8).

I went to have my eyes checked this week. In the waiting room, I had a conversation with a man my age whose family has lived in Washington state for six generations. His great-grandfather had come to the Northwest on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. “He was a Presbyterian minister,” he told me. “Before coming west, he managed the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s plantation in Tennessee.” 

This man was clearly proud of his family heritage, as though the whole history of America were coursing through his veins. But the thousand-acre Hermitage, the source of Jackson’s wealth, had only grown and prospered through the labor of enslaved people. I wanted to ask this man what he knew about his great-grandfather’s story. How did a minister of the gospel end up in charge of such a brutal and evil enterprise? How could he have justified it? How did his descendants feel about this stain on their family tree? How does the descendant right in front of me feel about it?

I sensed that such questions would not be welcomed. And it was not the best setting to explore them. Before I could frame a response, I was summoned to the examination room, where I would learn that my eyes were fine. But what about America’s eyes? When we look at ourselves and our history, can we see clearly now?

In 1989, African-American poet Lucille Clifton took a tour of Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina. She was the only black person on the tour. Throughout the tour, not a word was said about slavery. But when the tour took them to the family burying ground, Clifton noticed some crosses and markers outside its walls—the nameless graves of slaves. So she asked the guide, “Why haven’t you mentioned slaves?” 

The guide said that she hadn’t wanted to “embarrass” her, and Clifton responded, “Well, I’m not a slave, and I don’t know why you think I’d be embarrassed.” So the guide, somewhat chagrined, looked in the plantation inventory and found that there had been ten male slaves there, plus however many uncounted females, who were not considered valuable enough to inventory.

Clifton’s experience became a poem:

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.…

tell me your bashful names
and i will testify.… [1]

After she had read this poem around South Carolina for a while, Ms. Clifton got a letter from the director of the group that has restored the plantation, saying that they had built a model slave cabin and were now telling the story of all the people who lived there. And then, after one of her readings, a woman came up to her and said that her family had once owned Walnut Grove, but she herself had never gone back—she was too ashamed. “The next time I come here,” Clifton told her, “you and I will go together.” [2]

As a white American man, I know that I need to go on such a journey, to the places where the “bashful names” can testify about the racism in our culture and in our selves. I need to get my eyes checked, my ears checked, my heart checked. We all do. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. 

The disturbing eruption of overt racism in recent years has shocked and horrified us—This isn’t who we are!—but perhaps some good may come from its blatant visibility. Issues of race in America are now harder to deny. The need to repent is harder to ignore. A hard diagnosis quickens a healing response. Confession fosters renovation. 

Not everyone in America is willing to do this work.  Right wing cringing over “critical race theory” is reaching ludicrous proportions. Texas politicians are crafting laws to protect fair-skinned children from having their feelings hurt by learning about white folks doing evil things to black folks. A watchdog group in Nevada wants teachers to wear body cams so they will never dare say a bad word about American history. 

But for God’s best friends, the way of fear is the way of death. As Episcopal priest Stephanie Spellers puts it, “many of us long to live as beloved community and to reckon with the pain that racism has inflicted – and continues to inflict – in our personal lives, our churches and institutions, and society as a whole.” [3]

Spellers is part of the team that has created Sacred Ground, a powerfully formative church engagement with race and racism in America, using films, readings and dialogue “to call us from our small worlds and small screens and into intentional, sustained circles in which we can pray, watch, share our own stories, reflect, wonder, reckon, heal, and commit to action.” [4]  In small groups on Zoom, my own local parish has been making this journey on sacred ground over the past seven months. The material is rich and the conversations real. Some of our learnings are unsettling, even heartbreaking, but the trajectory of healing and transformation predominates. We move with our eyes on the prize, toward that promised land undimmed by human tears. [5]

To mark the inauguration of Juneteenth, the new federal holiday celebrating the end of slavery in America, journalist Amy Goodman interviewed writer and poet Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Responding to the criticism that the new holiday doesn’t really change anything, Smith argued that “names and symbols and holidays … aren’t just names and symbols and symbolism. What they are are reflective of the stories that people tell. And those stories shape the narratives that societies carry. And those narratives shape public policy. And public policy, that shapes the material conditions of people’s lives. Which is not to say that taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee or making Juneteenth a holiday is going to erase the racial wealth gap. Of course not. But what it is is part of an ecosystem of narratives and stories and ideas that can help us recalibrate our understanding of why certain communities look the way that they do and what needs to be done and invested in those communities to create a new set of opportunities.” [6]

I encourage you to view or read the entire interview, but let me leave you with Smith’s conclusion, when he recited a powerful passage from his new book.

“I come from a city abounding with statues of white men on pedestals and Black children playing beneath them, where we played trumpets and trombones to drown out the Dixie song that’s still whistled in the wind. In New Orleans, there are over 100 schools, roads and buildings named for Confederates and slaveholders. Every day, Black children walk into buildings named after people who never wanted them to be there. Every time I would return home, I would drive on streets named for those who would have wanted me in chains.

“Go straight for two miles on Robert E. Lee, take a left on Jefferson Davis, make the first right on Claiborne. Translation: Go straight for two miles on the general who slaughtered hundreds of Black soldiers who were trying to surrender, take a left on the president of the Confederacy who made the torture of Black bodies the cornerstone of his new nation, make the first right on the man who permitted the heads of rebelling slaves to be put on stakes and spread across the city in order to prevent the others from getting any ideas.

“What name is there for this sort of violence? What do you call it when the road you walk on is named for those who imagined you under a noose? What do you call it when the roof over your head is named after people who would have wanted the bricks to crush you?” [7]


Beyond the ordeal: A biblical vision

[1] For the complete text, and a recording of Clifton reading it: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Lucille-Cliftons-at-the-cemetery-walnut-grove-plantation-south-carolina-1989

[2] From Clifton’s 1995 interview with Bill Moyers: https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/bill-moyers-interview-cemetery-walnut-grove-plantation-south-carolina-1989

[3] The Rev.Canon Stephanie Spellers, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground/message/

[4] Ibid.

[5] For more information on Sacred Ground and how to get it for your community: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground/

[6] For the video interview: https://www.democracynow.org/shows/2021/6/18   For the text of the interview: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/6/18/juneteenth_federal_holiday

[7] Clint Smith, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (Little, Brown and Company, 2021).  Available at https://www.clintsmithiii.com

“Your celebration is a sham”––Independence Day in an Age of Cruelty

Standing room only at McAllen, TX, detention center, June 10, 2019 (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

––– The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

“If you want water, drink from the toilet.”

 ––– U.S. Border Patrol agent to a thirsty immigrant, July 1, 2019

 

John Adams, our second President, predicted a Fourth of July “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] It would be a time to remember our origins, honor our ideals, and pledge ourselves to nurture and preserve the noblest portions of our national life.

In the nineteenth century, the vision of Independence Day as a national covenant of memory and renewal found exuberant expression in the verbal fireworks of grand orations. These long-winded blasts of rhetorical excess came to be known as “making the eagle scream,” but their homiletic intention was serious: to summon the people to “effusions of gratitude” for America’s sacred origins, and to encourage “a faithful and undeviating adherence” to the principles of liberty, equality and the common good. [ii]

But what about those who are excluded from the blessings of liberty? By the 1820s, some Independence Day orators began to call out the inconsistency of celebrating freedom while so many still wore the chains of slavery. “We ought to remember that the happiness we enjoy is not universal,” Giles B. Kellogg told an audience at Williams College on July 4, 1829. “This will temper our exultation and render more heart-felt our tribute of gratitude . . . There are those among us who are shut out from the light of freedom, chained down in the prison house of bondage . . . those of common origins with ourselves, inheritors of the same great blessings, heirs to the same immortality.” [iii]

The most famous of these abolitionist orations was delivered on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, to the Rochestery Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. As an escaped slave himself, he gave voice to the voiceless with fiery eloquence:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy––a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” [iv]

Irony and guilt continue to haunt our national celebrations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Racism is alive and well, along with other long-standing national sins. And the concentration camps on our southern border, where federal agents put children in cages and subject countless refugees to conditions of torture, certainly make the rhetoric of freedom an unholy sham in our own day.

For those who are more offended by the words “concentration camp” and “torture” than by the realities they describe, let me point out that while these are certainly loaded terms, they are technically accurate. A concentration camp is defined as “a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.”[v] While the most notorious examples are Nazi death camps and Soviet labor camps, the term itself has a broader application. As for torture, a physician who witnessed the appalling conditions of the camps––“extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food”––concluded that “the conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.” [vi]

Detention Center, Weslaco, Texas (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

How shall we respond to such evil? Let Douglass be our teacher:

“O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

 

Detention Center, McAllen, Texas, June 10, 2019 (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

The Fourth of July should be a day of atonement not only for the cruel barbarity of the Trump administration––which would indeed “disgrace a nation of savages”––but also for our collective impotence to make it stop. Instead, the president is stealing millions of dollars from our National Parks to stage a military spectacle in his honor, and to desecrate the Lincoln Memorial with hate speech to his adoring mob (Trump opponents will be kept at a distance to silence the voice of protest). And to such shameless and pitiful parody of Independence Day, the words of Douglass make perfect reply:

“Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of [the people] crush and destroy it forever!”

 

 

Related post: July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203.

[ii] Phrases taken from the July 4, 1821 oration of John Quincy Adams in Washington, D.C., when he was Secretary of State. This and many other Independence Day orations may be found at https://classicapologetics.com/special/4th.html

[iii] https://classicapologetics.com/special/4th/Kellogg.Oration.1829.pdf

[iv] Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852). https://www.thenation.com/article/what-slave-fourth-july-frederick-douglass/

[v] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/concentration_camp Some might argue for the term “refugee detention center,” where people may indeed suffer from logistical overload. But the deliberate and intentional infliction of suffering by the Border Patrol and its white supremacist enablers in the Administration justifies, in my view, the more damning term.

[vi] Matt Stieb, “Everything We Know About the Inhumane Conditions at Migrant Detention Camps,”New York Magazine (July 2019). The physician quoted is Dolly Lucio Sevier: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/07/the-inhumane-conditions-at-migrant-detention-camps.html

The Gathering Storm

Jerome B. Thompson, The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain (1858), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The painter gazes with speechless, loving wonder, and I whisper to myself: This is the pathway home to an immortality of bliss and beauty.

–– The Rev. Louis L. Noble (1859)

Do you observe how [God] intended that there should be moral meaning in the face of Nature, and that we should derive instruction therefrom? . . . And as I sat and looked today at the meadows and the trees, I thought within myself, “What message have they for me of my God, and from my God?”

–– The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1860)

 

Nature has always exerted a powerful influence upon the American imagination, whether it was seen as a howling wilderness to be tamed, a vast resource to be exploited, or a sacred gift to be treasured. Before much of this country was settled and cultivated, its unspoiled landscape was deemed a new Eden. But by the mid-nineteenth century, primeval landscapes were already in retreat, and many feared America was becoming Paradise Lost.

Landscape painting offered a powerful response to this anxiety, fostering and preserving a sense of Nature as a divine Scripture, “opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[1] Even as rapacious expansionists were subduing the continent “with the plough and the railroad,”[2] artists were giving a kind of prayerful attention to what Nature, undefiled by human interference, was showing and saying to the receptive mind and heart. As one art historian noted in 1849, “numerous modern painters are distinguished by a feeling for nature which has made landscape, instead of mere imitation, a vehicle of great moral impression.”[3] And the impression registered by painters like Albert Bierstadt or the Hudson River School was a sense of Creation as a shower of blessings suffused with divine presence, requiring of humanity both reverence and care.

Albert Bierstadt, Merced River, Yosemite Valley (1866), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But in the 1850s, darker elements began to disturb the blissful images of America’s Eden. A beautiful landscape might include the forlorn stumps of a logged forest; the distant smoke of a steam engine would register the intrusion of human technology. But westward expansion wasn’t the only trouble in Paradise. In his study of Hudson River painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Franklin Kelly writes that “no other period in the nineteenth century was so indelibly marked by complex national issues, mounting turmoil, and increasing doubt about the destiny of the American nation.”[4] The turmoil and the doubt began to find expression in the representations and intuitions of both literature and painting. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick (1851):

“Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No More. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!” [5]

In a similar vein, the newly invented pigment of cadmium red, so dramatically applied by Frederic Church in Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), did more than document a sunset’s color with greater accuracy. To a country on the eve of war, it also conveyed a warning: There will be blood. Damned in the midst of Paradise indeed.

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), Cleveland Museum of Art.

Church’s crepuscular scene has been called “a stained glass window burning with the intense power of divine light.”[6] But when the very future of the country was most in doubt, this silent moment just after sunset became an icon of a nation in crisis: in a time of passing away and growing darkness, could we still hope for a bright new morning? Louis Noble, Church’s Episcopal rector and close friend, saw in Twilight “that narrow, lonesome, neutral ground, where gloom and splendor interlock and struggle.” Darkness and light, like Jacob and the angel, “now meet and wrestle for mastery.”[7]

In the previous year, another Episcopalian, Martin Johnson Heade, painted an even more foreboding image of imminent calamity in Approaching Thunder Storm (1859). Over the next decade of Civil War and its aftermath, stormy weather would be a common theme not only in American landscape painting, but in political and religious rhetoric as well.

In 1863, the aptly named Noah Hunt Schenck, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, lamented that the “thousand miseries of our fraternal strife . . . so charge the air with gloom and roll their black clouds overhead, as to leave us bowed with sorrow and groping in the dark.”[8] As the original owner of Heade’s painting, Schenk must have looked upon it the day he wrote those words.

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm (1859), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I recently visited Heade’s painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and spent a long time peering into the ominous blackness of clouds and water. The warm tonality of the foreground shore and the jutting pair of grassy spits, glowing with an eerie intensity at odds with the surrounding gloom, only increased the unsettling sense of unreality. The extreme contrasts of dark and light, hot and cool, suggest tension and instability verging on the apocalyptic. And yet the human presences––the rower on the water, the watcher on the shore––seem strangely calm. Do they not see what the painter sees––an imminent doom?

Although the preeminent role of landscape painting in the production of national identity and spiritual meaning has long since declined amid vast changes in art, culture and religiosity, Approaching Thunder Storm seemed to me as relevant to our current situation as any of the edgy political works I had seen at the Whitney Biennial a few days earlier. In fact, as the climate crisis deepens, the symbolic trope of catastrophic weather is being strangely literalized. Climate is no longer just a vivid metaphor for the threats on our horizon. It is itself becoming as grave a danger as any other.

The crisis of these times may prove to be as devastating in its way as the events of the 1860s. But whether our storm clouds be the madness of presidents, the rise of fascism, or nature gone off the rails, the American body politic continues to sit passively on that broken plank––whether by ignorance, complicity, or despair, it matters little––inexplicably unable to rise, with whatever courage and hope we possess, to shout our protest to the gathering darkness:

“No more! Be still.”[9]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1869, rev. 1911). Long after American landscape painters had abandoned the confident spirituality of the mid-nineteenth century, Muir translated the vision of an Edenic wilderness into political action, becoming a major voice in the movement for national parks.

[2] James Russell Lowell (1849), q. in Franklin Kelly, Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 55.

[3] Henry T. Tuckerman, Sketches of Eminent American Painters (1849), q. in Kelly, 22.

[4] Kelly, 116.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] Ibid., 120.

[7] Louis L. Noble, After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Newfoundland (1861), q. in Kelly, 119. 108.

[8] Noah Hunt Schenck, in “Songs in the Night,” a sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day, 1863, q. in Sarah Cash, Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade (Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1994), 44. Schenck’s Baltimore parishioners were divided in their political sympathies. When prayers were said for President Lincoln, supporters of the Confederacy refused to kneel. After the war, he was glad to take a parish in New York.

[9] Cf. Mark 4:39, where Jesus rebukes the storm, and the wild sea grows calm. Weathering our own gathering storm may indeed require divine aid.

“Let it not happen again.”

The Story Wall at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, where the Nikkei were forcibly removed from their island home in 1942. (Photo Illustration by Paul Dunn and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz)

“Later on, they took my dad around five o’clock, and I think I remember my dad went to the corner and prayed. And they said, ‘What is he doing?’ I said, ‘He’s praying because he didn’t do anything wrong.’ But they took him anyway.”

–– Nobuko Sakai Omoto

 

Seventy-six years ago, people of a certain ethnicity were rounded up and transported to concentration camps. This happened not in some distant citadel of despotism, but in the “land of the free,” from the shining sea of the Pacific to the diamond desert of the western interior. It happened in the United States of America, and the island I call home is where it all began.

After Pearl Harbor, everyone of Japanese ancestry (the Nikkei), whether or not they were born in America, became objects of suspicion in the eyes of their government. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 calling for the exclusion of “any or all persons” from areas deemed sensitive for national defense. Although around 14,000 people of German or Italian ancestry were interned for at least part of the war, those of Japanese descent were the prime targets, reflecting an anti-Asian bigotry with deep roots in American history.

On March 21, after only an hour’s discussion in the Senate and thirty minutes in the House, Congress passed a law authorizing the roundup of 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry. Of that great number, the first 227 would be residents of Bainbridge Island, six miles west of Seattle.

These evacuees comprised a significant portion of the island’s relatively small population. Boasting the world’s largest sawmill––a magnet for job-seekers––in the late nineteenth century, Bainbridge attracted immigrant workers and families, many of them from Japan, even after the mill shut down in the 1920s. By the 1940s, both the Issei (“first generation,” born in Japan) and the Nisei (“second generation,” born in the U.S. as American citizens) had become established members of the island community. But when Pearl Harbor stirred up primal fears of the “other,” 227 friends and neighbors were abruptly severed from their community and shipped off to distant internment camps.

Why was Bainbridge targeted first? The high percentage of Nikkei on the island, along with the proximity of military installations and the Boeing aircraft plant, have been cited as probable causes. The fake news of the day accused Japanese-American farmers of aligning their strawberry rows as pointers toward bombing targets. Frank Kitamoto, only two years old when his family was taken, thought the island’s isolation made it a perfect test case:

“We didn’t have the bridge in those days. So it became real easy for the army to isolate us and to kind of use us as a practice run to see how people would react to something like this––if they came in to force us off the island, whether we’d be violent or whether we would cause problems or protest or whatever. And since we went without any of that going on, then I think that kinda set the pace . . . for them to do things.”[1]

The idea of a practice run seems especially chilling to me after reading a recent op-ed piece by Fintan O’Toole, describing Trump’s corrosive attacks on democratic norms as a means of “test marketing” the spread of fascism. “Fascism,” he writes, “doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.”[2]

Notice of forced evacuation, posted on March 24, 1942.

On March 24, the Nikkei of Bainbridge were given just 6 days to settle their affairs and pack their things before military trucks would come to take them away to the ferry dock. For those with property, it was especially complicated. Non-citizens couldn’t own property, and Japanese-born were forbidden citizenship by law[3], so titles had to be in the name of either U.S.-born children or supportive friends. In any case, what would happen to their houses and land while they were gone?

There was a limit of one suitcase per person, not only for clothes and personal items, but also to carry sheets, blanket, utensils and plates! If you had to pack one suitcase without knowing where you were going or how long you’d be away, what would you include? Practical things, or emotional treasures? Matsue Nishimori Watanabe, who was 15 at the time, remembers the pressures of packing so lightly:

“And, of course, in that suitcase you’re trying to put maybe a sheet or so, that you can have for sleeping. And the rest is your clothes and your shoes. And so you’re not taking any toys or anything like that. . . one suitcase for the rest of your life . . . isn’t a lot of space to put things. And that’s the way we traveled, and with a tag on the suitcase and a tag on our body. .  .  [O]ne of my girlfriends now, she sees the pictures of my sister and us walking down the dock and she could see that they’re dressed up and they have hats on and everything. And she says, ‘Why did you dress up to go to camp?’ And I said, ‘Well, we had no place else to put it except on our body, because you had one suitcase to carry.’”

But there were greater stresses. Many reported a sense of shame at being treated like criminals. What had they done to deserve this? What would their neighbors think of them?

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

 

“And for one thing, we were so busy destroying everything that was Japanese. We, my dad says, ‘Get rid of everything,’ so we just burned things, buried things, broke things up, did everything to get rid of all the things that Grandma sent from Hiroshima. . . I hated to get rid of all the stuff that Grandma sent me, but then again, it was too Japanese, and so we just had to destroy them.” (Kay Sakai Nakao, 22)

Perhaps the worst thing was having no idea of where they were being taken, or what would befall them in the days to come.

“They never told us where we were going, if it’s gonna be hot or if it’s gonna be cold or anything, which sort of — I don’t know how the others felt, but I felt like I was kind of up in the air and I couldn’t come down on earth to get my feet on earth, to really feel sort of secure. I don’t know if that’s the word, right word to use, but you’re just left kinda dangling, wondering.” (Kay Sakai Nakao)

 

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

The truckloads of evacuees were dropped at the end of the road I now live on, less than a mile from where I write these words. Escorted by soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets, they lugged their bulging suitcases down to the dock at Eagle Harbor and boarded the ferry Kehloken to Seattle, where they would, under armed supervision, take train and bus to the concentration camps far inland[4]. Some 10,000 people would eventually be crammed into a primitive settlement of one square mile bounded by barbed wire. After the blue water and green forests of Bainbridge, the harsh landscape of the high desert came as a shock. A resident of California’s Manzanar camp summed it up tartly: “The main thing you remembered was the dust, always the dust.”

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

And how had the Nikkei’s neighbors on Bainbridge responded to “the exclusion”? While some residents shared the widespread racism and wartime belligerence of the country as a whole, a majority of Bainbridge Islanders resisted the anti-Japanese hysteria. The bonds of longtime community were stronger than the sirens of fear.

The day after Pearl Harbor, teachers were careful to remind their nervous classes that the students of Japanese ancestry were Americans too. Neighbors pitched in to help the Nikkei families with last-minute logistics. Generous souls took over management of abandoned farms and businesses until the day their rightful owners returned. And the editors of the local weekly newspaper, the Bainbridge Review, mounted an eloquent and courageous defense of the vulnerable.

Walt and Milly Woodward, a young couple from Seattle, had bought the paper when they moved to the island in 1940. Their first editorial made a powerful commitment: “Always strive to speak the truth, unafraid, whether it be on a national issue or something purely local.” And so they did.

On the day after Pearl Harbor, their front page counseled neighborliness over fear: “There is the danger of a blind, wild hysterical hatred of all persons who can trace ancestry to Japan. That some of those persons happen to be American citizens…easily could be swept aside by mob hysteria.”[5] Walt and Milly continued the fight for constitutional rights and mutual respect for the duration of the war. The Review was the only newspaper in the United States to do so! The Woodwards also hired evacuated high school students to send dispatches from the camps, so that absent neighbors would not become faceless or forgotten. Their stories of exile were read widely back home.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

Because Bainbridge had resisted the extremes of racist hostility and fear infecting much of wartime America, it was easier for its exiles to return without incident when the global conflict drew to a close. As the Woodwards’ daughter Mary has written, “All up and down the Pacific Coast that spring and summer [1945], newly released families returned to vandalized houses and damaged or stolen personal property. Bainbridge families also saw damage, but to a lesser degree. There was vandalism––common whenever a house stands vacant––but it was a result more of petty crime and greed than viciousness.”[6]

Some couldn’t afford to return, and others chose not to, but more than half of the exiles did come back, compared to a much smaller return rate in other places. Bainbridge showed little sign of the nasty anti-Japanese sentiment seen elsewhere. Those who voiced their continuing hostility on Bainbridge found few followers, while there were countless expressions of kindness and goodwill to assist the Nikkei in their resumption of lives interrupted.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

 

“And our neighbors were all willing, happy that we came back. That time we came home it was September . . . it was dry summer, they said, the strawberries are all wilted. The dirt, the soil was just like sand, just really, oh, it was sad. Everything was wilted, I remember. And we had to start all over again, and I still wonder how did we ever, you know, with Mom and Dad, how did we ever get going, I always wonder. But we did.” (Michiko Amatatsu Noritake, 22)

 

“I was about thirteen when I came back and I was really frightened, but I went up to school and I signed in as “Sally” because I had to be very American and I didn’t want to be known as Shimako anymore. Well then . . . so the first day of school, Shannon Stafford and Ray Lowry, my classmates from Kindergarten, they came up and said, ‘Welcome back.’” (Shimako “Sally” Nishimori Kitano)

 

Steven Gardner panels at the Exclusion Memorial.

On August 6, 2011, the anniversary of Hiroshima, nearly 600 people gathered to dedicate the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial at the exact place where the Nikkei had been removed from the island in 1942. The beautifully designed site is a moving tribute to the dear people of that troubled time, but it also provides a necessary reminder of our perpetual vocation to repair the world by nourishing community and resisting everything which diminishes the human family.

Paper cranes left by visitors at the Story Wall, where the names of all the evacuated Nikkei are inscribed.

In the Memorial’s peaceful setting beside Puget Sound, a cedar “Story Wall,” designed by local architect Johnpaul Jones, holds the names of all the exiles as well as a series of moving terra cotta panels by Seattle artist Steven Gardner, depicting people and incidents of the exclusion.[7]

It is a place to remember––and to hope. As Sada Omoto, one of the surviving exiles, has said, the Exclusion Memorial wants to “create in you a different sense of being.”[8]This should be a pilgrimage site for every American in this dispiriting time. You will take heart from it.

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community’s excellent website is also worth a visit for its wealth of fascinating photos, archival films and video oral histories. Most of the interviews quoted in this post may be found there.

Nidoto Nai Yoni: Let it not happen again.

Just before Independence Day, I interviewed Clarence Moriwaki, a local activist who has been a driving force behind the Memorial project. I looked him up after hearing his eloquent speech at the recent Bainbridge Island rally to “Keep families together.” Like so many of us, Clarence is troubled by the normalization of racism and hatred at the highest levels of our government as well as in the untamed id of cultural rage. From the stigmatization of Muslims to the unspeakable cruelty at our southern border, America’s shadow side is on full display, while the crazier voices on the right tout the 1940s internment as an applicable model for the war on terror. Singling out people based on race and ancestry remains an illness hard to cure.

“This is frightening to me,” Clarence said. “We spent months thinking about the motto for the Memorial. We went back and forth, and what we decided on was Nidoto Nai Yoni (‘Let it not happen again’). But it is happening again. It’s happening to those children being separated from their families. The motto is not being lived up to. They’re creating concentration camps, and it’s happening in the name of the United States of America.

“What’s different this time is that people are not remaining silent the way they did in 1942. And they’re making comparisons between what is happening to Muslims and immigrants and the incarceration of Japanese Americans. It has become part of the American narrative. Sites like ours keep it out there so it isn’t forgotten. And people have notforgotten. The story is timeless––and timely.”[9]

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Just days before the evacuation of 1942, the Bainbridge High School baseball team opened the season against its traditional rival. They wanted badly to win, of course, but instead of using only the best players, the coach, “Pop” Miller, made sure that all six Nikkei players not only took the field, but remained in the lineup for the entire game. They got trounced, 15-2, but no one seemed to care about all the errors and fruitless swings of the bat. All that mattered to the Nikkei––and to their teammates who cheered them on––was the joy of a love so much stronger than fear.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Among the many fascinating exclusion artifacts in the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, none is more telling than side by side posters of the high school classes of 1942 and 1943. They make an indelible image of a community bereft by a terrible sense of absence. In the class of 1943, the faces of the Nikkei have all disappeared.

Bainbridge High School Class of 1942.

Bainbridge High School Class of 1943.

But the students stranded in Manzanar would not miss their graduation. The principal sent copies of all the graduation speeches to the camp, along with diplomas for every exiled senior. Meanwhile, during the commencement ceremony back on the island, in the middle of the stage, there were thirteen empty chairs.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Let it not happen again.

 

 

I am very grateful to Clarence Moriwaki and the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community for their generous assistance in the making of this post. It was a privilege to engage with this unforgettable and challenging story and the enduring legacy of the people who lived it.

[1]Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the video oral histories on the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC) website: (http://www.bijac.org/index.php?p=WELCOME)  The ages given are of the interviewees at the time of their evacuation. Thanks to Clarence Moriwaki for his generous assistance with these sources.

[2]Fintan O’Toole, “Trial runs for fascism are in full flow,” The Irish Timesonline, June 26, 2018.

[3]Incredibly, Japanese legal resident aliens were not allowed to seek U.S. citizenship until the passage of the McCarren-Walter Act in 1952.

[4]Not all spent the war in the camps. Some joined the military and fought in Europe. Some were jailed. Some would be allowed to move outside the exclusion zone for work or school. But no one could return home until war’s end.

[5]Bainbridge Review, December 8, 1941. Cited on the BIJAC website.

[6]Mary Woodward, In Defense of Our Neighbors: The Walt and Milly Woodward Story(Bainbridge Island, WA: Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community / Fenwick Publishing, 2008), 118. This is a beautifully produced and moving account with many striking photographs and illustrations.

[7]My photos of the story wall are used throughout this post. Thanks to Steven Gardner and Johnpaul Jones for their exquisite artistry, and to Paul Dunn and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz for their composite image of the wall and the historic photo of the evacuees walking toward the ferry.

[8]From a display panel at the Bainbridge Island Historical Society.

[9]Jim Friedrich interview with Clarence Moriwaki, July 2, 2018.

 

 

 

Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds to all, according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the Temple every day, but met in their houses for the breaking of bread, sharing their food with glad and generous hearts.

–– Acts 2:44-46

 

In November of 1972 I participated in an Episcopal Church project to engage with American communal movements in a process of dialogue and mutual learning. For three weeks in the snow and cold of New England, five people and a couple of dogs wandered the back roads of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in a 1953 school bus with a rebuilt, unreliable engine. Amid occasional breakdowns and blizzards, we visited a series of communes, ranging from an upscale geodesic dome to an isolated farm with neither plumbing nor electricity. The nights we spent on the bus were cold, and we were one dog short!

As people of faith, committed to watch the horizon where divine intention meets human possibility, we wanted to learn from the modern pilgrims who were making their exodus in search of a new society. What did they hope for? What had they learned? Did their utopian experiments in communal living bear any resemblance to the gospel message?

The Rev. Bill Teska, the priest behind the project, saw in the communal impulse an apocalyptic rejection of the political and economic structures which have been so fatal for both love and justice. The communards, he believed, were saying NO to this world for the sake of something better.

“By thousands, and tens of thousands, they are walking out of this world into a new one. . . In their capacity of standing as living examples of communities whose lives are ordered according to values entirely different from, and in many ways opposed to, the values of this world, the new communes fulfill for our society the same role which monasteries have performed in past centuries.”[i]

Exploring new worlds isn’t for the uncommitted. The trash bin of history is full of failed utopian quests. Even in Eden, there is always a snake or two. And the work can be strenuous. The transformation of consciousness is as daunting as the reformation of society. Every exodus feels the gravitational pull of the “Egypt” in its rearview mirror. But the biblical God has always encouraged the risk-takers: Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

And as Teska wrote at the time about the redemptive hope shared by both church and commune: “The future which the communards envision is one in which triumphant and transfigured Humanity reigns in Love.”

That was many years ago, and I have no idea whether any of those collectives still exist, or to what extent they made a difference in the lives of their members or in the world around them. But I have never forgotten their idealism––or their courage. Blessed are the pure in heart.

At a fairly new communal farm in Maine, I asked someone how their experiment was going. “Ask us in the spring,” he said. “We haven’t gone through our first winter yet. A commune hasn’t proved it can survive until it’s been through a winter.”

In the Plymouth Colony of Puritan immigrants to Massachusetts in 1620, only half made it through their first winter. The ones who survived threw the famous feast of Thanksgiving legend in the fall of 1621, with some combination of European wheat and native corn. About ninety locals––the Wampanoag people––showed up for the potluck, which included some deer meat but no turkey. They outnumbered the immigrants by two to one, but everyone seemed to get along. It would be an example too little followed in the years to come.

However tragic the subsequent history would prove, the early Puritan immigrants idealized their story as a great communal experiment, a chance to revise the tired narratives of the Old World in “a second Eden, rejoicing and blossoming as a Rose, Beautiful as Tizrah, Comely as Jerusalem.”[ii] In that sense, the New England communes we visited in 1972 were heirs of that Pilgrim vision. Liberated from the structures of the past, they hoped to forge a new kind of society and perhaps a new kind of humanity.

But America has always had its dissenters from the glowing narrative of a new people in a new Eden. As Alexander Hamilton would grumble in November of 1787:

“Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses and the evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age?”[iii]

In an America now ruled by a billionaire oligarchy, a raging lunatic, and an unprincipled Congressional majority verging on treason, Hamilton’s cynical doubts would seem to carry the day. The utopian dream of the Pilgrims, or the 1970s communards, has no where to take place in a land so polluted by ignorance, hate and greed. From sea to shining sea, where is Eden now?

For those of us who still dream of a just and loving society, this is a winter of the utmost testing. Many may wither in its icy blast. And yet, come what may, I still believe in divine imagination and human potential. God has a better idea than our despair.

This eschatological idea has been described with biblical eloquence in a poem by Judy Chicago.[iv] May it be sacramentally reimagined at every Thanksgiving feast, and then fulfilled in fact through our daily prophetic acts of compassion, justice, and hope:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

 

Related post: No Place Like Home

 

[i] From a report on the project, written in Advent, 1972, by the Rev. William J. Teska, Eleanor Leiper Hall, and the Rev. Jim Friedrich.

[ii] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 71.

[iii] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers No. 6, “Concerning Dangers of Dissensions Between the States.”

[iv] Judy Chicago, “Merger Poem,” 1979.

Is the American Dream a Con Game?

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

Oftener it falls, that this winged man, who will carry me into the heaven, whirls me into the clouds, then leaps and frisks about with me from cloud to cloud, still affirming that he is bound heavenward and I, being myself a novice, am slow in perceiving that he does not know the way into the heavens, and is merely bent that I should admire his skill to rise …

— Herman Melville, The Confidence Man

In Melville’s final novel, a ‘mysterious stranger’ boards a Mississippi riverboat on April Fools Day, initiating a series of scams upon the gullible passengers. Appearing in various guises, the stranger collects money for distant charities, solicits investments in get-rich-quick schemes, and sells miracle cures, all the while encouraging his marks to have confidence in the dream of better lives and a better world. He is the “winged man” who promises to carry them “heavenward.”

However, the marks soon learn that the hopes and dreams on offer are a total fraud. Melville describes the inevitable disillusion: “I tumble down again soon into my old nooks, and lead the life of exaggerations as before, and have lost the faith in the possibility of any guide who can lead me thither where I would be.”[i]

That riverboat still haunts the American imagination. We fall in love with dreams and schemes of better futures, better selves, a “life of exaggerations,” and invest our confidence in those who promise to deliver. This may work out for some, but more often there is the sting of disappointment, a sense of betrayal. As Greil Marcus has written, “America is a trap: its promises and dreams … are too much to live up to and too much to escape.”[ii]

Unattainable promises. Impossible dreams. The lonely crowd grows sullen, resentful, angry, like Nathanael West’s California dreamers in Day of the Locust (1939). Lured by the prospect of a New Eden out West, over the rainbow, they slave and save until they can afford to move to “the land of sunshine and oranges.”

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges . . . Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time . . . They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment . . . They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.[iii]

W. H. Auden described West’s novel as a parable “about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”[iv] Either way, it’s a figure we all recognize: the Confidence Man, duping the suckers with his promise to make America great again. “Believe me. Believe me. It’s going to be terrific.”

And what happens when the dreamers tumble back to earth? Most of us muddle on as best we can, but in Stephen Sondheim’s darkly comic musical, Assassins[v], nine embittered and unbalanced Americans find a single target for their anger: the President of the United States. In a carnival of lost souls, a smirking barker (the Confidence Man in disguise!) doles out handguns like cotton candy to a new crop of eager marks. If you keep your goal in sight,” he sings, “you can climb to any height. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

No job? Cupboard bare?
one room, no one there?
Hey, pal, don’t despair-
You wanna shoot a president?
c’mon and shoot a president…

John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, Charles Guiteau, Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, John Hinckley and a couple more broken dreamers line up to claim a gun as their means of grace and hope of glory.

And all you have to do
Is move your little finger,
Move your little finger and
You can change the world.

The climax takes us to Dallas, where the gang of murderous misfits pressures Lee Harvey Oswald to join their ranks and assuage their shared malady: “a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed and malignant sense of entitlement.”[vi]

In the finale, all nine assassins come to the front of the stage, singing out with all the confident uplift we expect from our musicals:

Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine!
Not the sun, but maybe one of its beams.
Rich man, poor man, black or white,
Everybody gets a bite,
Everybody’s got the right
to their dreams……

The smiling cast stretches out the last word, “dreams,” for a full twelve seconds as they raise their guns high. The moment the music ends, they all fire at once, a deafening volley, and the stage goes black.

When Assassins premiered in 1990, it was not well received. It seemed too dark and crazy at the time. But when I saw a rare revival this month at Seattle’s ACT Theater, it somehow made perfect sense, so dark and crazy has America become in these latter days.

We all clapped and cheered, of course. It was a fabulous production. The cast was great. It wasn’t all grim. There was plenty of humor. And Sondheim’s songs! But I had tears in my eyes as well. As Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country…”

As the applause went on, I thought of Kierkegaard’s story of a theater which had caught fire backstage as the show was about to begin. The manager grabbed the first actor he found to step through the curtain and warn the audience to evacuate. That actor, alas, was dressed as a clown. “The theater is burning!” he cried. “You must leave immediately!” The audience roared with laughter at the clown’s performance. Such pathos! Such irony! The more he shouted and pleaded, the more they laughed, until they were all consumed by the flames.

 

 

 

[i] Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade in Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd, Sailor (New York: Library of America, 1984), 452

[ii] Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975), 22

[iii] Nathanael West, Day of the Locust (from my personal transcription in a 1968 commonplace journal, original page unknown)

[iv] Wikipedia reference: Barnard, Rita. “‘When You Wish Upon a Star’: Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West” American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51

[v] 1990, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman

[vi] John Weidman interview, quoted in Misha Berson’s Seattle Times review, March 9, 2016

July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson rose before dawn, recorded the temperature at 6 a.m. (68 degrees), had some tea and biscuits, and made his way to Independence Hall. Sixty-nine years later, Henry David Thoreau chose the day to begin his sojourn at Walden Pond. On July 4, 1863, Lee’s Confederate army began its decisive retreat from Gettysburg, and on the same date in 1895 Katherine Lee Bates published “America the Beautiful”. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Foster, Louis B. Mayer and Obama’s oldest daughter were all born on July 4, and both Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50thth anniversary of the Founders’ Declaration. So what do the rest of us have planned for Independence Day?

It was Adams who predicted that the Fourth would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] We have more or less fulfilled the externals of Adams’ vision, but the mindfulness with which we keep the feast is subject to question. In 1975, just before the American Bicentennial, a Gallup poll revealed that 28% of Americans were unable to identify what significant event happened in 1776.

What should we remember as a people? Do we create simplifying myths that unite us with some intoxicating blend of nostalgia and amnesia? Sanitizing and depoliticizing the past is a way to reduce conflict, as in the efforts to heal sectional division after the Civil war. But that can leave grievous social ills unaddressed and unhealed. The current debate about the Confederate battle flag shows how deeply embedded such sanitizing mythology can be. Preserving “heritage,” we discover, is a massive process of forgetting where, in Joan Didion’s memorable phrase, “no one is bloodied by history.”[ii]

Some governments try to supervise the formation of collective memory. The late Soviet Union is a notorious example, but there are also more benign forms of cultivating shared cultural identity (mais oui!). But in America, as Michael Kammen has noted, “people forget and remember largely on their own.”[iii] We have no ministry of culture, and national memory is contested without official referees.

But few of us will give much thought to either politics or culture tomorrow. As a radio talk show guy put it in his summary of America’s military mission: “Those guys are fighting so we can have barbecues and drink beer.”[iv] Pursuit of happiness indeed. But as Daniel Webster noted, it has always been so. “The tavern,” he said, “was the headquarters of the Revolution”[v] – a gathering place where ideas were exchanged and debated. In these latter days we have retained the conviviality of the tavern while dispensing with the ideas. The long-winded orations of old-time Fourths are long gone. There will be little thoughtful discussion of liberty and the common good around the barbecue. No radical challenges to tyranny and oppression will be issued. We’ll just enjoy a day off with our families, friends and neighbors as we pursue happiness together. And in a society fraught with so much division and disconnection, being together in peace and play and joy may be as good a way as any to keep the American feast.

One of the moments when I feel community most vividly is after the last fireworks fade to black above our local harbor. All of us who have watched from the beach begin to make our way along a forest path back to the road. It is too dark to see faces, or anything else that distinguishes one from another. We are an egalitarian procession of shadows, walking together. No longer pursuing happiness, we seem to have found it. Being there together in the night, for a few lovely minutes, is the most important fact about us.

The wonder I feel in the holiday’s concluding moment is beautifully expressed in Samuel Hynes’ memoir of his childhood in the 1930s. Although he grew up in a very different America, his description touches on something timeless:

The last rocket is always the best of all – burst after burst, the echoes rebounding, and then another burst just when you think it is all over. And then it is. The families rise slowly in the sudden silence and fold their blankets, and walk home through the dark, still streets, not talking much, purged by the high splendors they have seen, satisfied that another Fourth is over, another summer has been celebrated with a proper hullabaloo.[vi]

[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203

[ii] Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 667

[iii] ibid., 700

[iv] Overheard on a Montana roadtrip a few years ago.

[v] Angel in the Whirlwind, 494

[vi] Samuel Hynes, The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 111

Simple gifts

Shakers dance

Who will bow and bend like a willow
Who will turn and twist and reel
In the gale of simple freedom …

– Shaker spiritual

John Ciardi said that the poet is known by the valor of his refusals. So too the saint. But the austerity of self-limitation is not what we might have expected from the Wooster Group, the edgy New York City troupe long known for its Dionysian blends of experimental theater and multimedia technologies. Their latest production, however, not only reincarnates the music of the Shakers, it does so with a minimalist restraint worthy of that nearly extinct American sect.

Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation presents all 20 songs from side A of a 1976 LP recorded at the dwindling Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After the liner notes for each song are read aloud, four women in plain 19th century dress sing along with the actual spinning record as it is transmitted to them through wireless receivers. The voice of Suzzy Roche is especially haunting, lean and lonesome and saturated with pastness like a faded tintype. While we listen to these contemporary reproductions of long departed voices, we sometimes hear the faint traces of the original recorded sound leaking into the room from the women’s earpieces. As the New York Times has written: “The aural effect is subtle and eerie, suggesting a kind of phantasmal possession of the present by the past or, if you prefer, the eternal.”[i]

Sitting quietly, passive and still, replicating out loud what they are hearing in their ear, the singers seem to be channeling something not of their own making, a transcendent voice entering the present world by first passing through their own souls and bodies. It feels like the spiritual ventriloquism of biblical prophecy. What shall I sing? Sing this. How fitting for a repertoire which the Shakers often attributed to the gifts of unseen spirits or divine inspiration.

The contrast of the singers’ personal inexpressiveness with such passionate, ecstatic and sometimes eschatological song texts (“with leaping and with dancing / we’ll hail the jubilee”) only strengthens the sense of otherness. What they sing does not come from them, but through them. It is not a spontaneous construct whipped up by emotional display. Such unassertive transparency achieves a strange oracular force. We hear a message from beyond.

Even when the singers rise from their chairs to approximate the original Shaker dances, it is not an exaltation of the self, but a yielding to the higher rhythms of divine choreography. As they reel, turn and twist to “shake out all the starch and stiffening,” they do not express. They surrender.

When I saw this compelling performance the other night in Los Angeles’ Redcat Theater, I was transported – whether to the past, or to the eternal, who can say? But I came away touched by a larger world than my ordinary domain. Voices distant in time had spoken to me. And is this not analogous to the eucharistic liturgy? We listen to ancient voices as if they were here and now, and speak their words from our own lips. Transparent presiders at the altar reproduce actions first performed in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. If we manage to keep our ego out of the way in the liturgy, the eternal Word, like that 1976 Shaker recording, may be heard and received in the fresh particularity of the now.

Some of the Wooster Group might take issue with my theological interpretation. Frances McDormand, the ensemble’s best-known actress, has resisted the religious dimensions of the Shaker tradition, preferring to stress the communal qualities of their musical environment. “It’s not religiously based,” she said in an interview. “It’s more poetic. There are parables to it, but it’s not about Jesus so it’s a little bit easier to take.”[ii]

Such indifference to Christian theology and practice is the common currency of secular modernity, the default position posing a perpetual challenge to those who would speak of faith. Many people think of Jesus and Christianity as something over and done, at least for them.

And yet, here is a cutting edge theater troupe performing religious songs without irony or ridicule, in a creative simulacrum of the otherness of the music’s reputedly transcendent source. While I won’t presume to baptize the Wooster Group, or attribute overt belief where it is explicitly denied, I still wonder whether there might yet be something larger at work in the world than any of us are able either to understand or admit. Whatever the Wooster Group actually thinks about what they are doing, and whatever ideas I might have about it, the “simple gifts” of love and delight go on being given and being received. Whether the mechanism of that exchange can be adequately described or named is perhaps the least important part of the whole thing. Experience trumps the language we put to it. In the end, you don’t need to possess the perfect map before you can dwell in “the valley of love and delight.” You’re already there. Its song is already whispering in your ear.

[i] Ben Brantley, The New York Times, May 29, 2014

[ii] James Kim interview with Frances McDormand, KPPC radio, Jan. 21, 2015