A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I don’t mean the God of the philosophers or the scholars, but, as Blaise Pascal said, the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.” With no disrespect, I hope the question comes as a jolt. And without being outraged or quick to accuse me of “blasphemy,” know, too, that I am a hopeful monotheist. I might even be called a Christian, only I continue, every day of my life, to fail. Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation weighs heavily on me: “There was only one Christian and he died on the cross.” Call me a failed and broken Christian, but a Christian nevertheless.
So, is your God dead? Have you buried God in the majestic, ornamental tombs of your churches, synagogues and mosques? Perhaps prosperity theology, boisterous, formalistic and mechanical prayer rituals, and skillful oratory have hastened the need for a eulogy.
Perhaps by remaining in your “holy” places, you have sacrificed looking in the face of your neighbor on the street. You know the one: the one who smells “bad” because she hasn’t bathed in days; the one who carries her home on her body; the one who begs. Surely you’ve seen that “unholy” face. I’ve seen you suddenly look away, making sure not to make eye contact with the “unclean.” Perhaps you’re preoccupied with texting, consumed by a work or family matter. Then again, perhaps it’s prayer time and you need to face east, or perhaps you’re too focused on holy communion as you make your way to church. Your refusal to stop, to linger, to look into her eyes, has already done its damage. Your body has already left a mark in its absence, in its fleeing the scene.
My hands are also dirty; I’m guilty of missing the opportunity to recognize something of the divine in the face of the Other on the street. I’m pretty sure I looked away when I caught a glimpse of a homeless man approaching the other day. How different is this from those who walked by the beaten and abandoned man in the parable of the good Samaritan? I failed to see the homeless man as a neighbor.
When we turn away like this we behave as if our bodies had boundaries, as if our skin truly separated us from the Other. But what if, as I would argue, our bodies don’t have strict edges? What if we could develop a new way of seeing the body that reveals that we are always already touching, that we are inextricably linked to a larger institutional and social body that binds us all?
In meditating on these questions, I have found that the prophetic voice of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a Polish-born Jewish-American rabbi and activist, can help us toward an answer. Heschel, who studied in Germany with Martin Buber, and later became a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., warned frequently of the dangers of theological and religious shallowness, of our tendency to “worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.”
Heschel cautions against “an outward compliance with ritual laws, strict observance mingled with dishonesty, the pedantic performance of rituals as a form of opportunism.” And while there are many who worship in churches, synagogues and mosques, who understand that religious truth must be lived, who make a point of looking into the eyes of the woman on the street and show her mercy, too many of us refuse to look, to stop.
As the religious scholar Elisabeth T. Vasko writes, “to be human is to be a person in relation.” And it is this social and existential relationality that ties you to, and implicates you in, the life of that destitute woman. Heschel writes, “How dare we come before God with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings?” If there is a shred of life left in your God, full resuscitation might begin with remaining in the presence of that suffering face. If your God is dead, the possibility for a resurrection might be found in attending to the pain and sorrow of that image of the divine there on the street.
AS A YOUNG BOY, the idea of exempting no one from redemption tested my mother, who was a Baptist. One night I asked her if I could pray for the Devil. Strange, I admit. My mother eventually said yes. So there I was on my knees,
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
God bless my mother, my sister and my friends. And God bless the Devil.”
My older son recently brought to my attention a Mark Twain quote: “Who in 18 centuries has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most … ?” Well, there I was as a little boy doing just that. Beyond boyhood now, and thinking of evil in a less personified way, I no longer pray for the Devil. The more important point here is that we need a paradigm shift in how we lay claim to our religious identities. Why not claim those that are suffused with compassion, a shared reality of suffering together, in which your pain is my pain?
Indeed, King wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Heschel suggests that we should be mortified by the inadequacy and superficiality of our anguish when we witness the suffering of others, the sort of anguish that should make us weep until our eyes are red and swollen and bring sleepless nights and agonizing days. He writes, “We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.”
I have been troubled by the lack of religious and theological outrage against national and global poverty, white racism and supremacism, sexism, classism, homophobia, bullying, building walls, “alternative facts,” visa/immigration bans and xenophobia. Heschel reminds us that when we establish a way of life predicated upon a lie, “the world can turn into a nightmare.” He makes it clear that the Holocaust did not emerge suddenly. “It was in the making for several generations. It had its origin in a lie: that the Jew was responsible for all social ills, for all personal frustrations. Decimate the Jews and all problems would be solved.”
Those signs are here, too. Jewish people I’ve met, whose parents escaped Hitler’s tyranny, have shared with me their parents’ sense of deep alarm under the Trump administration. “Make America Great Again” is a call for law and order buttressed by a white nativist ideology. The lie on which the Holocaust began is still with us.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise. So is the belief that Black pathology is eroding America from within. Black people are told that we live in poverty. That our schools are no good. And we have no jobs. In addition, if we just build a wall, so this divisive logic goes, more of our problems will dissipate. After all, it is Mexicans, we are told, who are bringing drugs, crimes and rapists.
“Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol,” Heschel writes. Think of segregated white churches during Jim Crow, or the many churches today, in our “post-racial” moment, that continue to be de facto segregated every Sunday morning. Think, too, of the blood that has been spilled in the name of the God we claim as our own. You have all heard the underpinnings of this idolatry: “God Bless America,” which I see as the words of a bankrupt neoliberal theology. In fact, there is something profane in that statement, which worships and calls upon a God that blesses America only.
If there are any blessings to be had, the request, surely, mustn’t be partisan. At least in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, it is believed that human beings were created in the image of God. Not just the faithful of these religions, but all humans: Syrian refugees, whom our current administration have deemed threats, were created in the image of God. Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, members of the Ku Klux Klan and Bashar al-Assad all were created in the image of God. So even as we ask God to bless America, surely we must ask God to bless those whom we have deemed threats or enemies. Our blessings must be scattered across the entire world, inclusive of all of humanity.
RECENTLY, TRUMP, SPEAKING at Liberty University, said to a graduating class of future evangelical leaders, “In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God.” The students applauded and cheered. If what Trump said was true, then why didn’t the students turn their backs to him, to protest the contradiction between the poisonous effects of his white nativism, extreme divisiveness and his “theology”? Unless, of course, Liberty University’s God is clad in a profane theological whiteness.
When they were applauding Trump, the students were not applauding a prophetic visionary but someone with a dangerous Pharaonic mentality, one who is intemperate, self-indulgent, power hungry, unpredictable and narcissistic. Remember that the applause was for someone who refuses to take the nuclear option off the table, who said that global warming was a hoax and has now pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, who said of ISIS that he would “bomb the shit out of ’em.”
The graduating students at Liberty University should have been told, as Heschel wrote, that “the age of moral mediocrity and complacency has run out. This is a time for radical commitment, for radical action.”
Heschel, in a speech on religion and race, reminded us of the persistence of autocratic power when he stated that “Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began but it is far from having been completed.” That exodus, originating with Moses and the emancipation of the Jews, as Heschel suggests, is eternal, and signifies the march toward not just an outward physical emancipation but a spiritual one — one that demands fierce self-reflection. I take it that for Heschel, all of the oppressed of the world are in need of an exodus. In another work Heschel later wrote, “One’s integrity must constantly be examined.” Bob Marley, in his song “Exodus,” says, “Open your eyes and look within. Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” Some voices refuse to let us rest. King had such a voice, and so did Socrates.
AND WHAT HAVE WE SEEN? I am pretty sure that no contemporary Christians have seen God, no contemporary religious Jews have seen Yahweh and no contemporary Muslims have seen Allah — certainly not face to face. Yet all of us have seen the aftermath of murdered children from war-torn countries, their fragile bodies covered with blood. I am haunted by the little body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi who lay dead and face down in 2015 on a Turkish beach after his family fled violence in Syria. I continue to be haunted by the murder of an unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012. Hundreds of thousands of children around the world are suffering. We all have known about the cruel and despicable violence toward transgender individuals. We know about the magnitude of human trafficking, the magnitude of poverty, and the sickness of hatred.
Vasko writes, “Through lamentation, voice is given to pain.” Yet our lamenting, our mourning for those who suffer, is far too short-lived. And our charity to those who wail in the night only temporarily eases their pain. According to Heschel, “one may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.” We easily forget the weight of human suffering, the agony. Heschel asks, “If all agony were kept alive in memory, if all turmoil were told, who could endure tranquillity?” Heschel and Vasko help to remind us that we ought to be suspicious of our tranquillity.
In fact, I would ask, what if that tranquillity, that peace of mind, rests on the rotting corpses beneath our feet? What if as we pray and rejoice in our churches, synagogues and mosques, we are throwing handfuls of dirt on God’s casket? After all, prayer and rejoicing can also function as forms of narcissism, as ways to drown out the screams of the poor, the oppressed. In a story shared by Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, she writes that he found praying during the Vietnam War impossible, but necessary to demonstrate. “Whenever I open my prayer book,” he told a journalist, “I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”
Heschel writes, “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.” I wait to be awakened by that scream. I have not yet heard it. It is that scream, that deep existential lament, that will awaken us to the ways we are guilty of claiming to “love God” while forgetting the poor, refusing the refugee, building walls, banning the stranger, and praying and worshiping in insular and segregated “sacred” spaces filled with racism, sexism, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and indifference.
WE HAVE FAILED TO DEEPEN our collective responsibility. Some of us will never do so. What would the world look like if believers from every major religion in every country, state, city and village, shut down the entire world for just a day? What would America look like, on that day, if we who call ourselves believers, decided to weep together, hold hands together, commit together to eradicate injustice? We might then permanently unlock our sacred doors, take a real step beyond our sanctimoniousness, and see one another face to face.
I await the day, perhaps soon, when those who believe in the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” will lock arms and march on Washington, refusing to live any longer under the weight of so much inhumanity. Perhaps it is time for a collective demonstration of the faithful to delay going to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, to leave the pews in churches and pray one fewer time a day. None of us is innocent. “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people,” Heschel reminds us. “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
In 1968, in conversation with King, Heschel asked, “Where does God dwell in America today?” I ask myself this question today. But I do not find the answer. Heschel also asks, “Where does moral religious leadership in America come from today?” I look, but I have not seen it. Perhaps, like Diogenes the Cynic, you’ll find me carrying a lamp in the daytime. But instead of looking for an honest man, I will be looking through the catacombs of your own making, asking, “Is your God dead?”
George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. He is the author of “Black Bodies, White Gazes” and “On Race: 34 Conversations in a Time of Crisis,” and a co-editor of “Pursuing Trayvon Martin” and “Our Black Sons Matter.”
Copyright 2017 New York Times. Reprinted in Vox Populi by permission of the author for educational, non-commercial purposes.