A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
We are in a deep spiritual crisis that can’t be relieved by politics, or philosophy.
This letter was prompted by the 22 precious lives taken in El Paso on August 3, 2019, by a 21-year-old white supremacist gunman. He told investigators that he wanted to kill as many Mexicans as possible — people who Donald Trump, in his campaign for the office of president, described as criminals “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime,” and as “rapists.”
Just hours after I sat down to write, I heard about the horrible killings of nine more people, this time in Dayton, Ohio, carried out by a 22-year-old white male gunman. How much can any of us take? We are failing ourselves. We are not asking the right questions; we are failing to use truthful and courageous discourse to describe the suffering from human violence, the sort that is nationally and globally predicated upon forms of white nationalism.
Regarding those killed in El Paso, President Trump said, “God be with you all.” Personally, I’ve had enough of empty rhetoric and religious hypocrisy when it comes to naming white supremacy.
I have no idea what Trump means when he utters those words, or what they amount to, other than an effort at mass distraction and obfuscation. To sow seeds of white racist divisiveness, hatred and xenophobia, and then cynically use the words of a healing spiritual message stinks of religious duplicity; it is discourse steeped in denial.
As You know, God, Trump recently tried to smear four congresswomen of color (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib) with remarks that included, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” The language is both divisive and violent.
This is the same Trump who, after Representative Greg Gianforte’s violent assault on a reporter in 2017, said, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my type.” This is not just about tone; it is about character; it is about what Trump believes. A racist mass shooting, which is clear in the case of El Paso, is what “go back” looks like when it materializes in physical violence. Trump’s words are weaponizable. He makes it easy.
I’m tempted to say that for Trump and his vast evangelical following enough is never enough. And if this is so, something has gone theologically awry. We have not become more loving as a nation. As James Baldwin writes, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” Baldwin doesn’t mean to offend; he is, I’m certain, a prophet of love.
So, why write this letter? Ralph Waldo Emerson argues: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticisms. The foregoing generations beheld God face to face; we through their eyes. Why should not we also have an original relation to the universe?” Emerson emboldens a legitimate question, though one with a theological inflection: Why can’t I have an original relation to You, God? There is nothing about our universe that proves a priori that this letter will not be heard by You. So, I’ll just take the leap.
I realize that the act of writing such a letter is itself hasty as it assumes that You exist. Of course, if You don’t, and there is no absolute, faultless proof that You do, then this letter speaks to nothing at all. The salutation is perhaps a bit silly. Yet, that is the risk that I take. In fact, it is a risk worth taking.
Karl Marx would be quick to remind me that I have been seduced by religion, the opium of the people. Sigmund Freud would tell me that I’m infantile, needing a “God-figure” that functions as an illusion to restrain certain human impulses. Bertrand Russell would tell me that many arguments for Your existence (cosmological, ontological, teleological) are simply false and that science, in terms of its access to genuineknowledge, eclipses religion. The atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and, before his death, Christopher Hitchens, have no place for You in their thinking unless it is to show that You have been created by human religious superstition, whose history, they might add, has proved to be morally abysmal. Yet, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at least calls himself an agnostic; he is on the proverbial fence until there is verifiable evidence to the contrary.
I’m often possessed by a visceral angst, at times unbearable, a sense of suffering that I feel isn’t satisfied by atheism, agnosticism or, paradoxically, theism. Theists, after all, are too certain; for me this certainty can too quickly satisfy that profound sense of searching, of really wanting to know, of painfully screaming in the night for Your existence to be revealed, a face-to-face moment. You, of course, remain hidden (Deus Absconditus). Why? Is it too much to ask, as a philosopher in the 21st century, to reveal yourself to me, to the world, to have an original relation to You, like Moses?
I’m not even sure of your name. I hope that confession speaks to a loving posture, an openness to know Your name and be touched by that truth, and not a failure of will on my part. So, I will call you by various names — Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah, Adonai, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Ahura Mazda, Kami, Obatala and Oshun. To be fair to Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism and Yoruba deities, these names I speak with respect. Of course, there are so many more names. Some, especially religious believers of various persuasions, might consider this act of naming to be an instance of idolatry. I see it as an act of humility, a longing. I stand by that humility because I long to knowif You exist, where even that desire to know might itself be filled with pride.
This letter is not meant to proselytize, to convert. Rather, the letter is meant to entreat that which is perhaps beyond all of the major religions and yet inclusive of all of them, hoping that perhaps each one has something to say partially about You. I say all of this even as I define myself as a hopeful Christian theist, the kind who hopes, without any certainty, that You exist and that the strength of agape, Christian love, is possible and liberating in a world filled with so much existential, social and political catastrophe, where anguished parents cry long into the night because their children have been taken too soon by acts of mass violence.
This letter is a lamentation; it speaks to our human pain and suffering, but it also speaks to this philosopher’s dread in the face of apparent silence. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “It is not just that we are in search of God, but that God is in search of us, in need of us.” That is not a philosophical argument, but I eagerly respond: I am here!
This is not a private prayer, but an entreaty shared publicly. It is intended to be inclusive, to speak on behalf of human suffering that is hard for any of us to bear alone. As a philosopher, I realize that I’m supposed to be “philosophical,” objective, calm under pressure. As You already know, I’m not that kind of philosopher. I weep too much. I feel too deeply. I’m impatient when it comes to human suffering, especially forms of suffering that I helped to create. My anger and my frustration overflow, the existential devastations that I witness are too great to remain philosophically poised.
I am not like René Descartes sitting in his stove-heated room delineating “proofs” for Your existence. I am facing a non-ideal world where I witness haunting images of unspeakable tragedy. I’m thinking here, as You know, of the Salvadoran father Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, who were found floating face down in the Rio Grande; they drowned as they attempted a border crossing. In what world do I live such that it continues after their deaths? We should stop in our tracks, refuse to go on living as normal and bring an end to this level of suffering — today. And what about the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, who lay face down on a Turkish beach after his family tried to flee violence from Syria. When I look at those photos, or think about the tragic deaths in El Paso and Dayton, or about the three killed at theGilroy Garlic Festivalin Gilroy, Calif., on July 28, it is my death that I see. John Donne had it right. All human death “diminishes me.” And Donne continues, “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Yahweh, I die just a little when Palestinian children are killed by Israeli forces. Allah, I die just a little when Israeli children are killed by the hands of Palestinians. According to one report, 2,175 Palestinian children and 134 Israeli children have been killedsince September 29, 2000. There is a deep feeling of personal moral failure when I read about such deaths. Shiva, Vishnu, Ahura Mazda, Oshun, Kami — we need your help. Allah, if you are there, please hear the cries of those Israeli children. Yahweh, if you are there, please hear the cries of those Palestinian children. Even as billions of religious believers across religious traditions prostrate themselves in ritualistic prayer, we continue to suffer from horrible acts of violence.
The weight of myopic fanaticism and dreams of white national purity takes its toll. I’m thinking of the nine who were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015; the 11 who were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018; the 51 who were killed at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019.
So, it is with this letter that I seek You, that I ask for something more than we seem to be capable of, more than the routine prayers that are said in response to tragedy and sorrow. I don’t want to simply repeat clichés and recall platitudes. I am a philosopher who weeps; I am a human being who suffers.
This letter is not for me alone. It can’t be. The suffering of others is too great not to be moved by it, not to feel somehow partially responsible for it. So, it is with this letter that I seek an original relation, one that seeks our collective liberation, one that desires to speak especially on behalf of children and to free them from our miserable failure as adults to honor their lives more than we honor flags, rhetorical mass distraction, political myopia, party line politics, white nationalistic fanaticism and religious vacuity.
George Yancy is professor of philosophy at Emory University. His latest book is Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America.
Copyright 2019 George Yancy. First published in The Stone, an imprint of The New York Times. Included in Vox Populi with permission.