For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard, there isn’t any other tale to tell, and it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
– James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues
I believe that until Americans, especially Christians and theologians, can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with ‘recrucified’ black bodies hanging from the lynching trees, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.
– James Cone, quoted in Chris Hedges, The Heresy of White Christianity
To see beauty in tragedy is very difficult. One needs theological eyes to do that. We have to look beneath the surface and get to the source.
– James Cone, quoted in (Ibid)
In the medieval idea of the injured king, the Grail King, suffering from the incurable wound, the injured one again becomes the savior. It is the suffering that evokes the humanity of the human heart.
– Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
The one who suffers is, as it were, the Christ come before us to evoke the one thing that turns the human beast of prey into a valid human being. That one thing is compassion.
For the ideas helping the direction of this essay, I am indebted to Chris Hedges’ recent essay in Truthdig about black theologian James Cone. I am grateful to Mr. Hedges for his hailing of one of the most powerful cultural figures we have, whose insights, because he is of that backward-gazing group of intellectuals known as “theologians,” is inevitably marginalized by the secular liberal left. Marginalization of such a voice surely helps to maintain the continued visionlessness and depleted vitality among progressive secular liberals.
Back when I was teaching freshman English classes I became acquainted with the short story by James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues. Its final image of “the cup of trembling,” the powerful portrayal of jazz improvisational music and Sonny’s struggle to achieve the breakthrough of salvation, from irreparably broken and separate, to a “trembling” beautiful and whole, remains vivid for me many years later. At the time, involved as I was in the 12-step recovery movement which brought me down into my personal powerlessness, I heard the story as speaking to a struggle that is human, and not exclusive to black people. That premise of mine has not changed in the intervening years. Back then, I realized the only societal institution that still carried this healing, redemptive story forward, the story that includes suffering, however much the keepers of faith had distorted and betrayed its profound and universal meaning, was the church. When I say “the church” I am imagining the Catholic Church, which to my mind then and to this day has leastrationalized itself away from that centrality of the processof becoming human.
Even though I converted to the church almost 30 years ago, I am not today a practicing Catholic, mainly because of the incapacity of the church’s keepers to swim in the human, imaginative, chthonic depths that are the matrix of religion. (i.e., they don’t encourage the gnostic heresy!) I withdrew after 4-5 years of active practice. Though I bring this up, I harbor no illusions that matters of church membership, or religious faith, in the religiophobic climate of secular progressive white liberalism, are interesting to most people on the liberal left. That issue has been satisfactorily settled; we move on.
However, an issue that has not been settled for white liberals of my acquaintance, that cannot be moved on from, is the white supremacy that caused Sonny’s suffering. They profess troubled feelings in regards to racial injustice; they’re aware of the real threat of fascism. What complacently secularized liberals cannot see is that, in refusing to allow into consciousness the knowledge buried under “dead” religion, the effort to legislate against racism is hopeless. At bottom, what we refuse – those of us who are “over” religion’s authority, its irrational belief, etc. – is our suffering.
Moreover, though certainly as available to white persons as to black, and as given in the real experienceof being a white human as in being a black human, through the unseen social “deals” that have been contracted over time, suffering has been made optional for white people. That this state of affairs has come about is completely understandable; naturally, no one choosesto suffer. That black people have suffered under 400 years of oppression based upon skin color is not because they wantto suffer, or are better suited to“handling it!” The fact remains, though, that as Baldwin saw, black suffering hasboth “tragedy and beauty” in it; it has “redeeming value.” In some way, despite or by means ofthe terrible oppression inflicted on them, as James Cone wrote, black Americans have produced a religion that “is more creative and meaningful and true than white religion.” Moreover, they have brought to American culture its most beautiful and influential musical art, in the forms of spirituals, blues and jazz music. Because of the suffering of Black people, America has a soul, and it is not white.
Was all this beauty worth the cost of 4 centuries of suffering? Such a question can scarcely be asked. But the truth is, the beauty comes from the struggle, on the part of those whose spirit was not completely crushed under the yoke of hatred and indifference,to find their true strength, denied under white culture, to use their creative talent (a free and spiritual gift) and make something beautiful. On the other hand, we now must comprehend that the social and economic order that obscenely benefited just a few white people at the top, at the same time “gifted” all white people by exempting us from suffering!
The gift has proved double-edged; not only have the majority of white people acquiesced to a social/political order sustained by barbarity, but our cultural art-making, from Hollywood to Broadway, has become increasingly pointless and banal; art having no special concerns except elitist formal ones or frankly capitalistic profit-driven ones. On the social level the full cost of the exemption is thefailure to enter the process of becoming human,which, when normalized, allows no alternative to the predatory competition and scarcity that produce white supremacy. At the personal, individual level, whatever experiences individuals undergo in the context of living, including the pain and wounding that are unavoidable, the cost of of our exemption from suffering is the meaning in it, i.e., the beauty that is truth and the truth that is beauty.
My teacher in this imaginative understanding of suffering was the mythologist Joseph Campbell who pointed out in the PBS Power of Mythseries the necessary connection between suffering and joy, or sacrifice and bliss conveyed in myth. It’s possible that very few people grasp the full import of teacher Campbell’s story of the man overheard in a restaurant remonstrating with his child who refuses to eat his “broccoli.” To the child’s lenient mother the father says, “He can’t go through life doing doing what he wants to do…Look at me, I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.” Capitalist society requires we live in unconscious obedience to this anti-eros rule, essentially living our lives as a punishment for an unnamed and unknowable sin, never to realize that breaking this rule, i.e., following bliss, is nothing less than placing one’s feet upon the path of becoming human.
I recall Campbell saying Christianity’s cross put too much emphasis on suffering. Eastern and mystic traditions, emphasizing ecstatic union with the divine, were better in this respect. To Campbell, the transformational path was oriented toward bliss, and bliss, the identification with the Ultimate Oneness of Being, is the final meaning of suffering. From my perspective, as one who has struggled a lifetime with the interiorized rule against desire, Campbell was one of those exceptional geniuses who knew from a young age that he would do only what he wanted to do. Without disagreeing with his bias toward bliss, I would argue the cross, in particular Cone’s “cross as lynching tree,” is the necessary symbolic partner to Campbell’s famous “follow your bliss” formula. Without it, for us bourgeois Americans, “following bliss” is just further banality. Campbell’s message, bringing the necessary antidote to a Christian-built white society that presumes to teach its young to refuse desire and joy, is incomplete. Secular and Christian alike need the cross-as-lynching-tree, which has the potential to correct the lie, taught over many generations, that some people are exempt from suffering.
Never can I risk sounding casual about real suffering. But exemption from suffering is disastrous: it removes the necessity to enlarge one’s humanity. Echoing Nietsche’s assertion one must love one’s fate (i.e, the cross), Campbell said, “if you say no to a single factor in your life, you have unraveled the whole thing…the more challenging or threatening the situation or context to be assimilated or confirmed, the greater the stature of the person that can achieve it.” Whereas for a white person to tell a black person “you should love your fate” is unthinkable, the authentic beauty of the Blues and of the great gospel singers comes from people whose fate could not be made optional. The great lesson white people must learn if we are to regain vitality and be capable of compassion is to refuse the exemption.
Significantly, suffering, whether mine or yours, whether the sufferer is bourgeois liberal or poor, always contains an implicit critique of illegitimate authority. And here may be the hiddencause of white people’s tendency, as individuals, to be stopped by fear at the threshold of the process of humanization: To throw off the oppressive dictum “I must never do what I want” makes necessary a complete bottom-up revision of the society. It radicalizes, for now one sees right through to power’s naked truth, to the weakness inherent in the tyrant’s “I can never do what I want and therefore you must not either.”
Because the soul’s critique is so deep, discernment is needed in determining where its critique gets directed. For those of us not inclined to blame poor people and immigrants, it is simplest to direct it at oneself, and, next, at the people in one’s immediate environment. Parents can be blamed for one’s unhappy life. Uticans can be blamed for the failure of one’s Utica coffee business to thrive. The spouse can be blamed for one’s personal misery. But these are our community, grotesquely broken as it may be. As the repository of the human, the soul does not accept illegitimate class distinctions or enmitizing. The critical eyes have to be lifted up from the immediate target – not easy to do when one is suffering, and has absorbed the gospel of temporality, the “optional” nature of misery in the neoliberal world – to what the situation, or the institution, etc., is doing to humanity. For instance, if you hated school, but denied your true feelings and blamed yourself for your unhappiness, your soul’s repulsion for schooling – i.e., for its leveling effect on the greatness of souls, turning them from stardust to sawdust – can be trusted. Its authority is legitimate even when confirmed by no one in the liberal milieu.
For anyone who is interested, there isa way white people can lose our default white supremacy and, in a real way, not only “stand up for oppressed others,” but be inthe struggle, tooth-and-nail, for liberation and against oppression. To do this, it will be necessary to make our way back to the truth of the process of becoming human, a truth which belongs to the domains of religion and of art.