Half-Mast

When I run, I pass a local college with a flag pole out front. The American flag seems to rest perpetually at half mast, a sign of our constant collective tragedy. This time it's for the dozen slain in a California bar, but it will be for something else soon.

The earth over which that limp flag hangs is sick, soaked in the blood of those sacrificed to self-interest and fear. It's a rotting place where we live now, a place where wounds are never allowed to heal. These hurts are once and future. We groan when they break open and ooze across our screens, but we do not mend them. They fester and we sigh as though there were no medicine.

We treat our violence not as a sickness but as a garden to be tended. We grow death in this country, nurture it and ignore its cost while we praise the blooms it brings. Entertainment, money, self-protection, "freedom" — we point to these as reasons to persist in madness, rather than acknowledge them as symptoms of a greater malignancy. What is there to do in such a time as this? Cry for the dead? Rage at the abyss that swallows them? Pray?

For those of us burdened by the Resurrection, we cannot help but remember our call to hope. We are to be people of the third day, people who have seen life on the other side of death. For us, our task is to remember that a violence done, even the ultimate violence, is not a story's end. We are an epilogue people.

And yet.

Even the Christ, he who yokes us with such a hope, does not return from death unmarked. He presents his exit wounds to his disciples, showing them that even if Death no longer reigns, Suffering and Pain still have their place in the narrative of our hope. Even in new life, there is no escaping the marks left by a system obsessed with its nails and spears. Even of Christ, we demand an open wound.

Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.

Noise

Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

Advent3, 2014

This post is late, I know. Advent4 is right around the corner and here I am still on Advent3. Like any good American, I'm too busy to really observe Advent for real. So I write blog posts instead.

Sticking with Isaiah[^1] (as I have in my two previous posts in this series[^2]) brings us to hope, which is appropriate because that's what Advent is. Garland instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning. These are hoped for in the midst of Advent. And implicit in the Christian liturgical observation is that the child born on Christmas is the garland, the gladness, the mantel of praise. Except right now I can't help but think ahead to Good Friday.

When it was announced that there would be no indictment for the death—ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Investigator—of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Many quoted scripture. Many of them quoted scripture from Good Friday, the day marking Jesus' death on the cross. Advent's hope couldn't bear the burden of suffering. Only the cross could do that.

Hope is a work of love. It takes energy and effort to hope, especially in the midst of suffering. But as we hope for the child to deliver garland, gladness, and praise, we do well to remember that his life was not without ashes, mourning, and perhaps even, at times, faint spirit. We remember this not to increase the burden of suffering in the face of hope, but to take full stock of the world the Child enters.

If we hope only for the bright, nostalgic kitsch of nativity scenes, Santa, and holiday cards, we hope for an empty nothing. We deny the full power of the claim that the divine has entered the world in a barn, as the son of an oppressed people yearning for freedom, who truly realized the weight of the world, and who preached gladness but ultimately experienced pain.