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.

Kim Davis, Freedom of Conscience, and the American Tradition of Religious Pluralism

Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis has been in the news for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on the grounds that her religious beliefs forbid it. She has been jailed, national politicians have jumped to her defense, she has been both demonized and trumpeted as a hero. The pluralism of belief in the United States means that the place of religion in public life will always have the potential to be one of the most divisive topics in American politics.

In the documents that form the United States and in their own private lives and discourse, our Founders intended to establish a society where freedom of conscience reigned and no one would be subject to coercion in their beliefs by an official of the government. Because the U.S. is an increasingly religiously diverse nation, an authentic, ongoing, sharp-edged pluralistic discussion is a necessity if the unity of the United States is to be maintained and a just society is to be cultivated. Otherwise, our rhetoric will devolve into the vitriol we have seen surrounding Kim Davis and the gay marriage question in the last few weeks.

A Christian Nation?

Kim Davis, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson would not exactly see eye-to-eye with the Founders who made concrete their Enlightenment principles in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. While the Founders certainly carved out a place for religion in America, they never gave credence to a specific religion.

A well-known document crafted by John Adams and the U.S. Senate puts this bluntly. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. Specifically Article 11:

the government of the United States... is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.[^1]

President George Washington, for his part, was no Christian. According to Brooke Allen, on his deathbed Washington did not speak of heaven or ask for a minister to preside over his death. Rather, "his last act was to take his own pulse, the consummate gesture of a creature of the age of scientific rationalism."[^2]

Other Founders went to greater lengths to impose their rationalism on the world. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia with no religious affiliation, and "even banned the teaching of theology at the school."[^3] It is well-known that Jefferson edited his own version of the New Testament, which he called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Jefferson carefully deleted (literally cut out of the Bible with a scalpel) any miraculous passage of the Gospels that did not conform to Jefferson's understanding of reason.

These three examples don't cover the entire body of men who shaped the beginnings of the United States,[^4] but they represent a sample of the kinds of sentiments that operated among men of their standing and generation. For the Founders, the main concern about religion was that the new nation be free from bondage to its rule. With this concern, the Founders established a possibility for pluralism and laid the groundwork for the great flourishing of religion we see today.

The Founders understood that the power afforded the banner of religion by its adherents could be a corrupting agent in government. They knew that governmental power and religious power combined could be catastrophic to the new nation. They sought to mitigate the threat to individual freedom posed by the confluence of religion and government.

In the person of Kim Davis, we can see the outcome when government power and religious doctrine meet. In her power as a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, Kim Davis has unilaterally limited the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of her fellow citizens based on her religious beliefs alone.

There is an overwhelming feeling in the United States that the country will tear itself apart over issues of religious diversity, including secularism. However, according to John Meacham “history suggests… that there is hope, for we have been fighting these battles from our earliest days and yet the American experiment endures.”[^5] The question is why, even with all of the challenges presented by a society like the United States, the Union still stands.

The Founders knew this would be a divisive issue for their new nation. Their solution was to separate the state from the power of religion and religion from the power of the state. These separations were grounded in freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Conscience

What does freedom of conscience mean? Basically what we’re talking about here is freedom from external coercion directed by the government. However, it cannot mean that individualism and total self-sovereignty reign. That is the way being tested by Kim Davis and her supporters.

If freedom of conscience is to flourish, it must be based first on respect—perhaps even love—between individuals, and it must be guarded by the government. Freedom of conscience, guaranteed by America’s framing documents, promises something deeper than freedom to act, speak, and assemble; it promises that the right to think freely will be defended by the government, as long as citizens respect each other.

The Founders did not seek to separate “faith and politics” or “religion and public life.” No. They sought to separate the institutions of religion and government. Separating the public spheres of religion and government was not about secularizing society, it was about “protecting conscience by insisting on clear institutional boundaries.”[^6] Personal faith could inform politics, private religion could be manifest in public life, and how an individual chose to exercise her religion was her own business. But faith itself “should not be singled out for special help or particular harm” among private citizens.[^7]

In a nation as diverse as the United States, the government and its officers have a responsibility to the free thought of every individual under the government’s power. Importantly, the Constitution’s religion clauses exist not only to protect doctrinaire believers, but to “protect the right of religious dissenters.”[^8] For the Founders, the greatest sin was to impinge upon another human being’s freedom of thought and ability to choose. Here the reader may herself connect the issue of “religious dissenters'” rights being impinged upon to the actions taken by Kim Davis’.

For Americans, the way forward is paved by freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution and in respect for one another. For Christians, the way forward is paved by love of neighbor grounded in Christ and in freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution.

Pluralism

”Freedom of conscience is, in a sense, the reason for pluralism and also the appropriate and just response to pluralism.”[^9]

Pluralism is forever an attempt. The point of pluralism is not to achieve perfect agreement on all matters and tastes. Pluralism is not the savior of society; it will not fix all ills or erase sin from the world. What pluralism does do is aim at achieving relationship. Only if we openly, respectfully disagree can we come to understand our disagreements and begin to find common ground. The Founders knew this and so built freedom of conscience into the Constitution through separation of church and state, providing the foundation of plurality itself.

This is all well and good, but if the discussion of who we are devolves from respectful dialogue to angry muttering, idealistic positivism (as in the Kim Davis case), or outright violence, then we should begin to worry.

A generation of pluralism is not enough. A commitment to religious literacy, respect, understanding, and the responsibility of citizens to teach their children the way of pluralism is required. For Christians, pluralism means dedication to Jesus' command, “You shall love your neighbor.” American Christians should be the champions of pluralism. It is time that we worry less about politics and more about love. Building a perfect society is an unattainable goal. We will not save ourselves from sin. But pluralism grounded in freedom of conscience and love of neighbor grounded in Christ are steps toward a society that cherishes justice for all.

The Might of Your Own Hand

With Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the Baltimore riots sparking dialogue in the church about race and justice in America, it is impossible to avoid discussions of privilege. Except, for some of us, the reaction seems to be to resist discussions of privilege entirely. This effort at willed ignorance stands not only against the reality of privilege, but also against the Christian witness about the gifted nature of our existence.

This is privilege: a road made straight, a route constructed without the labor of one's own hands, traffic and street signs made to fit one's own understanding of the rules of the road.

It is strange to be alive at all, is it not? Then it should not be so strange to imagine people born with advantages beyond their own responsibility. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943 that it is natural to look back with special thankfulness upon the joys of life, the unflagging support of friends and family, a way made smooth. Many Christians seem to have lost this thankfulness in the intervening 72 years. If they have not, then I wonder why so many react defensively to the concept of privilege. Bonhoeffer says: "no one can create and assume such life from his own strength."[^1]

This is ancient knowlege, not a product of some newly devised postmodern liberalism. Moses says,

Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.[^2]

He goes on to say that to forget this is to forget the Lord God and worship other gods. If wealth is anything in our present situation, it is a god. But wealth is perhaps too ambiguous for this discussion.

Being itself should be the basis of any Christian investigation of privilege. Life, from the Christian perspective, is a gift. Combined with the image of God within each person, the gift of being is the basis of equality for all humanity. This basic equality is erased by our economics, ethics, politics, and cultures. We erase our gifted equality. We sin.

Of course, part of the Christian witness is also an affirmation of our status as forgiven beings. Sin does not have the last word. But here I want to hold on to repentance as a precondition for grace. In relation to inequality, to repent is to contend with privilege. One must ask, how straight is my road? Is it smoother than my neighbor's road? What advantages have I reaped without the labor of my own hands? When has my labor yielded a greater harvest than my neighbor's when our efforts were equal? Have I often reaped more even when my efforts lagged? When my neighbor has been unable to work as I have, has s/he perhaps been burdened by something I do not see or cannot understand?

But one must go further than questions. Bonhoeffer would say that to stop here is "cheap grace." Answers to these questions aren't available in isolation. Life is a gift, and it is as Jesus says:

When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.[^3]

Contending with privilege is the same. First ask imaginative questions, then be reconciled to your neighbor. Only then may you be reconciled to God.

In the future, when confronted with discussions of privilege, simply repent. Turn away from defensiveness and toward your neighbor. Remember your life is a gift. Be reconciled to your neighbor, and offer your life back to your maker.