What I was and am not; what I am and wasn’t

TO SEE MORE CLEARLY

Seeing more clearly takes time. It takes experience. It demands patience — with myself and with others — and it takes courage. Courage to let go of ideas we took for granted: who we are, what we aspired to become, our place in the cosmos.

Paul Tillich knew about courage and patience. The first professor to be dismissed from his teaching position during the rise of the Third Reich, Tillich came to see faith as “the courage to be” — and “to be” means being in motion, growing, changing, dying, leaving parts of ourselves behind. Neither courage alone nor patience alone is the courage to be.

Which leads me back to where we began. If you now see homophobia, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and climate change-denial as offensive, what do you do in relation to a homophobic anti-Semitic white nationalist climate change-denier?

SELF-KNOWLEDGE AND SELF-CRITICISM

I have never been a white nationalist. Neither have you, I suspect. But, looking back, I see that my classmates and I drank from the well of white nationalism. Every school day began with our hands over our hearts, facing the flag.

Photo of school children reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Although we might have wondered why we were pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth, we didn’t give it much thought. We took it less as a statement of national aspiration than as a statement of national exceptionalism, a statement of fact.

But it wasn’t a fact. We learned that America was deeply divisible — between slave traders and plantation owners, and the African slaves they kidnapped, bought, and sold on the slave blocks; between the European settlers and the North American continent’s first people, cheated of their treaty rights, stripped of their land, religious practices, sovereignty, and civil rights; between professing Puritan Christians and the “witches” of Salem, burned at the stake as people “unfit for our society”; between the real Americans — the Christians — and the Christ-killers; between the straight majority and the LGBTQ minority who suffered alone in silence; between the landed aristocracy of the founding fathers and the laborers who bled picking cotton in the cotton fields in the south and worked without labor protections in the factories of the industrial north.

That was the “world” in which I lived, and that was the world that lived in me. As I continued through the years, I did my best to replace naïveté with consciousness, challenging the myth of American exceptionalism as a reformer, social critic, and activist.

I learned in time that unless I wanted to be a pompous ass, patience was required with others and with myself. “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation” is the Bible’s version of Plutonium-239’s half-life of 24,000 years. It describes the toxic waste passed down river from one generation to the next.

BALANCING COURAGE AND PATIENCE

Nuclear waste doesn’t disappear. Neither does the sin of exceptionalism in its racial, economic, gender, religious, and national manifestations. The toxic waste of exceptionalism — the conviction that one’s nation, race, culture, creed, gender, class . . . or species . . . is the exception to history and nature — is the unacknowledged original sin we manage to make original every day by exalting ourselves over others and over nature itself.

FEMA photograph of helicopter fighting California forest fire.
FEMA photograph of helicopter over California forest fire.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE REPUBLIC

As the climate change clock ticks toward midnight, patience seems less of a virtue than courage acting now. We who pledged allegiance to the flag “and to the Republic for which it stands” are losing patience with each other. We are ‘indivisible’ only if we decide we are. If we and those we elect place our flawed understandings of our personal interests above our responsibility to honor and maintain the Republic, our not-so original original sin may be our last.

It takes courage to confess one’s participation in the evils we deplore. And it takes patience with those who seem to have logs in their eyes.. “If we say we have no sin,” declared the minister Sunday mornings in the church of my childhood, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The minister who invited us to own up to sins of omission and commission was the man I knew at home as Dad. I wonder what Dad would do if he could see us now.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 30, 2019.

8 thoughts on “What I was and am not; what I am and wasn’t

  1. I was brought up to NEVER EVER speak ill of anyone’s race, religion, or color. But nonetheless, we lived in a white neighborhood and the only dark people I knew were the women who helped clean the house. I got to know them very well. i was such a nosy kid, always asking questions.

    Eventually, they started to take me home with them for the weekend to meet THEIR kids. I wasn’t really popular in my own venue and it was refreshing to meet new children.

    Even though I’m married to a brown person and more than half our friends are a very mixed bag or races and colors and religions, they are all “high end” people — college professors, TV folks, and other professionals. We may not be white nationalists, but I think we are all snobs (and hate to admit it). The snobbery includes people of every color and ethnicity. Another of the little evils we don’t like to discuss!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marilyn, that last paragraph deserves widespread attention. When Rep. Jim Jordan said last night that “63 million people voted for Donald Trump, and you don’t like them,” he was positioning himself as a working class guy who loves those the “high end” folk, i.e., Democrats, look down upon. Classism is the finger that points at us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been ruminating on “exceptionalism” ever since you commented that Koyama said he was coming to believe it is the basic sin.

    Like

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