Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Amen

The American echo chamber is so focused on selling everything from cars and cereal, to political sound bites and Bible verses, that a complex discourse underlying our society, such as that hinted at by the emergence of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, gets drowned out in the din, and the time needed to digest it overtaken by our rush to nowhere.

At the heart of Wright's affirmations lies one part of the American mosaic: a faith that developed in a quest to squeeze out meaning out of a lifetime of misery. Let's parse that for a moment.

Faith, quest, meaning, misery.

Faith is, of course, if not the opposite, at least the very distant cousin of knowledge. We believe there will be a tomorrow based on the experience of our yesterdays, but we do not know for a fact that tomorrow is really a day a way. Indeed, the Orphan Annie song is about the perennial American belief that if we can only hold on to the next morning, things will be better.

That's the American quest. In one version, it was to go beyond the ocean, to go beyond the Appalachians to the plains and beyond that, past the Rockies, where the pot of gold was once thought to be found. To leave Europe's prejudices, hatreds, injustices and perennially warring kings behind and instead claim the Promised Land.

Of course, the Indians -- ideological purists note: Indians call themselves "Indian" these days -- had done it before, crossing the Bering Strait about 25,000 years ago for reasons less well known, but happily settling in hunting grounds full of Buffalo.

Also, of course, the westward march of the northwest Europeans was met by Indians and the descendants of Spaniards who had reached the pot of gold at least a century before the English at Jamestown and the Puritans at Plymouth.

Then there's peculiar kidnapping and transport by American, British and Portuguese merchants of African men, women and children for generations of enslaved labor in concentration camps throughout the American South.

This gave birth to a quest directly in conflict with the ambitions of the Europeans, which raises the question of the meaning of all this questing. Why seek out a new life across a land bridge or an ocean? Why lay claim to freedom?

Perhaps because in Asia, Europe and the euphemistically named plantations there was misery and death. In America we dislike the d-word. People among us do not die, they "pass away." Yet ask any anthropologist and you will learn that we learn about the religions of the past through their burial grounds.

Less well known than Karl Marx's famous "opium of the masses" is his dictum that "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation."

The Rev. Wright is defending his people's sigh, much as immigrants did sacramentally in their Catholic ghettoes and the Calvinist unestablished denominations developed their individualistic, capitalist commonwealths -- and Indians mourned the destruction of the dwelling place of many spirits.

In the same vein, the sons and daughters of Abraham came to these shores reassured by George Washington's promise that "the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

To the Jewish people, faith is the conviction that the world is ordered by the laws of a covenant given to their forebears. To the Irish, German, Slavic, Italian and now Latin American immigrants, faith is the assertion that hope can become fleshed in community. To the Anglo-Saxon former colonists faith has seemed to be the Calvinist claim that God helps those who help themselves.

To the black culture, faith is saying "amen" to the claim that freedom is God-given, therefore inalienable. Amen.
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