History: The Tragedy and the Farce

Karl Marx begins his famous essay of 1851, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” with the statement that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” A few sentences later Marx goes on to say “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” [My italics for emphasis]

These two passages have haunted me ever since I first read them in college, when I was only beginning to sense the historic and burdensome memories that shape our present action. It wasn’t until the events of January 6 that I realized what forms the farcical repetition of tragic history might take—and that they can be comedic and deadly at the same time. (The actual events in France at that time are mind-numbingly complicated but bear eery similarities to some of our own recent history.)

From the time we dress up for Halloween as little children we begin to shape our lives and actions through the costumes handed down to us by the Big People who are guiding our lives. By the time we realize that the Big People running our lives are simply older and no longer bigger, we think that History or God must be the guiding author of the drama for which we costume ourselves every day, especially for the great occasions of graduation, marriage, funerals, work, and court appearances. We know what to do, we know the scripts, we know the plot. We are secure in the immense uncertainty of action.

That is our everyday life. If we become responsible for thousands, yea millions, of others whom we are designated to represent, the power of these costumes and roles becomes even more enormous. For those who act in the pure freedom of not having a script, bold actions can result in victory, praise, the confirmation of the crowd and oft-remembered stories for future generations. If they fail, even with the best of intentions, it is tragedy. The noble effort falls into a black abyss of self-destruction.

The costumes, scripts, and plots of great successes in the storied past become the props of risky action in the present. We act believing that history will repeat itself, that it will fulfill and confirm the play that once worked upon the world’s stage of our ancestors. But, Marx intones, it ends in farce. Why? Because history is not a stage that can be reconstructed for each play. It is constantly changing in response to deep contradictions and unseen forces, not to mention fresh players. The players come dressed for a stage that no longer exists. Their once-victorious performances are soon exposed to ridicule because they no longer fit the stage on which they seek to enact their noble drama. They are no longer vessels of greatness but of mindless parody. Their efforts to re-enact heroic epics soon reveal themselves to be a farce.

And so the horrendous attack on the Capitol—the first effort in American history to overturn an election—was enacted by men in Revolutionary War hats, Norse warrior get-ups, Confederate flags, and more, I am sure. They had scripts of Revolutionary Patriotism and Confederate rebellion to guide them, but now detached from the actual, present-day world they sought to rescue or destroy. And indeed, they, like many of us, did not acknowledge that the historic successes of our past all contain profound expressions of tragedy: the compromise over slavery that made possible our Constitution, the genocidal attacks on indigenous peoples that cleared the land for European settlement, the despoliation of the land in the drive for “progress,” and many more. They dressed in the costumes and chanted the scripts of their imagined heroes.  It was as if the play world of a million TV programs had been unleashed upon the world while its author watched it all with delight on TV.

In the face of seeming anarchy we all search for scripts to guide us in our action and quell our fear. But history does not repeat itself, though we would have it do so for our sakes. What we must do is try to see the world around us as it really is, not merely as an instant in some all-encompassing drama whose outcome is clear and whose author is known. We are like children seeking the Big People who will provide us with the costumes to navigate this strange world. But they are not here. What Marx was trying to tell his would-be leaders of the revolutionary Proletariat in the mid-nineteenth century was that they needed to look at their situation with the eyes of a scientist trying to understand what is going on around them. Marx may have been wrong about those facts, but that is what we need to do now.

What is the real world? It is shouting at us in extreme weather events arising in the warming of our atmosphere, in the unparalleled global systems of communication and information transfer, in the immense immediate diversity of the varied peoples of the earth, in the suffering of our fellow creatures and the diseases of a disrupted ecology. The destructive farce of recent weeks must not leave us in anger, searching for outworn plots and costumes, but open to discovering the world that scientists (yes, scientists), craftsmen and women, mothers and fathers, farmers and healers are finding in their actual lives. There is where we are called to act in response to the extreme disruptions in the real world around us.

 

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Breaking Through

 

We found

beneath the mulch of leaves and sticks

the rough earth

the broken glass

a bursting acorn

seeking the light

its infantile roots

locked

against a rock below

No

against an asphalt sheath.

A road had run

beneath our garden

from the street and

back across the tracks

behind our house

down to the creek

to reach a long abandoned power plant.

But now

the roots were breaking

through a tiny crack

to find the earth below the tar-built plate

To resurrect the forest

which had sheltered for a hundred thousand years

a life once filled

with plants and trees and birds

with deer and bears and butterflies

A wild luxuriant symphony.

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Faith—Historical and Mystical

I have been wrestling lately with the historic tension between the faith life anchored in history and the faith rooted in mystical awareness of the Eternal. In his recent posting in Prayer and Politiks, my good friend Ken Sehested calls it the tension between the mystical vision of the ‘thin space’ experience and the historical struggle for justice, where “Heaven’s ecstasy and earth’s agony overlay.” We need the mystical vision, he writes, in order to “confront history’s ruinous condition,” and, like the early Civil Rights leaders in Greensboro NC, to hear “Heaven’s promise…in the midst of Earth’s affliction.” The historical work of liberation needs the mystical work of King’s Dream and, as he recites in his posting, St Brigit of Ireland’s prayers.

Ken is arguing for the way we need to hold these two together, just as Father Richard Rohr, OFM, does at the Center for Action and Contemplation. But I am also aware of the deep tension between these two orientations. The kind of religion we find in the Bible articulates faith in terms of a historical drama in which God is working out a divine purpose through establishing covenants, renewing them in the face of human rebellion, and drawing us finally to an end point, an Eschaton, in which the divine purpose is realized for all creation. It is a collective, public drama of salvation.

The mystical impulse seeks this realization in the eternal now in which we experience God’s mystery in our immediate life. We release all our impulse to strive, achieve, produce, and gain external recognition in order to surrender to the overwhelming love of God. It is in this intense, ecstatic personal experience that we realize our true fulfillment, our salvation.

It is not hard to see how these two ways can fall into starkly different religious temperaments— one “Hebrew” and the other “Greek,” one political and public, the other individual and private. And it is also easy to see the distortions to which they can lead. The sense of historical faith has been the doorway to countless wars, conquests, and crusades seeking to achieve the absolute envisioned by faith. We see it now in the Christian nationalism eroding the US Constitutional order erected 230 years ago as a bulwark against this kind of religious warfare. In these numerous violent expressions of the history-oriented faith inherited from the Bible we can also see how the search to realize a mystical vision within history (“Thy Kingdom come…”) can easily violate the very peace promised in a mystical vision.

While the mystical embrace by itself does not lead easily to violence, it can readily lead to the belief that we can escape the ambiguities, compromises, and systemic evils that imprison us, ignoring the way our actual lives are part of the degradation of the lives of others, even those yet unborn. The mystical becomes the fantasy of the well-off elites manicuring their souls, as my mentor James Luther Adams put it, in the face of the ethical demands of the often ambiguous historical drama in which the divine is truly active and revealed.

Recent events have only deepened my awareness of the deep tension and interdependence of these two religious paths, not only in my own spirituality but in the world around me. Perhaps this is one reason why St. Paul has moved from being the overbearing eccentric uncle in my religious closet to being a prickly but almost comforting companion in my later years. As a rabbinically-schooled Jew in the Hellenistic diaspora, he was deeply aware of the long historical drama of salvation and the “cloud of witnesses” in which we stand as well as the mystical vision of a resurrection and of a “new city, whose builder and maker is God.” Each of us has to thread together the way we address both the mystical and the historical dimensions of faith as we try to figure out our way in the next days, weeks, and months. The way forward, as our history-laden faith puts it. The way to the Ground and Center, as the mystics might tell us.

 

 

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Bad Memories — Guest Posting by Scott A. Taylor

Readers of these postings will remember that I have spent many months recently helping to lead efforts by members of our church and community to examine our racist history and search for ways to remember it fully and repair the damage of past generations. Rightful remembrance is the first step toward the healing we all so desperately need if we are to flourish in this land.

Scott Taylor is our church’s Director of Music and the Worship Arts and is presently studying toward his M. Div. degree at Candler School of Theology. In connection with his Biblical studies he has written this powerful remembrance about his own origins on a farm west of Winston Salem, North Carolina. We welcome your comments as we struggle with this difficult issue.

 

“What have you done?” Yahweh asked.  “Listen to the sound of your brother’s blood, crying out to me from the ground.”  Genesis 4:10 (Jerusalem Bible)

I grew up on Taylor Road, a two-mile long country lane on my family’s third generation farm.  The farm sits on the banks of the Yadkin River in the North Carolina Piedmont and the road separates the river’s floodplain from the bluffs, rolling red clay hills ideal for growing tobacco and corn.  I remember my childhood on this land with nostalgia: my brothers and I played in the river, fished in ponds, built forts out of fallen poplar trees, and frequently camped out under a wide sky.  Back then, there were only a few houses on Taylor Road and all were relatively modest, with one exception.  At the far end, about a mile from my house, stood a large white house, Greek revival architecture, completed in 1837.  We called it the Glenn house.  I understood that the Glenn family had owned the farmland a generation or so before my family settled, that they had operated a river ferry, and nothing more.

Last year, while doing some research for a church confirmation lesson, I stumbled on the “Tyre Glenn Papers” at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library.  As I read the online description of these 19th century documents, I learned that Tyre Glenn, 1800-1875, was the first owner of the house at the end of my road.  He was a successful businessperson and cultural icon in the region.  He was a founding member of the Enon Baptist Church, where my mother is buried.  He built this large and impressive home where he welcomed notable guests including NC Governor Zebulon Vance.  He was wealthy – and his wealth came from his work as a slave trader.  At its height, his plantation, known as Glennwood, included 6000 acres and claimed 362 souls in chattel slavery.  This makes Glennwood one of the largest North Carolina plantations west of the capital in Raleigh.

Glennwood House, Enon, North Carolina

I grew up believing a version of history that aims to put some moral distance between the South’s poor mountain farms and the large opulent plantations near the coast.  While there may be truth to this, as most slaves were nearer to the coast, in the case of Taylor Road, I fear it was nothing more than a tale of moral convenience.  Since my discovery, shadows have darkened the nostalgia of my childhood.  Even though their story was lost to the bad memory of my forebears, these red clay hills now cry out with the blood of enslaved men, women, and children.

I am not yet sure what to make of this glaring omission or how to respond.  I have found some footing, however, in a familiar and much-repeated phrase from the Old Testament and in a recent poem by U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey.  From the former, the justice-bending arc of Israel’s history often impinges on the telling of unsettling stories about slavery, defeat, and failure.  Scripture frequently calls readers to “remember that you were once slaves in Egypt.”

This phrase, or a close variant, shows up in sundry theological and political contexts from Sabbath observance (Deuteronomy 5:15) to militaristic strength (Deuteronomy 7:17-18).  The biblical scribes, writing during or after exile in Babylon, likely felt that this memory of slavery and deliverance might bring a measure of comfort and hope to a people dispersed and living in captivity.  More than that, scribes inserted this bad, traumatic memory into law codes, covenant passages, and rituals like Passover to compel a people to re-form their national identity around a kind of freedom not built on oppressive power structures (Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 15:15).  Only through the memory of slavery can a people claim liberation.

Why then are people plagued with such a bad memory?  Natasha Trethewey’s poem Incident recalls a horrific event from her childhood, the KKK burning a cross at her bi-racial family’s Mississippi home.  The significance of the event is marked by the first and last lines of the poem, “We tell the story every year.”  Inherent in this line, as well as in the biblical passages noted above, is the understanding that people are woefully forgetful.  As Trethewey puts it, some people would prefer to say, “Nothing really happened.”  This is a familiar lie.  When seven police officers in Minneapolis stood idly by and watched as a fellow officer murdered George Floyd with his kneecap, we heard this lie.  When hundreds of police officers in Washington D.C. stood idly by and watched a murderous group of rioters storm the Capital, we heard this lie.  When I learned that the house at the end of my road was the home of a large Southern plantation, I realized that I had been listening to this lie for a long time.

Equally important as the stories we remember are the ones we forget.  While the stories we silence may offer momentary shelter from the painful truth of our past, they ultimately hold us hostage to the lie, “Nothing really happened.”  Something did happen.  Really!  The importance of a good, true memory cannot be overstated.  We must listen to the Old Testament and never forget slavery.  Though my story is extraordinary, at least to me, it is not unique.  Every acre of this American land cries out with the blood of our brothers and sisters.  We must do all we can to remember them for it is that memory that compels us in our journey toward liberty and justice for all.

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