Monday, March 12, 2012

The Living Dead

There's a scene in Stephen King's It that, when I first read it, struck me almost immediately. The first chapter tells of the brutal murder of George Denbrough. Later, George's older brother, Bill, enter's Ralph's bedroom, in an effort to connect with his brother. His parents, grieving separately and silently, do not speak of George. Trudging through a silent house, Bill is left to deal with his pain and loss on his own. Standing in George's room, cleaned and made each week by Bill's distraught mother, Bill opens the closet door and is confronted by the ghastly, one-armed corpse of his dead brother, who pronounces Bill's guilt for his own death.

I'm guessing something similar happened to my father.

In 1928, while out for a family drive on a Sunday, a doctor who was well known as a drunk, came zooming out of his driveway, striking the car in which my father's family was riding. Sitting up front on his mother's lap, my father's older brother, Everett, who was known as "Ikey" to the nicknaming bunch in the car, was thrown violently against the metal dashboard. My father, sitting in the back bench seat next to his older sister on the side of the car struck by the on-rushing vehicle, broke his arm. Two weeks later, having never left the hospital, Ikey died from pneumonia. Having lost her only brother to the slaughter bench of World War I, my grandmother descended in to a grief from which she would never recover. Ikey's was a name never uttered in her presence. The silence was so total, even as an adult, my father rarely speaks of his older brother. I can count on the fingers of one hand the references to Everett Safford even having lived. I have no idea what kind of boy he way; I know he was good with his hands, with tools, like my grandfather. I don't know if he liked baseball, though, or if he had a sense of humor. In his death he became what the accident rendered him - a corpse standing and staring out at my father's family, a revenant whose sole purpose was to remind them all that he had died.

As with families, so, too, with nations. Death not confronted leaves us only with ghastly corpses, mute witnesses to our collective brutality and unwillingness to confront who we have been. One of the functions of history is the confrontation with our worst selves, our failures and collective responsibility for injustice, cruelty, and evil. If not dealt with, we remain surrounded by the living dead, zombies who demand to feed on our lives and souls. We kill these voracious monsters of our own creation, in the end, by looking them square in the eye and, with some luck and skill and honesty, seeing who we are that gave us these horrid gifts.

I read a short review of James Cone's new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Despite some problems with the review - "societally" is not a word; diagnosis is not a verb; Billie Holliday, as far as I know, never ever shouted in her songs, and she was a jazz singer, not a blues singer - it offers up a good introduction to what should be a seminal work in theological confrontation. Cone's early work held a mirror up to white American smugness and self-satisfaction and demanded answers to questions we just weren't willing to hear. Now, after may years of relative silence, he has returned in full prophetic style, demanding answers to more questions we don't want to hear. I look forward to reading this book precisely because the juxtaposition of the cross and the lynching tree seems so obvious, I hate myself for missing it as a point of serious theological reflection and concern.

The review author in the linked post reminds readers of William Faulkner's quip, "The past is never dead. The past isn’t even past." That's only true if we refuse to confront it. I'm variously amused and concerned when people, discussing questions of the history of race relations in America, deny any responsibility for our current state of affairs. Since they have never owned an African-American slave or murdered an African-American in that ritual of communal cleansing known as lynching, they share none of the guilt and shame those institutions carry. Since I've yet to hear anyone say participation in these social institutions is a necessary prerequisite for recognizing the burden they place on us as a nation, I'm never quite sure what such statements mean.

Except now, I think I do. I think these people, like Bill Denbrough, peer in to the dark closets of our history, and see the horrible image of all the mutilated men and women staring back at them. Fearful of confronting the walking dead whose accusations are felt too keenly, they would rather we sweep it all under the rug, not talk about it, and blame the victims of our ongoing collective refusal to look the dead square in the eye for their problems.

Cone's work is, I would think, a good place to start a recovery of the reality of our violent past for a full and proper reckoning. We cannot be a just society if the dead are unquiet due to our refusal to see them for whose they are - our own. While we have started down the long road of understanding who we are through images such as the one above, by linking the reality of lynching in America to the claims of faith from the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, we may yet make our way a bit further toward claiming our on-going responsibility for these crimes because of our ongoing refusal to see them.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More