Sometimes, words and more words are not only not enough, they are trouble. They are the trouble. Sometimes, when atrocities slash our eyes open, even if only because the dead was people like us, talking new policies in response to the gash of violence is wrong. It channels energies down the drain of no change. When denial has gripped most of society for generations, every word that proceeds from its mouth, every policy proposed, changes the subject, like an addict trying to talk about who does the dishes when his partner wants at last to tell some truth.
What is the sound of the scream, a keening flooding the flatlands with a fury that sends people to higher ground, to moral ground, from which they can see some truth?
A sound like that to amplify the facts of unrelenting murder of black people by police sworn to protect them. A sound to resound above the nightly news of citizens slaughtered by any person equipped with a deviated mind and an assault rifle from the local hardware, or a semi-truck and speed. A sound at once deep and immense enough to answer the murder of police, the most visible symbol of the state – against whom assault is assault on the purpose for which a state exists. What sound?
A couples counselor once said to me, “There is only one list.” The best of a person and the worst are joined at the root, so everything you loved about your familiar partner and everything you now can’t stand are the same traits. There is only one list. Patience and passivity, certainty and arrogance, seeing all sides and indecision, righteousness and self-righteousness, free spirit and lone wolf. The light and the dark are manifest in all people, all social groups.
The reasons America does not change effectively in the face of its murderous disasters; the reasons the people do not demand or get democracy and wise laws or live by the core values of the religions they profess are straightforward. We love what we call freedom – but we love it to death. We do not live in a balanced way, and are hurtling toward an end described by Lord Acton’s observation that every society is undone by the excessive application of its first principle. There is only one list. Our first principle is individualism. In its train come many good things and all the evils of society too. The violence endemic to the “American way” also has its root in the extreme love of individualism. If this manic love can be transformed into a greater love, greatly surpassing the cult of the free man, the buzzards of violence, greed, and racism can fly off from the land of the living. Where to start?
First, acknowledge that a large part of the people of the United States cannot see the situation. A large part of us has always been in denial about the nation’s grievous past and the ghosts which haunt our streets.
What is denial, and who is sufficiently free of it to see it?
Denial refers to a complex of thoughts and behaviors which keep glued together a construction of self and society so that personal or systemic abuses may continue and may continue benefitting those in denial. The tools of denial are suppression of conscience and memory. The need for denial arises as objects of desire thought necessary to well-being appear threatened or out of reach, and especially as the means for grasping those objects transgress moral grounds. In short, denial is denial that I, or we, have transgressed moral ground. Where denial is shared by many, a great deal of money is usually felt to be at stake. Deniers must deny their complicity in the abuses which tie and tighten the knots of class and race hatred while aiding them in hoarding wealth. Without a transformation taking place in them, deniers cannot see their denial. Usually, therefore, the people who can shrewdly and compassionately perceive denial have first had help perceiving their own denial, then learned to remove the blindfolds.
Who are the deniers who defend and excuse violence, greed, and oppression? They certainly don’t know. Neither is it ever possible to be certain of any individual that he or she cannot awaken from the slumber of denial. How many are they? Not few, else the land would not be reeling in violence – but guessing at numbers is a sideshow. What matters is that people in denial about the blood relationship among all of America’s social evils will not awaken within a few years. Therefore, the energies of those who see the situation must not be spent in angry shouts at people sleeping. Within a couple of generations, it is of course a fact that all the deniers will die. Will the generations rising behind them also learn to shut their eyes and sleep through the moral crisis? Can many generations pass this way without collapsing in failure?
The second necessity is to acknowledge that a large part of our society, including many who enjoy material and social comforts and privileges, sees the situation as it is. As it has been since the day on an island in the Caribbean that Cristobal Colombo met the Arawak tribe and started to enslave and slaughter them under the approving fiat of the Christian church and its popes. Many see that the West has always been in thrall to the love of money and to the violent brother of that love, power. Of course it is true that this blood brotherhood is born into all empires. But the matter before us is that the “giant triplets” of racism, greed, and militarism – Martin Luther King’s phrase – are born in America and are grown to full stature. This is the very thing denied and also the very thing grasped by many who understand that the depredations of 500 years upon the descendants of Africa and Asia and Central and South America, and lately, the Middle East, have been driven by greed.
It is useful to stop and define the ugly word,greed. Undefined, the word manages nothing more than insult, which splits oneself from others, righteous from unrighteous, another fight in the oldest of unwon wars. Greed understood names a condition of the will to which all humans are prone. In the state of greed, a person confronting a conflict between his desire and another’s need automatically chooses to serve his own. The key word isautomatically, which is to say, immediately and unconsciously. In the state of greed, as desire overwhelms consciousness, a person or a group is unable to perceive and act upon the need of another.
Greed is a moral failure, not merely a hunger, because enough humans have found themselves sufficiently prepared to prefer the need of the other at the right time that the wisdom of the ages has recorded it as a defect of the will to yield to greed. It is a defect of the will to be unconscious of or in denial about the situation of another’s need. The fact that the perennial wisdom has understood greed seriously, however, inoculates no one against it. Why, in drunken concord, a large society can sing their scriptures’ sonorous injunctions against greed all the while devouring their poor and their weak. Society-wide denial depends on religion for its fix. Were the religions stronger than greed, the words of the prophets would never have been raised heavenward.
Still, what a large part of American society sees is that our original sin is our fascination with and promotion of greed, under the banner of the “free man.” American slavery, and the racism which grew in the souls of white folk to defend and deny their violence and their benefits, arose in greed. When America saw what it had created, it called the greed good, and released it in the “free man” without regulation. Many see this.
Now, beautiful and advantageous things have arisen with the freedom of the individual. The creativity, self-reliance, and adventuresomeness of Americans are genuine traits. What is more, it is correctly observed that the formation of wealth is closely associated with the spirit of the free individual, for the engine of wealth is consciousness released in a liberal interchange of ideas and actions to alter the given world and render new value in it. But as Lord Acton warned, whatever good is pressed toward its limit without balance and regulation ultimately descends into evil.
Unbalanced adoration of the free individual ends by freeing the spirit of greed from the bonds of conscience and affection. These alone – no “invisible hand” – can channel the energies of the self toward her own highest good and the optimum good for all. But a people nurtured from infancy to suppose the self free and detached from society (which does not even exist, in the view of the late Margaret Thatcher); a people who in consequence believe that they may freely choose whom to love, whom to think human, whom to despise, whom to disenfranchise, whom to despoil – that society with knee bent at the altar of the free individual will by its nature be violent, greedy, and racist.
By nature, it must always have recourse to violence and war to protect and expand the objects of its desire. By nature, it must be racist – that is, preferring automatically to withhold social and material goods from classes of people easily singled out and segregated, easily threatened and maimed and murdered. By nature, a people in thrall to the cult of the free individual must harbor material desires – what the Christian Bible calls “the flesh” – so intense that they overwhelm consciousness of the inner person. Such desires drive them to value themselves and to evaluate others through surface display, or, when ideals for material satisfaction are out of reach, many will by nature feel driven to drown their pain in addictions and suicide. By nature, they will seem rich in things as they drive themselves to the brink of emptiness. Many see this.
A society which worships the icon of the free individual stands in one of two states. Either it is stuck in adoration and misery. Or an awakening and transformation is underway.
If it is stuck, unable to see itself, its descent into violence and greedy, inhumane social and political arrangements will be met with weak words and policies, often mastered by a tyrant. Ironically, its object of worship, the free individual, is the opposite of a human being. It is the beast of appetite freed from consciousness to devour whatever its jaws can manage.
If a society long enthralled by the cult of the free individual is awakening, its withdrawal from the substances of its rituals will be painful. To acknowledge that many citizens see how perilous is the vaunted “American way” is to open, however cautiously, to the possibility that the nation is on the stage of the great drama of becoming human. It is to hope that humanizers can guide what will unfold, rather than the priests of the cult of the individual. It also means not spending anger on those caught up in the cult. They cannot hear. What matters in a moral crisis are practices that effectively touch and inspire individuals who have been in denial.
Seeing all this clarifies what to do now, for if many are restless, many can be rustled from sleep. A shaking at the shoulder, a shout of alarm, a clear direction out of the burning temple of individualism toward the tables of fellowship and integrity. The meal served there has food hard to digest for those who have been long asleep.
The food includes chewing long on the fact that racism; the abuse and killing of black and brown people, not only by police; the decay of inner cities; the violence and murder on city streets; the call to kill, or the plan to kill police; the ruin without retraining of the workers of the industrial heartland; the heroin and opioid abuse and suicide infecting all struggling classes; the love of making war on small despots; the love of cars and jets and meat; the love of denying disrupting forever the global climate; the extreme love of guns – all these funguses are bursting forth from one big log rotting on the forest floor of human possibility: greed, that unregulated craving for more for me and my own.
History offers no evidence that a greedy society can be slowed and stopped and turned around before its ways culminate in wars and disasters. To the contrary, history reports that empires always fail and that greed was the stone on which they stumbled.
But history is also the stage on which consciousness dawned. History is the stage where the ancestors of our brute self sometimes acknowledged the other as human, in spite of feelings of threat, terror, and hatred. History therefore cannot demonstrate that a greed societymustcollapse, for if humans have sometimes become humane under pressure, then a human future is never blocked absolutely. Now, however, no mere words can open the door to that human future. Minds must open. Whoever is awake has a table to set and work to do.
In the awful silence after so much killing, let us accept that practices that open minds are the deeds worth doing. To be sure, we should vote and lawmakers should keep attending to laws. But let us stop wishing that elections will transform the nation. Electeds are not leaders, they are followers; good ones follow the wise and wakeful; bad ones follow the money. The leaders are the wakeful. If we fail to lead, greed leads. That is the history.
Here we are together in sorrow and shock and silence with murders and greeds tattooed all over the body politic. After so much killing rained by America on the world’s dark faces, seeing this nation’s part in the story of greed may start tearsflowing, eyes clearing. Opening the mind is the only passage out of the crumbling temple of the cult of the free
Rev. Stephen H. Phelps was selected as Interim Senior Minister for the Riverside Church in December of 2010 and began his position in January of 2011. Before joining Riverside, Rev. Phelps served as Interim Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, and prior to that, as Senior Pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Buffalo. He has served as pastor to Presbyterian congregations since 1986. Under his leadership, Rev. Phelps’ congregations have committed to transforming both the inward person and the structures of society, on which justice hangs.
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