Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Decalogue

I see them displayed
On the walls of courthouses
Where justice is dispensed
Like soft serve ice cream
In two colors
Where lynching is a proud tradition
Like guns and Confederate flags
In the back of pickup trucks

I see them displayed
On the walls of schools
That look much as they did
Before desegregation, integration
Deapartheidization
Words in black ink
On creamy white paper
And no one ever wonders
Or even seems to notice
The contradiction
Between word and reality

I see them displayed
On the walls of churches
Where people sit in air-conditioned comfort
Listening to comfortable sermons
While bombs fall on children
Hard steel meeting soft flesh
Irresistible force
Meeting an all-too-movable object

And I see myself engaging
In acts of holy vandalism
Like Gideon-Jerubbaal
Destroying the idols of my fathers

Tearing them down from the walls
Smashing the glass of the frames
Like fire extinguisher panels
That say "Break Here in Case of Emergency"
Ripping the creamy paper into shreds
And scattering the pieces to the winds
Like ashes

Taking a sledgehammer by night
To granite courthouse monuments
Smashing them to bits
As Moses did long ago
In protest at the desecration
And the people saw and were ashamed

But we have no shame
We can worship the golden calf
And still revere these tablets
And so we have made them
Into the ultimate idol
The icon of the god
Of the oppressors

Until we have made a contribution
To the creation of a world
Where everyone is assured of a place
Until they are written
In our hearts
We have not earned the right
To display them
On our walls.

9 comments:

Zanna said...

Sampson -- how poignant to read this today, the day after my husband was referred to as a "coo_" by one of his co-workers. We spent most of yesterday and last night fighting the urge to curse the perpetrator of such hatred, and eventually got to the place of asking for God's redemption of the situation. I am tired of the battle over whether written words can be placed here or there, tired of the lip service paid to the victims of racism and prejudice, and just plain tired. Thank you for your words. Thank you for understanding. O God, Our God, break open the hearts of us all that we might come to love as you have called us. Until then, let the battle be not over words carved in stone, but words writ on our hearts. amen.

Sampson said...

Dear Zanna,

I am humbled by your comment, and deeply appreciative that you took the time to write. For me, this issue is still one primarily of words on paper. For you, it is an all-too-present reality. The world is a different place today than it would have been if you had responded with cursing, a better place.

St. Augustive wrote that Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger and Courage. Anger that sees the world as it is, and Courage to change it.

S.

alana said...

See my blog: www.morningcoffee.blogspot.com for my comment

owen white said...

An honest question - is someone who is on the recieving end of a racial slur properly called a "victim?" After consulting several dictionaries, I find that most define "victim" as one who is harmed or killed, or someone who is harmed or made to suffer b/c of said act. It seems to me that we have a rather psychologicalized definition of the word "harm" if we extend "harm" to mean simply having taken offense or having felt excluded or mistreated. In our culture of victimization, every unfortunate experience takes on cosmic proportion. Some people (presumably the person who said "coon") are just assholes. Why do we have to rhetorically couch such incidents in the whole racial strife / racial victim paradigm?

Sampson said...

Dear Owen,

In cases like these, I think it is much more helpful to listen to people's voices, rather than to impose our own voices on them. Zanna has offered her testimony as to how a word that is charged with overtones of racial violence affected her and her husband. How about sitting with that, rather than trying to replace her experience with your own?

S.

owen white said...

Sampson,

Your comment reflects a Derridian notion that there is a necessary violence or power conflict inherent in all language. I did not "replace" the experience of Zanna learning that her husband had been called a "coon" with my own experience of looking up a word in a few dictionaries. I certainly did not "impose" my voice on hers. I did not attempt to speak for her at all. I asked an honest question about how it is we should regard such incidents as Zanna describes. To suggest that b/c Zanna has expressed that she has suffered as a result of a "word that is charged with overtones of racial violence" therefore we must only listen and not question the overarching meaning she attributes to such a comment is to subscribe to the notion that the modern cult of "victimhood" is some sort of sacrament. Such thinking is wholly contrary to Orthodox thought. I think that Zanna's husband has had an unfortunate experience with a mean person. I am disinclined to think that her husband is a "victim of racism." When small children tattle about some little friend or sibling having called them a bad name, a parent (rightly) tells them to ignore such comments. Why should we not expect the same of adults? Is it not racist for a white person to encourage black adults to react to name calling in a manner that they would not accept of their own toddlers?

Sampson said...

Dear Owen,

All language is rooted in human experience, and all human experience is situated within structures in which some voices have more power than others. See some of my earlier posts on cultural invisibility if you are interested in my thinking on this.

The reality is that racial slurs against Aftrican-Americans do invoke power and violence in a way that other insults do not. They are backed up by a long history of violence, the historical legacy of oppression, inequality and injustice. These words are more than mere insults; they are in effect a way of telling black people to remember their place, to get back in line, or else.

S.

owen white said...

S-

We are epistemologically so far apart that we do not even agree on enough common terms to forge a disagreement. I feel that I have fallen victim to your use of the last generation's linguistic theory, which has, in my mind, been decisively shown to be illogical, but yet continues to be the rhetoric of many who discriminate against conservatives on college campuses and liberal churches. Lest we waste time quoting each other sources, I resign.

Stacy said...

Sampson,

Sometimes I think you subscribe to a latent Neitzsche philosophy, or one that is a reactionary thereof.

"Will to power" is heresy.