I Have Heard the Silence

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees...

The past sometimes seems like one mass grave, in which we have buried alike both our triumphs and our most shameful secrets. As Longfellow said in the poem I quoted not too many posts back, "Lives of great men all remind us..." There have been many great men and women throughout history, who made good decisions in the face of tremendous pressure and pain. There have been moments of joy, when daily trials were set aside for the serious task of celebration. In the everyday carnivals of human existence, we revel in life not in spite of, but because of our deep recognition of its brevity and the potential reach of darkness.

I have wondered recently, as I've listened to Billie Holliday's famous lamentation, "Strange Fruit," just what it is that we're seeking to accomplish when we dig in that grave of history and set before ourselves its most tragic victims. Say what you will about justice, but there is a point beyond which it becomes more complicated. Justice means something in the present to the living. I cannot deny that this is a space in which we can and should seek to break the cycles of oppression and to obtain justice for those who are suffering, whether directly or indirectly, at our hands. But what justice can there be for those who are dead or for those who are yet to come?

I think this is an essential part of being human: that we must, to borrow Wolterstorff's image, sit on humanity's mourning bench. It is not justice that brings us to this place. It is something humbler, but no less vital to our survival. It is our willingness to share not only in joy, but also in suffering.

I'm hesitant to draw on the image, but it seems that the power of Jesus's crucifixion was that if he were the son of God, it was not incumbent upon him to suffer, neither the sorrows nor the pain nor, in the end, the death of being human. But by humbling himself to share in that grief, he became both the promise and the fulfillment of the words he himself had spoken: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

I am not Jewish or African-American or Vietnamese or from one of any number of colonized nations. My family is Swiss and German and maybe a little French going back for practically as far as we have last names to trace these stories by. We have not been subject to genocide, slavery, lynching, persecution, exclusion, or exile. I am, for all intents and purposes, untouched by the legacy of victimization that sought to dehumanize or annihilate groups deemed inferior. Quite the contrary, my white skin is a mark of participation in, if not the actual abuse, then the benefits wrested from their suffering.

But I hope that by sitting here on the mourning bench, dwelling on and grieving over their pain, acknowledging the injustice of all that has been done, that should never have been done whether remediable or no, I may (not to draw grandiose parallels between myself and the son of God) honor them and, in recognizing and respecting their humanity, perhaps reveal in them some small part of the dignity that was concealed in what we have done to them.

It is not enough, but Wolterstorff concedes this too. There are things that our words and our best intentions and our fiery proclamations and soberest policies cannot touch. For those moments, all we have to offer is our being present and open to the pain, sharing in this terrible, wonderful Eucharist, whereby we drink the blood and eat the flesh and somehow, limping our way toward grace, may yet be made whole.