“There is nothing to be done. This is the way things are. It is inevitable.”

It is altogether probable that there is an executive of an air-polluting industry who has a beloved child who suffers from asthma caused by air pollution. In such a situation the Sympathetic Mind cries, “Stop! Change your life! Quit your job! At least try to discover the cause of the harm and do something about it!” And here the Rational Mind must either give way to the Sympathetic Mind, or it must recite the conventional excuse that is a confession of its failure: “There is nothing to be done. This is the way things are. It is inevitable.

– Wendell Berry, “Two Minds” in Citizenship Papers.

In this essay Berry contrasts what he calls the Rational Mind and Sympathetic Mind. This fictional example of the differences between the two ways of engaging the world is notable for how it summarizes our typical responses to critical issues. When faced with evidence about climate change or racial segregation, to take two common and easily-accessed examples, we are commonly told – or tell ourselves – that there is nothing to be done.

This is a lie, of course. There are plenty of small and big things to be done about the decisions we make that inflict harm upon our neighbors and the land. But Berry’s Rational Mind does not allow room for the sort of blunt truth that leads to creative possibilities. So we are left living under delusions about our own inability to make changes, about the inevitability of inequity. Telling the hard but hopeful truth requires a different mindset, one that privileges relational proximity and compassion over the faceless systems which benefit from our passivity.

“…hypocrisy has been inescapable because our opposition to violence has been selective or merely fashionable.”

In our century of almost universal violence of humans against fellow humans and against our natural and cultural commonwealth, hypocrisy has been inescapable because our opposition to violence has been selective or merely fashionable. Some of us who approve of our monstrous military budget and our peacekeeping wars nonetheless deplore ‘domestic violence’ and think that our society can be pacified by ‘gun control.’ Some of us are against capital punishment but for abortion. Some of us are against abortion but for capital punishment. Most of us, whatever our stand on preserving the lives of the thoughtlessly conceived and born, thoughtlessly participate in and economy that steals from all of the unborn.

One does not have to know very much or think very far in order to see the moral absurdity upon which we have erected our sanctioned enterprises of violence. Abortion-as-birth-control is justified as a ‘right,’ which can establish itself only by denying all the rights of another person, which is the most primitive intent of warfare. Capital punishment sinks us all to the same level of primal belligerence, at which an act of violence is avenged by another act of violence. What the justifiers of these wrongs ignore is the fact – as well established by the history of feuds or the history of anger as by the history of war – that violence breeds violence. Acts of violence committed in ‘justice’ or in the affirmation of ‘rights’ or in the defense of ‘peace’ do not end violence. They prepare and justify its continuation.– Wendell Berry, “The Failure of War” in Citizenship Papers.

“Oh, yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music.”

Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.

Competitive with whom? On what terms? To what end? With anyone who has done a clever thing we did not think of first. And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health? And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product or to the value of things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn’t most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all. Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill? We may assume it will be driven by innovation and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery. Oh, yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music. Then again, in the all consuming form proposed for it now, it is a little like those wars I mentioned earlier. It is equally inimical to poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought. It is equally disinclined to reward gifts that cannot be turned to its uses. The urgency of war or crisis has been brought to bear on our civil institutions, which is to say, on the reserves and resources of civility we have created over many generations.

– Marilynne Robinson, in her new collection of essays, saying again what needs to be said about what we are actively forgetting in these days of efficiency and productivity.

“As a result, wars are fed, not persons.”

Whereas forms of aid and development projects are obstructed by involved and incomprehensible political decisions, skewed ideological visions and impenetrable customs barriers, weaponry is not. It makes no difference where arms come from; they circulate with brazen and virtually absolute freedom in many parts of the world. As a result, wars are fed, not persons. In some cases, hunger itself is used as a weapon of war. The death count multiplies because the number of people dying of hunger and thirst is added to that of battlefield casualties and the civilian victims of conflicts and attacks. We are fully aware of this, yet we allow our conscience to be anesthetized. We become desensitized. Force then becomes our one way of acting, and power becomes our only goal. Those who are most vulnerable not only suffer the effects of war but also see obstacles placed in the way of help.

Pope Francis speaking yesterday at the United Nations Food Program in Rome. What is true on a global scale is also true in our city.

“Let there be a moratorium on such preaching!”

Legalists and antinomians are equally guilty of hermeneutical gerrymandering to annex New Testament texts to foreign modes of ethical discourse. Christian preachers, at least since the time of Clement of Alexandria, have preached hundreds of thousands of disastrous sermons that say, in effect, ‘Now the text says x, but of course it couldn’t really mean that, so we must see the underlying principle to which it points, which is y.’ Let there be a moratorium on such preaching! The New Testament’s ethical imperatives are either normative at the level of their own claim, or they are invalid.”

– Richard B. Hays in his classic The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

“…a cog in the machine of a racist hierarchy.”

In America, racism is a default setting. To do nothing, to go along with the market, to claim innocence or neutrality, is to inevitably be a cog in the machine of racist hierarchy.

These two sentences, by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a moving article about Nina Simone, perfectly summarizes why neutrality isn’t an option when it comes to racial injustice. The options are few: we resist or we collude.

“A deeply segregated church does not appear without history.”

Self-absorbed Christians who are apathetic toward injustice do not emerge from a vacuum. A deeply segregated church does not appear without history. In the United States, grief and pain related to race are often suppressed, and the stories of suffering are often untold. Our history is incomplete. The painful stories of the suffering of the African American community, in particular, remain hidden. Often, American Christians may even deny the narrative of suffering, claiming that things weren’t so bad for the slaves or that at least the African Americans had the chance to convert to Christianity. The story of suffering is often swept under the rug in order not to create discomfort or bad feelings. Lament is denied because the dead body in front of us is being denied. But the funeral dirge genre of Lamentations 1 requires the telling of the full story of death – the cause of that death, the history surrounding that death and the historical effects of that death – because a dead body cannot be ignored.

In this section of his essay-like commentary on Lamentations, Dr Soong-Chan Rah is reflecting on the imagery of the funeral dirge that is found at the beginning of the book. While the tendency to downplay our country’s historic racist underpinnings may be an understandable American practice, it is a distinctly unBiblical one. For Christians to overlook or deny our ugly history requires ignoring entire sections of the Bible that make practices like lament and repentance normal for those who worship the God of Scripture.