Your Life Matters
Many of you read and responded with appreciation to the last piece here, which came from my wife, Linda. Thank you, Linda, for your passion and the work you have done on these matters now at the center of our national attention.
To the book suggestions she included I would add one more, Jill Lepore’s These Truths. This one volume history of the U.S. is, necessarily, a big book. In it Lepore shows readers just how fundamental matters of race, and racial injustice and oppression, have been from the very beginning of our history to the present. They aren’t, in Lepore’s telling, the whole story. But you can’t tell the story accurately without them.
A week ago I wrote in this space about a Black Lives Matter demonstration in which I participated in the small town of Enterprise, Oregon, the county seat of Wallowa County.
If you read that you may recall my mention of the sign I made and held during that demonstration. It said, “Your Life Matters.” I’ve wondered, since then, about my sign. Why not “Black Lives Matter,” as I absolutely believe they do. Was my sign just wussy clergy-speak? Maybe.
I’ve thought back to the some of the formative influences on my post-war, a.k.a. Boomer, generation. In the aftermath of Nazism and other forms of totalitarianism, the things that we read and which shaped us had a common theme: the importance of the individual and the corollary dangers of letting the group do your thinking for you.
Consider the books that shaped us. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, on the Soviet show trials. Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm who fled the Nazis and Waiting for God by Simone Weil, herself a member of the French Resistance. Then, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, warning of the dangers of sacrificing your conscience to an ideology (including some forms of religion.) Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, on individual authenticity. And Hannah Arendt’s magisterial, The Origins of Totalitarianism. And of course, Orwell’s 1984.
All of these did chose sides in the battles against fascism and totalitarianism. But their common theme was the importance of the individual and of individual freedom of thought and expression. They opposed fascism precisely because the individual was swallowed up in the group, the race, the nation, the mob. When merged in the group, individuals proved capable of enormous evil.
And its own way, the Christian faith, at least in the Congregational version of my youth, put a lot of emphasis on the individual, each of whom were called, we were reminded, “to walk according to the light God hath revealed to him.” (Yes, the language was flawed). Moreover, we were all reminded of our fallibility and that sin afflicted not just some but all.
The generations now in the forefront have been formed by other stories and other awarenesses. Chief among them a much greater awareness of the endemic and insidious nature of racism and of ideologies of white supremacy. For the millennial generation the formative literature has focused on social identity. If you want to understand someone, or the world we live in, you have to understand racial, class, gender, sexual identity and location. You have to be aware of your own. There’s much that is revealing and important in this lens on the world.
But (you knew a “but” was coming) for one shaped by a different history and literature there are also some dangers in this perspective. People become only their racial, sexual, ethnic, gender or generational identity. That explains everything. The individual is lost in their group identification(s).
I think of this tension between individual and group not as a problem to be solved, but as a polarity to be managed. I continue to believe in the importance of individual freedom of thought and conscience, and the importance of trying to know people in our complexity and mystery, which I hope is the reason my sign said, “Your Life Matters.”