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Who Gets to be Human

(I want to preface this with the caveat that I am writing this pretty much stream of consciousness in between workshops and classes today. This is not a polished piece and I think there is much more intellectual and practical work to be done on this as on many topics. I’m putting this here as a place to begin articulating my thoughts on this issue). 

This morning I attended a Racial Equity/diversity workshop geared toward faculty and grad students who will be teaching introductory courses in theology over the next year or so. It was an excellent course and raised a lot of really good and necessary questions about how we approach our materials, how we teach theology, and how theology has been used – past and present—to define the boundaries of what constitutes the human. 

The question isn’t what constitutes human in relation to the Gods, but quite simply, what is categorized and recognized, acknowledged as human by those in power, particularly by those in theological and religious positions of power. Rightly, we are urged as theologians and teachers to push ourselves and our students to consider not only this question of power and privilege, but to look for ways to productively challenge that status quo. I don’t argue that. I think it is part and parcel of the work of being a theologian. Here is where I digress from many of my colleagues, however: I don’t think the problem began with race. I think racism is a wicked symptom of something quite different. 

Because this didn’t start out as a racial question, I don’t believe that the answer toward deconstructing racism and systemic structures of racism is ever going to happen by focusing on race alone. The problem didn’t start with race. It started with a particular way of looking at the world. It started with monotheism, specifically Christianity (1). It began with the spread, at first through rhetoric and then, after 313 C.E. through imperium and often violent coercion by and to Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. It started with the destruction of temples and the extortion (2) to conversion of the devout. It started with slaughter of all those who would not abandon their indigenous polytheisms and embrace the new religion (of their conquerors). Christians were human. All others…weeeeeelll, not so much; and that “not so much” opened the door to genocide, slaughter, expansion of slavery, and the theft and torture of children (3).

I hear a lot of talk about ‘problematizing whiteness.’ Maybe. I think that ‘whiteness’ is a rather artificial construct (and one that lets monotheistic religions off the hook, I might add). If I’m looking for ancestral identity, I’m going to look to my Lithuanian, Russian, German, Swiss, Scots-Irish, Huguenot, and Appalachian forebears. I’m going to look at culture and what soils hold the bones of my dead. I’m going to look at language and customs, and most of all, I’m going to tell the stories of my dead. Not all of those dead had white skin. What does it matter? What we should be interrogating, “problematizing” if you will, is monotheism. That is where, I firmly believe the true impetus toward racializing and dehumanizing began, that moment when Christianity began to look at those non-Christians around them as less than human (4). 

There is no reason that Christianity had to assume a dogmatic monotheistic stance. Had it been satisfied to be one religion amongst many, a henotheistic tradition privileging only the Trinity, I do not believe that would have led to the same blood-stained place. It’s the monotheism, a worldview that is based on exclusivity and intolerance that I think is the problem. Specifically, when that worldview twinned itself with militaristic imperium (i.e. after 313 C.E.), it transformed both imperium and Christianity into something quite vicious, quite dehumanizing, quite hungry for conquest and power. That hasn’t changed. Just ask an altar boy. 

Ok. That was low but I think my point stands and it’s not just polytheists who have suffered under monotheistic hegemony but Christians too. It’s been no better a system for the Abrahamic faiths living under its dominion than it has for the rest of us. Monotheism is a brutal equation. It’s a simple equation, an uncomplicated one, which is perhaps part of its appeal. Here’s how I break it down:

You’re only human if your humanity feeds the machine. Or let’s turn that around, you don’t get to be human if your lack of humanity likewise benefits the monster, instantiating and reifying its lust for power. This is not a condemnation of Christianity. There are very good and sacred aspects of practice and thought, devotion extant across the spectrum of Christian traditions from which we could benefit greatly by studying. Likewise, I know many, many good, compassionate, and devout Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) who are well aware of their respective traditions’ failures. That is theirs to carry and many people that I know are working to rectify where they can. Moreover – there are a lot of ‘moreovers’ in this – there were early iterations of Christianity that were polytheistic, iterations that elevated women to positions of power, iterations that approached the body and sexuality very differently from what became the norm. As with every religion, the reality was never monolithic. What I am condemning is a system: the structure of monotheism, the eradication of the sacred from the world, from our minds, leaving only the smallest, narrowest channel through which we can define that which is sacred…and by extension our humanity in relation to it. Christianity was, in many respects, one of the first victims of monotheism. 

I have said in the past (most likely in the heat of debate) that I don’t think someone is a fully realized human being unless they are honoring their ancestors and their Gods and are engaged in some kind of devotion. I never however, said that they weren’t *human*. I never question the humanity of those who aren’t polytheists. I don’t see that in the antique texts with which I work either from the polytheistic side. You may not be one of *my* people, but obviously you’re a person, a human being. Your humanity doesn’t end where my religion begins. I’m not sure that monotheism, and by extension traditions under its domination, can say the same. 

Nor is this a question of hierarchy. There will always be hierarchies and in many respects, hierarchy is good. It allows us to function effectively and well. Hierarchies occur in nature, and when they are properly organized can be extremely productive and positive — that is, when they don’t exclude from the human people on the basis of race, gender etc. So in no way do I advocate an abolition of hierarchy. The Gods after all are hierarchically above us and that is good and holy and proper. That represents the cosmic order and architecture instantiated by Their will. I do have a problem when hierarchies exist solely to diminish the humanity of others. I don’t think that’s inevitable though. 

I think what I find most frustrating as a theologian is the unwillingness I see in so many circles to interrogate the structure of monotheism. It’s not that I think restoring our polytheisms will fix everything, but I think that doing so will restore a way of looking at the world that is not predicated on domination and eradication of everyone and everything that is different (5).

Notes: 

  1. Though to be fair, if one reads the bible, it’s clear that it actually started with Judaism attacking various neighboring tribes in the name of their newly minted “one God.” That didn’t last, however, and by the time Christianity began its life as a Jesus movement within Judaism, there was not the call to active, violent proselytizing found in the parent faith anymore.  
  2. And yes, I mean extortion not exhortation. After all, often families – children, elderly would be threatened. Some people were given the choice: convert or everyone you love will be killed. One does have to question how sincere such conversions were. Of course this is still the modus operandi of Christian missions in poorer parts of Africa and India, etc.: you’re starving? Well, I’ll give you food but first you need to be baptized. Just look at how evangelicals responded to Haiti after the earthquake a few years ago.
  3. Not a single early Christian source that I have found condemns slavery. Not a single one and  slavery was pandemic in the Roman world, (though to be accurate, one must note that it was not race based slavery. Anyone, including other Romans might become slaves. They could eventually win, buy, or be granted their freedom). The theft and torture of children began with Charlemagne forcing the conquered Saxons to send their sons to monastic schools. It continued in the Americas with Native schools where children were beaten, starved, abused, and tortured as a matter of course, but especially for speaking their native tongues and practicing their native faiths. 
  4. Yes, ancient polytheists saw the differences between skin tones and racial identifiers but these were not problematized in the way that we see in later monotheistic cultures.  They recognized them, were curious about them, but you don’t see religion being used to dehumanize the people bearing them – at least not in the part of the ancient world with which I engage. I can’t speak for others. I think the Alexandrian and Christian theologian Origen (184-253 C.E.) was the first to equate “the devil” with an Ethiopian boy, hence blackness. It’s an association that stuck well into the early modern period. 
  5. Moreover, there is room in polytheism for all the Abrahamic traditions to exist and thrive. The opposite is most assuredly NOT the case. 

Ahhh the smell of racism in the morning

So I was just informed that it’s basically ok when my traditions are co –opted by pop culture because any harm that comes from that doesn’t matter because I’m white. But oh, I should be up in arms every time an artist is inspired by a Native artist and utilizes elements of that art style in their art. Doesn’t work like that, sweetheart.

Anyone who thinks like this, by the way, can go fuck yourselves. Please. Preferably with a chainsaw dipped in salt. Normally I might try to frame that in less offensive language, but nope. Not today.  Racism works both ways, bubbele.

Over on my facebook, I’m having an argument/discussion with several people about an incident that recently happened in Canada. Here’s the link go read it for yourselves.

This is way too similar to what happened in NY last month. Read about that here.

There is only one question I ask about art: does it move you? Does it turn you inside out? Does it make your heart weep or rejoice? Does it evoke something? If it does, then good. That’s exactly what art is supposed to do. It doesn’t belong to any one people or culture. It is universal and I care a hell of a lot more about good art than I do about any group of people. Art does not provide you with safe prepackaged answers either. The arts are the best our humanity has to offer. They are the collected genius of our people. The best art is more important than any one of us.

I have a huge issue with pop culture taking the stories of my Gods and turning them into entertainment that makes a mockery of those Gods. I don’t however think that those things should be destroyed. I simply choose not to see them. The day we start calling for the destruction of art and the silencing of artists – especially those we dislike or disagree with — is the day we lose part of our humanity, the best part; and the day that call goes forth and is not challenged is the day we’re doomed as a species.

 

 

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Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy

My academia.edu page

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Walking the Worlds Journal

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My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.

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Censorship is Never Ok: Whitney Museum and Artist Dana Schutz Face Attacks Over Key Piece in the Whitney’s 2017 Biennial.

Apparently there is a small furor brewing over at the Whitney Museum in New York City. It all centers around a painting featured in their 2017 Biennial: “Open Casket 2016” by artist Dana Schutz.

Firstly, here is the painting in question:

dan schutz Open Casket 2016

(“Open Casket 2016” by Dana Schutz)

It is a memorial piece, her interpretation of the horrific murder of Emmett Till, which helped spark this nation’s Civil Rights movement.

The photo of Emmett Till in his casket has become iconic, a symbol of the fight for justice that galvanized this nation, a fight that is still going on. Till’s mother, having lost her only son in a most horrific manner, insisted on an open casket saying, “Let the people see what I have seen.” He was murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman. The woman in question admitted that her accusations were false just this year.

I still remember my own response when, early in my twenties I first saw the iconic photograph of Mr. Till in his coffin (it is extremely graphic and I am not posting it here, but this link will take readers directly to the photograph). It was like a punch in the gut. It leveled me. It apparently left quite an impression on Dana Schutz too, and her painting shows that the death of Emmett Till still has the power to affect us today. When I saw that she titled it ‘Open Casket 2016’ I was even more moved, because it’s a clear statement that what happened to Till is still happening. It’s an acknowledge of the pain of ever mother who has ever lost her child to racism and violence. The artist herself said that she responded viscerally as a mother to Emmett Till’s death.

Art critic Hannah Black has a problem with that and has started a campaign not only to have the painting removed, but to see it destroyed. Not only has she started a petition to that effect (recently amended to show only the names of black signatories) but she is also encouraging her non-black supporters to vandalize the painting having recently updated her post to say the following, “Non-Black people super very welcome to help get painting destroyed tho [sic] in other ways.”

She doesn’t like this piece and she is calling for it to be destroyed. She is advocating for others to try to destroy it. She is calling for the willful silencing of an artist and the destruction of that person’s art. She is willfully trying to shut another artist down.

Hannah Black and those signatories are saying this painting is exploitative because the artist isn’t black. From the day of the opening last week, there have been protestors lined up in front of Ms. Schutz’s painting purposely blocking it from being viewed by those attending the exhibit. Its sole offense? The artist isn’t black. I’m not a fucking basket of fruit but that doesn’t stop me from painting the occasional still life. Art is that thing which crosses all boundaries after all. One does not need to be a particular anything in order to paint it.

Apparently “Open Casket 2016” is racist and exploitative though because the artist isn’t herself black. That is the objection, not the nature of the art itself. Seriously, if you would find this piece acceptable if the artist were black, then you’re not worried about exploitation, you’re just a racist. You, Ms. Black, are the worst kind of racist and I sincerely hope that you are arrested for attempting to promote vandalism and destruction of Museum property. You are a disgusting human being.

I also hope the Whitney doesn’t cave here and I hope to Gods they have security on this painting, which represents one of the most horrific events in the American Civil Rights movement. We should remember this event. We should be struck and moved and rendered by art. What we shouldn’t do is censor it. Ever but most especially when it upsets us.

We’ve seen this play out before. How many cultural icons do these deluded people need to destroy before we learn our lesson? Can anyone say Inquisition, Cultural Revolution, Soviet Russia? The moment you begin advocating for the destruction of artistic freedom, you lose. NO SUBJECT SHOULD BE OFF LIMITS TO AN ARTIST. I hope this makes Dana Schutz’s career.

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Be sure to check out my other sites:

Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy

My academia.edu page

My amazon author page.

Walking the Worlds Journal

My art blog at Krasskova Creations

My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.

And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.