The Conviction of Things Not Seen

“Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together” (Gen. 22:8, NRSV).

When I first started to come around to ideas of racism and its continued existence in America, I found myself in despair.

I often wondered to myself how anyone could ever live in the midst of so much pain and oppression.  Seeing the nearly endless amount of unarmed Black people killed by police as well as hearing the stories of the children who may not eat without free breakfast and lunch programs, I could not fathom how any human could possibly exist, let alone make a good life with all of that going on.

Oh how small my imagination was.

I was convinced that racism would never end in this country, sold on this argument wholesale from Derrick Bell’s riveting work, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.  From the outset, Bell paints a bleak picture, one he himself says will be easier to reject than refute and one that hinges on this major proposition from the introduction:

“Black people will never gain full equality in this country.  Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.  This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies” (12).

This quotation was my driving force behind all of my justice-related work.  I did not want to believe Bell, but everywhere I looked, he seemed to be correct.  Indeed, the only action I could take against him was to reject his argument as I could never refute it.  I used his argument in my own papers, saying that while his view was bleak, it indeed seemed true.  I only wanted to find something within his view to make it more hopeful than it actually sounded.

As it turns out, I think I misinterpreted Bell on that last part.

If I had only paid more attention to the paragraphs surrounding this one, I would have had my answer sooner.  For while this view from the aforementioned quotation is quite bleak, its foundation is hope.  He says the following in the paragraph immediately preceding:

“We must see this country’s history of slavery, not as an insuperable racial barrier to [B]lacks, but as a legacy of enlightenment from our enslaved forebears reminding us that if they survived the ultimate form of racism, we and those whites who stand with us can at least view racial oppression in its many contemporary forms without underestimating its critical importance and likely permanent status in this country” (12).

The history of slavery in America, as Bell notes, leads to a direct line of permanent racism in America, but this is not an impossible barrier to overcome.  Black people can and do live and thrive within this system in spite of its permanence.  Bell notes at the end of the paragraph I first quoted, “We must acknowledge it [the permanence of racism], not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance” (12).  He goes on to state the following:

“We identify with and hail as hero the man or woman willing to face even death without flinching.  Why?  Because, while no one escapes death, those who conquer their dread of it are freed to live more fully.  In similar fashion, African Americans must confront and conquer the otherwise deadening reality of our permanent subordinate status.  Only in this way can we prevent ourselves from being dragged down by society’s racial hostility.  Beyond survival lies the potential to perceive more clearly both a reason and the means for further struggle” (12).

As bleak as that first quotation seemed, Bell’s argument for racial realism is steeped in hope.  He was a lifelong activist himself, after all, so he had to have at least some semblance of hope to continue doing the work in his own life.  Just sinking his head down in sadness at the inevitability of a racist America would not work, and it will not work now.  We have to live a life and do this work with hope in mind.

Enter Kierkegaard.

I love me some Kierkegaard.  I love Derrick Bell, too, but I really love Kierkegaard.  The way he speaks on faith is the only way faith has ever made sense to me, and I think it fits neatly into the project of justice.

He notes in Fear and Trembling, under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio:

“I am not unfamiliar with the hardships and dangers of life.  I fear them not and approach them confidently.  I am not unfamiliar with the terrifying. . . . I have seen the terrifying face to face, and I do not flee from it in horror, but I know very well that even though I advance toward it courageously, my courage is still not the courage of faith and is not something to be compared with it” (33-34).

So what then is faith if not this courage?  Well, for de Silentio, (or Kierkegaard himself, but that’s another debate entirely), a true example of faith rests in how Abraham responds when God commands him to kill his son Isaac.  Of course, there is so much more to his book than I can possibly write here, but part of this example of faith hinges on Abraham’s response to Isaac, the only sentence that Abraham utters during this entire ordeal:

“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

At first glance, this seems preposterous.  The lamb for the burnt offering is Isaac, and Abraham is the one doing the sacrificing.  This is not a delivery service Abraham is providing, but a sacrifice, a killing of his own son on God’s command.  Abraham knows damn good and well that not only is Isaac going to die, but that he himself will be the one to kill him.

And yet.

And yet Abraham had faith that not only could God do something different, but God would do something different.  And yet Abraham clung to a faith not based on what he knew, but based on what he did not know.  And yet Abraham held strong to a faith that hung its hat not on what is possible, but on what is impossible, knowing that for God, all things are possible.  He may not be able to imagine or conceive how it could even be so, and honestly, that is irrelevant.  What matters is that Abraham does what Kierkegaard says he himself cannot do, that is to “plunge confidently into the absurd” (34).  It was absurd that he thought God would provide another offering after God’s command, but he had faith it would be so.  It was absurd to think that he would simultaneously kill Isaac and have him, but he had faith that it would be so.  It was absurd to think that the impossible would be possible, but he had faith that it would be so.

Through faith, it may be so.

Perhaps we do not find ourselves being commanded to kill our children at the top of Mount Moriah.  We do, however, find ourselves facing a permanent and ever-growing beast that has horns of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so many more upon its head.  This beast has as its hands the pundits of fascist politics and insidious capitalism, and its feet walk upon the trampled bodies of those it deems disposable.  This beast rocks a gold three piece suit with the best, bloodiest diamonds for cuff links, ill-gotten from the economic gains of those over whom it rules, and it wears it just to cover the tattoos on its skin detailing centuries of oppressive laws, ideologies, and theologies that it constantly appeals to in its quest to maintain power over us.  Oh this beast is big, and this beast is terrifying, and this beast is here to stay.  In fact, this beast just may be impossible to get rid of.

And yet.

And yet we got a God that is in the business of doing the impossible.  And yet we got a God that wants us to act in the midst of seeing what looks to be impossible.  And yet we got a God that wants us to walk on together when we see the impossible, knowing that somehow, someway, someday it just may be possible after all.

Through faith, may it be so.

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