My mortal enemy
The killings of the past week leave me heartsick and sick with rage. Two African-American men shot brutally, needlessly by white police: needlessly because one man was down on the ground with his arms pinned and the other was complying with a police order; brutally because what else do you call it when someone is shot several times at point blank range? Then five police officers, white and black, gunned down by a black sniper in Dallas. While some of us are grieving, others are using these crimes as instantiation of preexisting racial and political narratives. I admit to doing it too, and if I were in a mood to, I could repeat the argument that the unpunished killings of African-Americans by white police were a continuation of the massacres of black freedmen and their white allies that harrowed the Reconstruction South (and not just the South, and not just during Reconstruction).
Only recently did I learn that in Southern histories—and not just in Southern ones—the end of Reconstruction used to be called the Redemption.
I’m struck by a recent Facebook post by the artist Kenseth Armstead: “I hold my head up and HOPE & SEARCH, with LOVE, for a cure to the sickness of racist american terrorism.”
The word that stands out is “love.” It seems such an anomalous response to the enormity of terrorism. A number of commentators have compared the violence in Dallas to that of September 11, 2001, yet when I think back to that time, I can’t remember George W. Bush saying anything about love in his response to the attacks in New York and Washington. But then Armstead is using the language of sickness and Bush was using the language of war: the Global War on Terror which we are still fighting fifteen years later.
James Baldwin also speaks of love in The Fire Next Time, which is arguably the greatest treatise on American racism. For those who haven’t read it, the book takes the form of a letter addressed to the author’s nephew, a young black man—a child, really—whom he is trying to instruct about what awaits him in a world designed variously to exclude, subjugate, and exploit people like him. The pitfalls of that world have largely been designed by white people, or people who believe themselves to be white. But “the really terrible thing,” Baldwin warns his nephew, “Is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love.”
Baldwin was, at least at the time he wrote the book, a Christian; he’d been a preacher as a child. And Christian ethics is founded on the injunction to love your enemy. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5: 44-5). When I consider what this might really mean, I thank my fate that I wasn’t born a Christian. The religious tradition of my birth only required me to love my neighbor, and that’s no biggie unless my neighbor blasts Toby Keith at his lawn parties or lets his dog crap in my yard.
Loving my enemy is another story. It means not only transcending his hatred of me, but my hatred of him, because let’s face it, I do hate him. That is what it means to have an enemy. To suspend that vitalizing hatred, to will that it become love, is akin to dying. They speak of opening one’s heart, but what kind of violence is needed to pry it wide enough to accommodate the one who persecutes us? Read that verse aloud and you hear the cracking of ribs. In light of this command, it’s astonishing that anyone became a Christian, ever. They must have been distracted by the genius closer of eternal life.
I’m in no position to speak of other people’s hatreds. I can only speak of my own, which have been so excited by the horrors of the past few days. I picture my hatreds as rats racing about the cages of my chest and skull. Sometimes I swear I can hear their shrill little cries. The religion I ended up choosing, or the one where I find rest, is less concerned with good and evil than with ease and suffering, and truly, it is suffering to hate so immoderately that it feels like I have rats in my head.
I have lived in America too long and read too much of its history to think that we might renounce our hatreds because it’s the right thing to do. But might we not grow tired of being driven crazy by them?