Grief Amid Denial

Seven weeks ago, on December 23, I preached a sermon, “Reality Amid Ideology.” The ideology at issue was exceptionalism – the sense of being God’s favorite and under a special divine blessing. US exceptionalism goes back to John Winthrop, the Puritan governor in 17th century New England who told his fellow Puritans they were creating “a city set upon a hill.” The Monroe Doctrine articulated in 1823 declared that the Americas were off limits to any further European colonization – effectively ensuring US hegemony over two continents. Theodore Roosevelt’s imperialism acquired the Philippines and reached into Korea, Japan, and China, driven by a sense of uniquely American Manifest Destiny, and the racist conviction that Asian peoples were inferior to what Roosevelt called our Anglo-Saxon, our Teutonic – he even sometimes said Aryan -- civilization.

More recently, the ideology of US exceptionalism is expressed in four ways.

First, as military force. The American empire has displaced the old European empires, and we have been the world’s only superpower. Our military passion is evident in our literal flag-waving, our mania for displaying the US flag, and in the weird emotions we have around our national anthem. (Heaven forbid anyone should kneel during the required worship of our “rocket’s red glare”!)

Second, economic domination. Globalization has meant US domination. US control of natural resources and international markets drove a flourishing US economy and produced an inordinately high standard of living in this country. We have had a sense of "entitlement to the resources and goods of the world for our own benefit.”

Third, racism. Our exceptionalism as a nation has been enmeshed with our sense of national identity as a nation of people of northern European descent. There are reviled “others” – African Americans, rooted in the slave trade; Asian Americans, long regarded as the “yellow peril”; Hispanic Americans regarded as a threat to jobs for “real Americans” -- for a sense of the racial purity of the ruling class is a deep part of our history. I remind you there were anti-miscegenation laws, forbidding interracial marriage, in 16 states up until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck them down.

Fourth, religion. The Protestantism of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants purveyed a “God and country” patriotism over Biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger and embody neighborliness. But 9/11 was a blow to the myth of American exceptionalism – we saw that we are not immune to attacks we liked to think only happened in other countries.

US military hegemony is waning. Every year the war in Afghanistan drags on, the limitations on what military force can accomplish become more and more evident.

US economic dominance is waining. We certainly remain economically powerful, but no longer dominate. Meetings of the G8, for instance, have been cow-towing to US interests less and less – and that was before the 2016 election.

Preferred racial-ethnic singularity is waning. The ethnically northern-European have lost the capacity to maintain “our kind of America.”

And simplistic moral certitudes are waning. The old-line Protestant churches are in institutional free fall in numbers, dollars, and missional energy.

None of the things we’ve lost and are losing were ever good or healthy things to have. Military dominance inevitably turns the possessor into the global bully. Economic dominance was never sustainable. Racism has always been our scourge. And religious institutions that saw no need to distinguish between Bible-thumping and flag-waving were never conducive to real spiritual flourishing.

None of those things were good things to have. But each of them did provide certain delusional comfort to a lot of people. In the face of the loss of those comforts, one can grieve and relinquish – come to accept that the world no longer has what has been lost – or one can go into denial. Many Americans have and are opting for denial.

The attempts to cling to what has been lost manifest in many ways. For instance, we have an essentially racist and certainly classist prison system – in which the number Americans in prison, which had been 196,000 in 1972, exceeded 1.5 million in 2007. We almost octupled our prison population in those 35 years. As a proportion of population, we went from 93 imprisoned per 100,000 population in 1972 to 506 per 100,000 in 2007. (Since 2007 incarceration numbers have been dropping only slightly.)

Twenty-seven states have legislatively adopted stand-your-ground laws since 2005. The gun lobby has become unrestrained. Our government regards torture as a viable procedure. These are the responses of a people that feels threatened. They are attempts violently to shore up old privilege and entitlement and fend off reality.

With the old delusional comforts slipping away, these are attempts want to get them back – to make America “great” again – meaning, push away the mounting evidence that US exceptionalism was always a dangerous delusion.

One may see parallels to this sort of phenomenon in other empires through history, but today we’ll look at the parallel case offered by a city-state: Jerusalem, before, during, and after the Babylonian Captivity. That’s because Jerusalem had prophets – figures such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, et al.

These figures offer us some helpful resources for us in our present situation. In particular, these prophet-poets played an important role of giving public voice to grieving.

In the centuries before the Babylonian Captivity, Jerusalem, too, was in the grip of an ideology of exceptionalism. From the covenant of Abraham, and then the covenant of Moses, the Israelites understood themselves as God’s chosen people. They felt they had a divine guarantee. The oracle Nathan had told David in 2nd Samuel:
“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”
The assurance is reiterated to Solomon in 1st Kings – that the Temple shall endure:
“The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”
The ruling elites, sure of their protection, co-opted chosenness into the ideology that kept them in power – and kept oppressed laborers oppressed.
God was on the side of the powerful, and they need not hold themselves accountable to the poor, the widowed, the vulnerable.

The prophets called out the urban elite for their “arrogance, pride, and self-indulgence.” Around the middle of the 700s BCE, Amos and Hosea were active. Then Isaiah and Micah were active until the end of that century. Then there’s a gap of some 70 years before Jeremiah’s 40-year career as a prophet. The texts we have of these prophets provide us with poems indicting the wealthy class for imagining themselves “the center of the universe and not accountable" to anyone for anything. “The elite have manipulated the markets, paid low wages, foreclosed on homes, and managed the economy in their interest to the detriment of others” (Brueggemann). The elite have, in short, said the prophets, failed at both of the two central commandments: love God, and love neighbor.

Then in 597 BCE Babylonian forces deposed Judah’s King Jehoiakim and sent him and his family into exile along with his court and thousands of others. Eleven years later, 586 BCE, in response to uprising among the remaining Israelites, Babylonia’s King Nebuchadnezzar crushed the rebellion, destroyed the temple, and deported thousands more back to slavery in Babylon. Through the period of enslavement far from home, the Hebrew people maintained their national spirit and religious identity. There was a Jewish community led by elders and the first synagogues were established. Then, 48 years after the destruction of the Temple, in 538 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia and freed the Jews to return home – a people shaken and forever changed by the experience.

Perhaps this calamity was the judgment of God, as the prophets said. “Or perhaps it was the inexorable outcome of policies of abuse and exploitation in which widows, orphans, and immigrants” suffered. Or maybe those two are the same thing: “judgment of God” being another way of saying “inexorable outcome of policies.” Another possibility, not considered by the prophets, was that the destruction and captivity “was simply the consequence of Babylonian expansionism at the expense of a weaker state” (45), and would have happened regardless of Judah’s policies.

Walter Breuggemann writes:
“In any case, the end did come with great force and brutality....But the urban elites clustered around king and temple had not seen it coming. They imagined that their life was so good, so successful, and so guaranteed that it would not be interrupted. The practitioners of the ideology of exceptionalism in Jerusalem – chosen city, chosen king, chosen temple – lived in a state of denial about their coming future. Ideology as false consciousness does that to us. It gives us a constructed, contained view of reality that covers over the facts on the ground and offers us instead a preferred set of facts that reassures and confirms the way we thought and wished the world were. When the ideology is one of assurance issuing in entitlement and privilege, it will not be interrupted by facts of the ground, for such facts are characteristically ‘inconvenient.’ As a consequence, the facts on the ground must be denied in order to sustain a world view of entitlement and privilege.” (46-47)
Even after the first incursion that deposed King Jehoiakim and deported thousands in 597, the denial continued. Jeremiah reports that a competing prophet, one Hananiah, was confidently predicting that within two years all the deported would come back, including the royal family, restored to their rule. “The yoke of [Babylon] cannot last, because this is Jerusalem with all its guarantees.” (56)

Hananiah represents a broad conviction “that a quick return to normalcy would surely happen. Evidence to the contrary did not count.” This conviction “made it impossible to see the reality at hand.” (57)

Denial, rooted in the ideology of exceptionalism, was countered by grief. Rituals of grieving – wakes, funerals, memorial services – allow us to emotionally relinquish what we have lost and face the new reality. The poems of the prophets and of the Psalms from the period of captivity express that grief.

And yes fantasies of violence against those that brought on our grief might be part of that response. Four years ago, an aunt of mine died, in a town outside of Pittsburgh. At the Memorial Service my Uncle, now widowed and anguished, rose to speak. He described what sounded like careless oversights made by medical personnel – oversights he saw as responsible for his beloved’s death. He had some anger about that. He said: “Now you tell me how I’m supposed to feel.” I can well imagine that fantasies of violence probably had come to him – what he momentarily imagined he’d like to do to those medical personnel who killed his spouse.

Our species has deep evolutionary reasons for the way emotions are wired in our brains, for our tendencies to violence, and for why in certain circumstances retribution can strike us as intensely appealing. Grieving – including expressing, articulating our sadness – helps us work through that. There can be no pretending here – no playing nice. Grief ain’t grief if it ain’t real. We need venues where raw feelings can be spoken with raw words.

Psalm 137, composed during the Babylonian captivity, is just such an expression of grief. Its evocative, haunting words have inspired a number of musicians to set them into beautiful songs – songs which usually leave off the last verses. Adam’s centering music this morning included Charles-Valentin Alkan’s musical depiction of Psalm 137.

It’s an instrumental paraphrase, but judging by the tempestuous ending, Alkan did not leave the Psalm’s last verses from his musical depiction.

When the staff this week raised a question about including all of the words of Psalm 137 in the insert in your Order Service, or maybe just leave off that last verse because it’s so disturbing – Adam spoke up including all the verses -- for the sake of the fidelity to the Psalmist and fidelity to the composer whose music depicts all of the Psalm, not just the nice parts. I’m glad he did – because as I have sunk into the experience of these words, and the grief of the people of Zion, how intense a raw that was, and how their feelings needed to be voiced, I see the importance of acknowledging even the impulses that aren’t nice. So that those impulses can then be relinquished. There is no rallying cry here to go and act on those impulses – that would be something very different. The Psalm also tells us that grieving, relinquishing, facing the new reality does not mean forgetting. Indeed, the memorial services that help us let go of our loved ones also help us be committed to remembering them.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Through grief, we work our way through anger – and through bewilderment. The sheer bewilderment of the people during the captivity is particularly poignant in Lamentations 5, which goes back and forth between the old assurances of forever, then the feeling of abandonment, then the hope for restoration, and then the thought that maybe that just can’t happen. The lament poem concludes:
“But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever,
Your throne endures through the ages.
Why have you forgotten us utterly,
Forsaken us for all time?
Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself,
And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old –
Unless you have utterly rejected us
And are angry with us beyond measure."
Here Israel has moved to candor about its profound loss – a necessary step and a big step away from exceptionalism. “It’s a move made possible by the anticipation and articulation of grief among the prophets” (70) and poets who give voice to the feelings of a people, who are skilled at grief – who “have the skills, courage, and presence to bring any death to speech, so that the community can fully and finally embrace the loss” (63).

These artists of sadness refused any cover-up of loss. “When the cover-up is broken, it becomes possible to breathe again. In denial, one can only hold one’s breath” (71).

The collapse of American illusions has not presented so acute a crisis as captive enslavement in a foreign land – which means many of us will be able to sustain denial for the indefinite future. Grief breaks through denial.

Poems -- like the ones HERE -- help articulate our loss, help us trust in reality. For in grieving our losses we can relinquish our illusions and position ourselves to receive anew.

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