The Taser's Edge

On the importance of keeping history complicated and confusing

I think that it’s the transition’s fault.  Classes ended (Divinity School career ended!), and a bit of a break before work began.  So I’ve gotten out of the groove, and I’ve already heard some complaints about it.  Actually, even as I write this, Holly is mocking my non-blogging ways.

In this past week, I have read No Bars to Manhood by Fr. Daniel Berrigan.  He wrote it from his prison cell after going to jail for his participation in the Catonsville Nine, an anti-war protest involving homemade napalm mixed with draft cards, perpetrated by radical Catholics:

Something really works on my heart at about 20 seconds into that video, when they all do the sign of the cross.  I’ll assume that it twists some of my regular readers’ hearts, minds, and stomachs in a more unpleasant way as the protesters begin to say the Our Father together a few seconds later.  And what does it mean?  What is the faithful Christian witness to Vietnam?

And is it possible to even talk about that question when, decades later, people my age and younger have grown up knowing the right answer about Vietnam, even though we lack any details of the complexity of the situation?  I’m relatively incredibly well-informed about politics and history, but I have to admit I know little more than a basic outline of Vietnam.  And it at least seems to be the case that the general population knows little about Vietnam or Iraq, but feels very comfortable likening them to each other.

For the record, my concern is that we must push ourselves to retain the complexity of history, that we work to notice the way that we often simplify history, and that we notice that there is real damage done when we oversimplify the story of our past.  It is a problem that most Americans can sum up the history of US-Vietnamese relations in a brief and blah sentence: “We went in, we lost, and we shouldn’t have been there.”  It is a problem despite the fact that that statement is basically true.  (Side note: This is the reason why I loved Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name.  The book has nothing to do with Vietnam.  Instead, in it Tyson complicates and complicates and complicates most lay understandings of civil rights in the US, forcing us to see that if a problem is real, then its solution will not be simple.)

I need to do a fuller review of No Bars to Manhood, however, because it is very interesting how Berrigan speaks of himself as suffering in prison in continuity with the martyrs of the Christian faith.  The book as a whole is a better historical document than a theological treatise, and I would like to have heard more from him on the particular point of what Christian martyrdom looks like in an American (and global) society of violence.  And as for that reference–“an American (and global) society of violence”–you can blame or thank Duke and Daniel Berrigan.  Because now I believe in it.

And now I’ll let Daniel (an award-winning poet as well as a still active activist) finish this post:

1 Comment so far
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That does creep me out.

Comment by Ben

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