It is no surprise when important people or institutions forget. After all, part of maintaining yourself as important – by which I mean powerful – is sustaining the image or impression that you are always new. That, in some fundamental way, you came about just yesterday or so. The language of freedom, goodness, and justice in the United States is exemplary. And part of what it means to be from this country, to love the new. This can be beautiful. Come from somewhere, re-invent yourself here. Millions have done so. This can be ugly, as when one forgets how violence that “coming from somewhere” can become. Or just our own genocidal history, slavery, and so on. With religion, things are a bit more complicated. Consider the Pope’s recent remarks…
You see, I’m constantly intrigued by religion and its power. I am not at all religious. Just don’t have the sensibility or temperament. Alas. But the idea that a worldview and all of its social and personal consequences comes from before this moment, well, that seems really important. The kind of thing that might save us from obsession with the new.
We know this isn’t true, at least not easily true. After all, the backwards glance of religion also means that the liberations of modernity get demonized and masses of people suffer as a result. Or it takes centuries to “forgive” Galileo for looking through a telescope. Etc. At the same time, to say it again, we could use significant doses of resistance to The New, if only as a reminder of the social, cultural, moral, and political stakes of always loving the newness in things.
Mostly, I think the old-ness of religion makes it possible for institutions to say something about responsibility, to say sincerely that the messages of love, neighborliness, and the like were lost in certain frenzies of violence, repression, and so on. There is a moral core – which is often quite rotted, of course – to religious institutions that makes it possible to hope for such articulations of responsibility. Representative democracy, for example, has no such core. It is an instrumental, abstract institution whose authority comes from a pretty thread-bare sense of fairness, and mostly from a sense of efficiency. It keeps the masses cooled out and reasonably satisfied in ways that dictators and kings just can’t.
Back to the Pope…
You see, I was happy to read the recent AP headline about Pope Benedict XVI, declaring that the earth bears scars of massive over-consumption. Not a huge revelation, this scars business and all, but I liked the Pope getting on board. After all, the right-wing – for which he is no insignificant representative – has been pretty reluctant to see problems with consumption (unless it has sexual content!). I read his remarks, waiting for a moment of reckoning, that moment in which he’d say “and we’ve been such a part of this cultural disease.” Eh, it didn’t happen. The conversation went on about the abusive use of sacred things like bodies, the bountiful earth, graciousness, and so on. Familiar turf.
Now, as a resident and student of the Americas, I wanted to stop this whole conversation. What forgetting! And what important forgetting, for it is the mark of the Spanish Catholic church to have been consumed with greed and the frenzy of accumulation in the colonial era…in the Americas and elsewhere. No small thing, this being consumed. One visit to a city in South America and the amount of gold – so very tacky, let’s be honest – is just overwhelming. The death of so many bodies and so many cultures is unspeakable. That’s a different issue. What’s important to me, though, is how that greed and frenzied accumulation gave birth to a new cultural form. An ideology. The one with which we’re not only familiar, but genuinely at home: the liberal idea of freedom, connected to the accumulation of property and wealth.
You can’t write the Spanish Church out of this history.
So, when Benedict XVI prattled on about secularism and the decline of values, I got this burning pit in my stomach. It is an angry pit, one that won’t go away so long as this cultural form that has left the earth scarred is put at the feet of secular modernity. I mean, seriously, you have got to be kidding me. The plunder of the Americas – that is, Mexico and southward, the Caribbean – is the first slash that made this scar. It is the first slash that never healed and just festered as secular modernity emerged in perfect conjunction with the colonial Church. And so on.
To say it again, I’m never surprised that institutions forget. I’m just disappointed. I also have no illusions about apology or reckoning with the past. Such things don’t make scars go away. But, and this is important for so many reasons, I also believe in getting shit right about the past, the present, and so how we can begin to imagine how to imagine a different sort of future.
When I read this sort of forgetting, I’m reminded that remembering does not just mean getting the past into mind. It also means re-membering, putting together again. Pope Benedict XVI – you put it back together wrong. You made the ugly picture look ugly again, yes, but we missed y’all in the background…