June 5th marks the first of three eclipses within thirty days. We have two lunar eclipses with the full moons on the 5th of June and on 4th July. Sandwiched between, on the same day as summer solstice,we have a solar eclipse on 21st June. In reading an email from astrologer Chani Nicholas about this tumulutous thirty days, I feel she makes a very pertinent remark that speaks to the world’s current condition. Eclipses, in her view, purge toxicity. We usually get two sets of solar and lunar eclipses every year. 2020, very unusually, offers us an extra set. To have three within thirty days is also an astrological rarity. And what she feels this period asks of us is to “investigate the connective tissue of our world and our lives.”
What connections have been eclipsed? What has been shadowed? How does this illuminate our current condition? Two articles I have read this week have made a great impression upon me. Both are intrinsic to my interrogating my white person’s privelege. The first is an early release of of Anne Applebaum’s article “History Will Judge the Complicit”, the cover story for the July/August edition of The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/07/trumps-collaborators/612250/ . The second arrived in an email from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings website that includes a dialogue on race (from Rap on Race) between anthropologist, Margaret Mead, and author James Baldwin.
We sideline our past at our peril. How often are we encouraged too soon to “move on?”
“Moving on” often encodes other people’s agendas for us. It can sow a spurious forgetfulness of pain. “Moving on” sometimes skates on the surfaces, denying the depth of pain or grief. It can lead to stuffing down emotions that are not validated, where they go to live in some shadowy corner of our body and mind.
“Moving on” can become an excuse for avoiding responsibility. At worst, it is a conscious tactic to shirk responsibility and guilt. It is a ducking down, avoiding getting caught in the act of complicity. It can even disguise itself and become a strategy to avoid being identified as the cause that effected the pain. “Moving on” can be like forgoing an autopsy on an unexplained death and going without the Medical Examiner’s pathology report that fully explains the damage inflicted from ‘the gross insult’ to the person.
And, going down metaphor lane, we can extend this to mean not just the gross insult to a physical body, or person, but also to minds, to a community, to a group of people who have had a label hung around their necks like a yoke is put on oxen.
Which happened to some slaves on American soil. They were human beings classified as chattels, listed as property in wills and tax records. The story of enslaved human beings on the soil that became known as the United States of America began in 1619. We have had four hundred years of racism. The US capital city, the White House, and Capital itself, was built by enslaved people.
I do not want to move on from this moment in history if it means the continuation of oppression.
This is where James Baldwin’s and Margaret Mead’s discussion is thought provoking. Mead cannot accept Baldwin’s assertion that he is responsible for the perpetuation of racist attacks. Why? Because he did nothing to stop them happening. He addresses the state of our – all of us – complicity. “All of us have produced a system of reality which we cannot in anyway control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, what is happening, in time.” And, by his lights, atonement is called for. Then there can be forgiveness and history is no longer an excuse note.
Considering that long history of oppression on US soil, I remembered an 18th century American man who made concerted life-changing decisions not to remain complicit. Like Saul before him, this devout Quaker had a Damascene moment. His employer asked him to write a bill of sale for the purchase of a human being. He was so appalled by this action that he refused to do so again and found alternative employment that aligned with his conscience.
Behind the unfamiliar 18th century turn of phrase, he acknowledges how the selfish spirit, ever strong, can be rooted in the oppression and exploitation of others. Long before Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King were espousing non-violent direct action, Woolman was interrogating his own responsibility and complicity in the oppression and violent harm to others. He was a Recorded Minister in the Religious Society of Friends, but he preached with gentle persuasion and explanations as to how his conscience had decided (or ‘convinced’ him to use Quaker terminology) upon his course of action. Always, he took long, prayerful consideration of what Jesus would do in any circumstance. He resisted his white privelage as best he could under the circumstances of colonial, pre-Revolutionary America. By the time he died he had convinced all Quakers to free their own slaves and begin the long compaign to change the hearts and minds of others to outlaw the slave trade. In effect, he galvanised Quakers to consider that their faith was intimately connected with effecting social justice for other than themselves. That, in effect, social justice activism was the connective tissue of their religion.
It began by addressing his shadow, his sense of guilt towards another human being and his responsibility as a humble clerk, a tiny cog in the system that was evil. He did his best to atone.
By The Light When his employer asked him, a clerk, to write a bill of sale of one human being to another, he stopped. He would never do it twice. Not for the sake of a wage. There could be other employment - tailoring, for instance. But then - cotton! Picked by slave labour. So he stopped and wore flax instead. He travelled in the ministry to share the light of a Christianity out of step with many. He listened to where the words came from. Even when they spoke in different tongues he felt for the Spirit moving within his Friend, his Neighbour. And he coveted none that belonged to them, like their dignity. Guest at plantations he paid slaves for their service, gently asking his hosts to honour his Conscience 's dictates. Not theirs. (Not yet.) An early exercise in consciousness raising. Like not taking sugar or drinking rum, small acts accumulate into petitions to deliver us from great evil. He was only one, and mostly unsung. He did strive to live in The Light, awake, considering how one may live away from the Valley of Shadow, with Darkness undone.