Some Wounds are Still Open

I just read Wendell Berry’s book The Hidden Wound, an extended essay about racism, told in part as a memoir of his childhood experiences with two Black people who touched his life. The Hidden Wound was written in 1969, but it’s remarkable how applicable it is to today’s world. Berry wrote this:

I am trying to establish the outlines of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness — the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak.

Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, p. 54

I resonated so much with that paragraph. All of the reading I’ve done in the past few months on racism and racial justice has left me with a feeling that I am absolutely “limited by the inheritance of racism,” that “the reflexes of racism are embedded in my mind,” that I am completely caught in a network of systemic racism that forms in some ways the foundation of our country. I feel like Berry was describing where I am right now, and the fact that he did so fifty years ago is astonishing to me. Was Berry ahead of his time, or am I just ludicrously slow?

Another passage stood out to me because it offered something of an answer to a question I’ve wondered about for a long time: why do American Christians seem to get so hung up on heaven? Why is there such an obsession with “am I going to heaven or not?” instead of working on how we should live here? I know that the global church has wrestled with how much to focus on the afterlife for its whole existence, but there’s a particular strain in American evangelicalism, a strain that leads to unbiblical ideas like the so-called “Rapture,” and unbiblical books like the Left Behind series. There’s an obsession with the afterlife, which becomes not only really annoying, but also dangerous when it leads to ignoring problems of this world, because “who cares? this world will soon burn anyway.”

Anyway, Berry wrote about the particular struggles of antebellum clergy preaching to their congregations, which often included both white slaveowners and their slaves.

…consider this congregation of masters and slaves from the point of view of the pulpit. How, facing that mixture, and dependent on the white half of it for your livelihood, would you handle such a text as the Sermon on the Mount?

Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, p. 22

Berry explains how a preacher facing that sort of audience can’t very well preach about how we ought to treat one another, for that would lay bare the lie that slavery is Christian. Such a preacher could focus weakly on “accepting your lot in life,” but most opted to opine instead on the hereafter. “Believe, and you will be saved.” This is something both master and slave could do. Believe that Jesus saves, and that that salvation is explicitly in the next life. Leave the earthly morality to others.

Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. The question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation.

Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, p. 23

I read that, and wondered…could that be where our cultural obsession with afterlife salvation comes from? Even Berry’s language is telling — he says, “the question of salvation,” without even feeling it necessary to clarify that salvation is about heaven. Of course it is. (But that’s not nearly as clear in Christian thought as Berry, or the average American churchgoer, might think. Salvation can certainly be understood as something in this life, as I preach over and over again!)

Could the “Rapture,” Left Behind, and all that be side effects of the church’s attempt to survive in a land of white supremacy and slavery? It’s probably not that simple, actually. There were probably many other sociological factors in play. But I can’t deny that this was probably one piece of the puzzle.

Much like my recent discovery that the Electoral College is significantly tainted by white supremacy, I am finding this stain everywhere. Why is this? Am I obsessed with white supremacy because of all the reading I’ve done lately? Or am I just finally able to see what’s all around us — the fact that our nation was built in great part on the backs of enslaved Blacks? And the fact that that has left a blood-colored stain on just about everything?

Either way, I highly recommend The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry.
(Also available many other places, I’m sure.)

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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