Justice For Peace

Black Angel

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By Ric Hudgens

[My remarks at the opening of the art exhibit “Justice for Peace” curated by Fran Joy at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston, Sunday, January 31]

I’m grateful to Fran Joy (right: “Black Angel”) for the invitation to speak at the opening of this exhibit “Justice for Peace”. Please consider this my little square to the freedom quilt we are sewing this afternoon.

Everything I write and speak about when I’m given the freedom to do so is what I describe as “creating spaces for God’s freedom dreams.” The God I believe in is a God who dreams dreams. These are dreams for the fulfillment, liberation, and freedom of humanity and indeed of all God’s creation. They are God’s freedom dreams.

Our calling as inhabitants of this planet, as creatures in the midst of this wondrous creation, is to create spaces where God’s freedom dreams can come forth and unfold to their fullest. Too much of human society and civilization is given to frustrating and upsetting these dreams. However (and this is a statement of faith on my part) God’s dreams are more persistent, relentless, and even inscrutable than any force that can be brought against them. As the Christian New Testament reminds us “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.” The fulfillment of God’s freedom dreams is envisioned by the Hebrew poet in Psalm 85 as a time when “justice and peace will embrace.” It is that image that I want to work with a little in what follows. One of the first things I had to learn entering a Black Baptist Church was the importance of hugging. Everyone hugs! I wasn’t used to it and I soon learned to love it. Hugging is not only good for feeling welcome but scientists tell us that it has innumerable benefits. Hugging has an impact upon our neurology increasing our production of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Well-hugged babies are less stressed than adults. Hugging lowers our heart rate, improves our immune system, and balances out the nervous system.

Hugging becomes a primary form of resistance in an age when we are beset with pressures that would drive us apart and isolate us.Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has gone further describing what he calls “the drama of embrace”.

This drama has four acts. Act One is the opening of our arms. This is a vulnerable posture which momentarily surrenders our defenses to the Other. We invite their response in kind (below: “Hands Up” by Fran Joy).

Hands UpAct Two is waiting. After opening our arms we wait for the Other to interpret our action and to respond by entering our embrace. We cannot demand their response but we merely invite and then wait for them to exercise their own agency. The choice to embrace must always be mutual. It can never be forced. Act Three is the embrace itself: when one side invites and waits and then the Other responds. Both fold their arms around the other. Act Four is the release. We let go of our embrace. But both of us have been changed. The embrace transforms us by transporting us to a different type of relationship than we had before we embraced. I strongly believe that we are now in a political climate where the politics of embrace are being contested by the politics of exclusion. The politics of embrace is about welcome, invitation, inclusion, and mutual transformation. It is the politics of the open door and the extended table. The politics of exclusion is the politics of the closed door and the higher wall. It is about fear, threat, intimidation, and conquest. It is a system of domination rather than the practice of radical democracy. The politics of exclusion undergoes periodic revivals in our history; particularly during times of economic distress and increasing gaps between wealth and poverty. And in the history of the United States the politics of exclusion has always and forever been embedded in the assumptions of white supremacy and practices of racism and American apartheid.

So given this political contest what does it mean to be an artist, to express ourselves artistically, and to risk artistic creation in the midst of a climate of exclusion?

Very briefly, too briefly, I want to mention three possible expressions. I’m going to refer to them as practices. They express a form of artistic discipline that reminds us what we are about and gives us some guidance and focus.

I also believe that each of these practices is embodied in the art on display here today. However, given the constraints of time I will leave it to you to make those connections. The first artistic practice in an age of exclusion is the practice of disillusionment. Disillusionment gets a bad rap. I want to commend disillusionment as an artistic virtue. Illusions are not good things. Removing illusions is one of the tasks of human maturity. Often however older people do not gain a firmer grasp on reality but merely exchange the illusions of youth for the illusions of business as usual.

The artistic practice of disillusionment is one of the most powerful weapons we have against the politics of exclusion. Exclusion is always based upon destructive falsehoods, narrow mythologies, and what the Bible calls “idols”. Therefore a primary task of artistic practice and one embodiment of the politics of embrace is to unveil, expose, and ridicule the illusions that separate us from one another and the truth of the world around us.
In 1961 James Baldwin was decrying the persistence of societal illusions which demanded that artists disturb the society’s false peace. And the great religious teacher Howard Thurman, a mentor of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, used to remind his students that there were many goodhearted, well intentioned people in the world, but very few willing to disturb the peace of the devil. Artists give voice to pain recognizing the truth spoken by Zora Neal Hurston who said “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
The artist must seek to disillusion, to attack idols, to voice pain, to disturb the false peace of the domination system and of business as usual.
A second artistic practice is the practice of presence. We can equate the politics of embrace with the practice of presence.  The politics of exclusion is always premised upon the practice of absence; upon excluding someone from “the circle of the we” so that they are not seen, not heard, not recognized.

Arudhati Roy reminded us that “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

The artistic practice of presence welcomes those voices back into the circle of the we – and listens to them – and draws the attention of others to them. “We” embrace “them” creating a expanded “we”.

The poet David Whyte then reminds us that “beauty is the harvest of presence” thus linking the practice of presence with one of the primary attributes of artistic creation. When we are fully present to ourselves, our neighbor, our society, our world, and in my faith tradition present to our God, we are making beauty possible.

And this observation leads naturally to the third artistic practice which I call doing the things that make other things possible. Perhaps nothing is more important in an age of exclusion.  We cannot always or perhaps we can only rarely complete what we ultimately hope to accomplish. Given this reality we are called to do those things which make that accomplishment possible.

Art is one of those things that makes other things possible. This means doing things that oppose the domination systems, that attack the idols of illusion, that welcome excluded voices back into the circle of the we.

These artistic practices of disillusionment, presence, and making other things possible manifest the politics of embrace. Clearly there are many other things that do this as well. I offer these three only as a place for the conversation to begin.

As we seek to create spaces where the energy that moves the sun and the stars, and where the spirit in which all of us live and move and have our being can move through us, between us, among us, and beyond us we empower the freedom dreams of God. Dreams which will ultimately bring our liberation, our freedom, our deliverance from the politics of exclusion and domination and deliver us into the eternal embrace of God.

IF we continue to create these spaces for practicing embrace rather than exclusion; AND IF God can be trusted to use such spaces for exercising God’s freedom dreams; THEN perhaps in our own lifetime or those of our children and grandchildren we might see the embrace of justice and peace. If nothing else we must at least work to make this possible.

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