It has been a confusing week, and as a result, this week’s reflection on life comes later than I would have liked. I trust you will understand.
I have found myself going back in my mind, as I often do in such circumstances, to a place and time when things made more sense to me. It is a place where I learned about the world around me, a place I always knew I belonged, and a place, most importantly, where I came to know what it meant to be loved unconditionally. That place is my grandparents’ home in Fayetteville, Georgia. It is somewhere I learned to stand in the place that gives me my perspective on the world.
I grew up coming and going from my grandparents’ home as if it were my own, and as I got older I came and went more often because I realized how much there was to learn about life there. And also because of how good it felt to be there. Love at my grandparents’ was often expressed with food—a Three Musketeers bar, hot biscuits, homegrown tomatoes, strawberries picked with Grandmother. “Have some cream, Boy,” meaning vanilla ice cream, was a favorite invitation of Granddaddy’s.
More importantly, though, it was expressed with time. I never, not once, remember a time when my grandparents gave me the idea they did not have time for me. Granddaddy would take us to feed the mule or to ride in the truck. Grandmother would play with us on the floor. And to most of us grandchildren, Grandmother taught the piano.
Grandmother had a favorite song she liked to entertain us with. We asked for it often, and she did not always acquiesce, saving it, I think, to be played more rarely so as to make it more special, not the song so much as her gift to us in playing it. The song was Dixie. It was, after all, the Deep South (although it seems deeper in retrospect than it did at the time), and there was no doubt that our family heritage was Southern. It saddens me that Dixie has become, which it has, something so contrary to what it was to me as a child—not an expression of ideology but an expression of a grandmother’s love. Alas.
Being at my grandparents’ home is a large part of how I learned what love meant. Here’s the paradox. When my grandparents in turn learned about love from their grandparents, they were learning what love meant from former officers in the Confederate Army. How do I square taking up arms, in what was undeniably treason, to defend the indefensible with being in the human chain that taught me how to love?
I have been wondering this week if there isn’t a clue in a book by Holocaust-survivor Hannah Arendt’s understanding of the “banality of evil.” She suggests that the evil deeds of the Holocaust were committed by ordinary people, not super-human monsters or the extraordinarily deranged, just regular, ordinary people. All people, she asserts, are capable of evil, and in numbers and when organized, they are capable of great evil. She has been criticized as naïve. I think she has a point that helps me make sense of things this week.
As I have remembered about he banality of evil this week, I have begun to wonder about the banality of love, that the truth of ordinary human beings is not only that they are, under the right circumstances capable of great evil, but if an inherent part of our humanity is not also the capability of great love. The seeds of both are present in us all. It is, I think, just part of the human condition.
I have also found myself remember words made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I am convinced it does, which has given me some comfort this week. I have also come to believe something else. The moral arc of the universe not only bends toward justice, but it is bent that way by love.
I learned to love from people who themselves learned to love from Confederate soldiers, and because I learned how to love in this line of succession, I can memorialize the love but I cannot make peace with memorializing what they did in what Southerners still refer to simply as the War. It is the moral arc of the universe bent by love, which did not originate, after all, with Confederate veterans, nor with the parents of Confederate veterans and generation after generation before them, but at the very beginning of it all, in the very Creation. Love bends the arc of the universe because it was present at the beginning and evil was not.
It is a moral arc that had been bent by love enough by my grandparents’ generation, that Granddaddy could regale me with the story of the time he refused to join the Ku Klux Klan, which he described as “a bunch of fools.” It is a moral arc that had been bent by love enough by my grandparents’ generation that Grandmother never used the word so many of her peers did to describe her black neighbors.
I can hope, the moral arc has been bent by love just enough in my generation to be deeply disturbed to see white supremacy rear its ugly head and the absurd re-emergence of Nazism in America, of all places, which is largely responsible for defeating it the first time. Both are a testament, as we learned this weekend and the succeeding days as individuals identified in the angry mob have scurried to deny what their behavior laid bare, to the banality of evil.
The outrage we are seeing is likewise a testament to the banality of love. And by banality, let there be no doubt, I certainly do not mean that either love or evil is boring or trite. I mean that they, both of them, are common to us all. We are living in a dangerous denial if we think the only thing that can emerge from within our human hearts is one but not the other. I confess that I am worried in this most confusing of weeks that self-righteousness in the face of undeniable evil is a cover-up of the darkness just below the surface. The antidote, the only antidote, is love, and it is, though often harder to see, equally in there, too.
All this actually does have a connection to Scripture. The Old Testament lesson for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Gen. 45:1-15, is the story of the reunion of Joseph with his brothers in Egypt many years after the brothers had spitefully sold him into slavery. Over those years the moral arc of the universe was bent toward justice by love, in Joseph’s heart and theirs. In the end, the evil intended by the brothers was overcome and they were reunited and reconciled. Genesis says that they wept upon each other’s necks. It recalls to my mind another Southernism, to hug someone’s neck, as in, “I can’t wait to hug your neck,” a sign of reunion. It has something to do, I think, with the fact that all the brothers learned how to love from Jacob, who certainly had faults of his own, and he learned how to love from Isaac, another less than perfect character, and he, in turn, from Abraham, not exactly the paragon of moral virtue, either. Such is family. Such is the banality of love.