Solidarity, Serendipity, Grace: a brief story from my morning

This is probably from 2013:

Yesterday I reposted a three-year old piece about Hess’s, the famed and sorely missed downtown commercial icon that owned the 20th century not just in Allentown but really across this part of Pennsylvania.

As you know if you live here, Allentown is undergoing half-a-billion dollars in new capital investment.

This morning, I had a breakfast get-together downtown. I was early, and I found myself sitting in the lobby of one of the new buildings to pass the time.  It also occurred to me to pray.  At some point, a kind woman I’d never met before who works somewhere in the building asked me if I wanted anything to eat or if I could use some coffee. Yesterday, I had given a little extra at a local coffee shop and said if you don’t want the tip, please do pass it on to a homeless friend in need.

The kind woman from this morning may have thought I was homeless or just simply hurting, and maybe that’s on her mind because of all the awareness being raised about the needs in Allentown. Maybe looking out for others is part of who she is.  In any case,  I’m grateful for her kindness and her courage, and I know that someday soon it will encounter someone with needs I can’t begin to imagine.  Maybe it has already.

Opening Lines: Victory by Joseph Conrad

There is, as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very close chemical relation between coal and diamonds. It is the reason, I believe, why some people allude to coal as “black diamonds.” Both these commodities represent wealth; but coal is a much less portable form of property. There is, from that point of view, a deplorable lack of concentration in coal. Now, if a coal-mine could be put into one’s waistcoat pocket–but it can’t! At the same time, there is a fascination in coal, the supreme commodity of the age in which we are camped like bewildered travelers in a garish, unrestful hotel. And I suppose those two considerations, the practical and the mystical, prevented Heyst – Axel Heyst – from going away.

Joseph Conrad, Victory, 1915.  page 1.

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Doubt, Depression, Dread-Mornings of the Soul

From 2014:

I’m trying to write a new post about depression and doubt. One does not do this without referencing Leonard Cohen and Ernest Hemingway. I looked up some old posts for reference, only to find that I’d written this almost a year ago to the day:

https://chriscocca.com/2013/02/08/rockstars-and-whetstones-and-ssris-steven-hyden-and-a-bunch-of-other-stuff/

I can’t say that my medical situation is exactly the same as it was then, but I feel a year better, at least, about almost everything.

Below is what I started with this morning before going back.

For me, doubt is never about the veracity of some narrative.  I suppose that’s because the living Christ is the only thing I really believe in.  I suppose it’s because I feel connected to the prophetic witness and movement of the Holy Spirit.  Or perhaps I am drawn to these realities specifically because I can’t fathom the idea that the salvation of the world depends on getting this or that narrative right.  I want to experience what Jesus experienced of God, and what his followers experienced of him.  I want to do what he did.  I don’t have time for anything else.

For me, doubt isn’t waking up and fearing that the stories we were raised on aren’t true.  I don’t care about that.  Doubt, for me, is far more insidious.  It has to do with waking up and worrying that everything I fought for yesterday doesn’t matter, or, worse, would embarrass Ernest Hemingway.  I’m talking about a specific, latent, and under-discussed anxiety that often turns young Christian or Muslim or just plain earnest men into misogynists: the fear of spiritual conviction as masculine failure.  In the West at least, men are inevitably trained to worry about this.  We are trained not only to believe that our worth as men or as people has everything to do with supposedly gender-bound responsibilities of provision to our families and sexual gratification to ourselves, but that the bald pursuit of both at any cost is somehow noble, right, and good.  Spirituality (like nurturing) is better left to women.  When we do pursue spiritual matters, God (God!) forbid we allow ourselves to cede equal ground to women or their equal standing before God.  God forbid we affirm the radical hunches of Paul or the radical directives of Jesus.  If we’re already concerned that spirituality (or anything not manifesting as apathy) makes us cruiser-weight chumps in the war of each against all, we’re not likely to admit women (or gay men, for that matter) can do that shit as well as us, period.

If you’ve ever felt this way, please know that hyper-masculine Neo-Calvinism won’t help.  This isn’t about embracing a beefed-up vision of Jesus but about reclaiming an honest one.  He fought the law and the law won.  And then he won.  On the dark mornings of my soul, waking up means having to remember that the radical potency of insubordination and insurrection isn’t just the point of Jesus’ witness, but of this “work in progress called life.”   The point of life, as best as I can see it, isn’t found in the catechisms of J.M. Barrie, Martin Luther, or Ulrich Zwingli.   It’s found in the life and work of someone like Jesus, killed for daring to free the world from the scarcity model.

That’s no small thing.  It’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed of.   It won’t net you a sports car or pension or the kind of disposable relationships we sometimes crave.  It may, however, net you some life and in that sense, abundance.

Jesus, Toure, Theology, etc.

I can’t speak to the meat of this piece, and the piece it opposes, as it relates to post-blackness.

On the other hand, ethnographically, I do know something about the immigrant experiences of my own kin, and people like them, in the history of 20th century Americanization.  Clearly, I cannot (and have no reason to try to) equate the struggles of my brownish Italian ancestors, who came here in the figurative chains of the most extreme forms of European poverty, with the experience of black slaves and their (and their descendants’) struggle for community and freedom.  At the same time, it seems to me that the expatriate experiences of slave and immigrant narratives have in common what the writer at Liberator identifies as the longing of the expatriate community to retain ancient values that stand in sharp contrast to the political and economic machinery of the America they were sold on or sold to.  In these ways, post-blackness might be something like what classically poor and marginally white ethnic communities have long mourned in their third, fourth, and fifth generations.  I know something about that.  These experiences are far from identical.  But for the vowels in my last name, which are changeable, and the radical values, which are not, I could blend into the WASP elite largely unnoticed.  Color, and, I take it, blackness, is something different and has been something different since the beginning.

As a white man with an ethnic memory and as a follower of the radical called Jesus, I’ve thought a lot about what’s being said in the Liberator piece about the possibility and necessity of maintaining cultures and communities that stand in opposition to the neo-liberal or libertarian modes of capitalism destroying our poor (increasingly more of us) and our planet.  The instinctive drive of expat communities to retain their cultures and values is not unlike a religious witness:  we can and do oppose you forces of injustice that seek to rend our families, exhaust our world, and feed us, all of us, like so much fodder to the socioeconomicpolitical array.

There’s a saying, which I think goes back to James Cone, that “all theology is black theology.”  These are reasons why.  In the American context, black people are and always have been the most marginalized of expatriated groups.  If Jesus is for the margin, and if, by God, Jesus is what the early first-century hymn says:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

and if those who follow are to use this model as a basis for treating each other with this same mindset (Philippians 2:5), then we must follow Jesus into quintessential Otherness vis a vie the power structures of our day.  In a figurative way, Jesus followers of every background must be made cruciform.  Is it too much to say we must all retain a kind of blackness?

In my own ethnic context, Robert Orsi notes that “Vecoli has portrayed Italians as fierce anti-clericals, angry at the church and looking for leadership to the radical political thinkers who emigrated with them and took up residence in the Italian colonies [in American cities].”

The important part of this quote, for me, is the alignment of Italian American immigrants with the radical political thinkers expatriating with them, and their penchant for living their spiritualities in the home and in street.  In The Madonna of 115th Street, Orsi shows the political/spiritual unit of the the domus (the family, the home life), standing in contrast to the demands of a newly industrialized West and in American urban settings.  Our cities were and are rife with abject urban poverty, an experience made even harder to bear by the grim contrast it bore against the comparatively wistful graces of abject rural poverty in Southern Italy: generational connections to domus, piazza, culture.   This is not to say that pre-Columbian or pre-industrial cultures were uniformly just and good (far from it) or that it was better to die of hunger in Campania than of a broken heart in Brooklyn.  It is to say, however, that in the rush to Americanize, my people have lost something vital, something ancient, and something that might serve as an alternative to the money-loving monoculture we’re relearning to resist.

All Christians must be expatriates.  All Christians must, like Christ, be immigrants.  This is what Paul means when he talks about being in but not of the worldy power structures.  This is no raptured absence from the realities of the the mess we’re in.  Instead, it’s a stubborn, radical insistence that there are other ways of doing things: black ways, Italian ways, Latino ways, Polish ways, Middle Eastern ways, Asian ways, and diverse seas within them.  There are Old World ways worth reexamining, the teachings of our ancestors — and the teachings of Our Lord — among them.