A New South African Friend
Deacon Lester McKenzie doesn't know it yet, but I think we are going to be good friends. I hope we are at any rate. He's the new priest at St. John's Church, my church of old that I've attended three weeks in a row, this week at the church retreat at Big Bear Lake.
As usual with my attractions to people, there is an ulterior motive which can be traced to a question I am uncomfortable theorizing in complete confidence by myself. I need the experience of other people to give weight or devastate my preliminary conclusions. Through this weekend's convergence of events my question is about the matter of moral reckoning. So first let me tell you the story that gives this priority.
On the way to the lake, I listened to Offramp on NPR. The story "Dad's in Jail" began about the School of the Americas, and how it was complicit in the murder of several clergy in a South American (or Central American) nation. The vague parameters of this story is familiar to all of us from the 80s. It is why we made so much noise over the Contras. The School of the Americas is where our military advisors train allies in special forces operations and such, and gave us people like Manuel Noriega. As I have said at least a dozen times here, and now once more to underscore the point, all of the horrors we were indirectly responsible for including, if applicable, the murder of those nuns, has been repudiated by GWBush. Never send a proxy to do an American military job.
So the Dad of this story full of moral outrage about these murders decided to cross the line and stand to be arrested trying to close down the School of the Americas. This Dad was about 70, he was, I believe, a teacher and obviously his son a professional journalist. And, convicted of a misdemeanor for tresspassing, was sentenced to serve 2 months in a minimum security Federal prison here in LA County.
It's a quaint little story about moral outrage with a beginning, middle and end. The end being that a precious lesson about conscience was applied to us in the radio audience, me while I was driving 80 MPH in my BMW headed to a weekend campout by a lake. Of course Dad had to learn some prison etiquette, he got his shirts ironed in trade for some Snickers, and released on time and unharmed to his son, earned greater respect - his civil disobedience badge of courage, time at Club Fed.
I could not be impressed by this. I wonder if you caught that in my tone. But is this not the measure of our dissent? Have any of us sacrificed even this much over a murder? What good is my blogging, or your reading my blogging when it comes down to the quality of our dissent? Indeed of what value is our moral reckoning at all?
Needless to say, Dad would have never turned himself into the authorities of the country where nuns get shot. That Americans have the luxury of not having all of their assets confiscated and can pretty much pick up their retirement where they left off after a stint in jail, well, it doesn't get much more civilized than that does it? Let us recall the context of an Iraqi interpreter just for kicks. Or not. Let's get back to Big Bear.
It turns out that the Deacon and I have a lot in common superficially. We are both middle aged black men, he a bit younger than I, both Episcopalians. We both love Los Angeles. He says "It's just like Capetown only 10 times bigger." We both began our careers in IT, we're interested in the online presence of St. John's. We both love music by Ladysmith Black Mombazu and at various times in our lives done road biking, body surfing and capoeira. We sat up in front of the dying fire last night revealing these things to each other one sleepy sentence after another. I think that I will find that there are deeper similarities between us as well, at least I'm hoping so. He spoke about the chaos of 1986 when I mentioned that was about the first time we heard LBM here in the States. It wasn't time to go there, but inevitably I will.
And so in the context of all of the moral analysis I do at Cobb, for what it's worth (and I've been reading Hitchens on Jefferson with my daughter - the power of words can be immense), I wonder what strength our moral reckoning has. Are we exercising liberties that are meaningless in the face of the suffering that goes on in this world? Are our best efforts at making moral stands merely pithy exercises of privilege? How does one from the Apartheid era of South Africa take our moral actions? Why indeed would he come here of all places to serve as a priest?
At this morning's service I offered up a prayer in public for those who do not have heroes, for the undefended, for those who suffer anonymously or off the record. Because I know that Iraqis have defenders, the finest our nation can afford. Not military advisors working through proxies who might murder men and women of the cloth, but our own sworn officers and their dedicated charges fighting in the name of the sort of liberty we would wish upon Iraqis, ready or not. Someone ahead of me whose cousin is in that fight offered up the prayer for our soldiers.
I am looking forward to being local. I didn't know that there was a place in the Valley where I could get great South African food. I didn't think I'd find someone from halfway around the planet who would dig Unomathemba like I do. I didn't know there was a beach called Dungeons where the waves get up to 17 feet off the Cape of Good Hope. This is a good sign. It is indeed a very good sign.