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Mythological Power

Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. All the people shall say, Amen!

Deuteronomy 27: 19

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

Luke 11:42

 

Every nation enjoys its own mythology. National mythologies tend to be an expression of what we wish we were, an expression of our best selves. They are the stories about what it means to be “us” that are drilled into our heads as children, not explicitly, but through the selective repetition of idealized history, through the narratives we see across the spectrum of media. They are largely what we say we are willing to sacrifice lives for both at home and abroad. In the United States our national mythology suggests that we are a nation of morally righteous, free, people, governed by laws that are just and fair. We are a meritocracy, blind to the predation of divisions by gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, or any other substantive distinction among and between citizens. It is a mythology so potent that people from every other nation on earth flock to our borders in the hopes that it can be true for them as well. After all, anyone can make it in America, it just takes hard work.

It is also why we fail, as a nation, to address the systemic exclusion and violent oppression of people in our midst. It is why we tend to demonize the people for whom our mythology is demonstrably corrupt. To maintain our mythological narrative it becomes imperative that we characterize those who are largely trampled by our system as wholly undeserving through their own choices. It is why, when violence explodes in Fergusen or Baltimore we only ever notice the riot and never the systematic oppression that led up to it. It is why we are always so eager to find the Michael Browns deserving of their fate, while going to extraordinary lengths to defend the actions of the Darren Wilsons. It’s why we hardly notice economic disparity, uneven access to health care and education, or exclusion from the kind of civil rights that most of us take for granted.

Those of us who most benefit from the system simply imagine that everyone else benefits as well, that everyone has the same access, and that, if people are failing at life, it can only be because they have made bad choices, rather than the good choices we have made. It is why we can so consistently characterize those who are in poverty as lazy scammers living large at public expense. In our mythological meritocracy we see poverty as a choice; we see the ghetto to prison pipeline as a peculiar manifestation of black culture; we don’t see bigotry and prejudice so much as we see people who steadfastly refuse to play by the rules that work best for us.

Perhaps it has ever been thus. It certainly seems to have been the case throughout the epochs described in scripture. Over and over prophets and preachers have had to remind the people of G-d that the divine spirit expects more from us, more than a comfort that is dismissive of the marginalized; more than a casuistic rendering of moral principles; more than a mythological blindness. G-d calls us to be advocates for the very people most harmed by the social systems from which we benefit. We have to stop imagining that our mythology is about who we are as a people, and begin to recognize that it is really about who we could be.

 

“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”

Haile Selassie

 

“Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.”

Coretta Scott King