". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Contextualizing Hatred

In an open letter to Senator Obama (click here to read in its entirety), filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd addresses the Senator's point about the need to put his pastor Jeremiah Wright's hate-filled racial remarks into perspective.

You tell me Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s horrendous remarks will take on a different meaning if I will but contextualize them. . . . So I have done precisely that: looked inside myself to understand how hatred might need to be contextualized.

I did not have to look far. I remembered how, as a boy, I sat at the Passover Seder with my sister’s Polish-born husband and the remnants of his family. The remnants of five families to be precise, for the 12 weary souls around that table were all that remained of what had once been 300. The others – their loved ones, their sons, their daughters, their hopes and dreams – were gone, their lives consumed by zyklon-b gas, their mortal remains wisps of smoke from a B├╝chenwald chimney. . . . And I was filled with a righteous hatred. Had I, in that moment, the power to end the life of every German on earth, I might have well done so.

. . . [Some years later] I was invited to participate on a panel on “Hollywood and Stereotypes” sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. It was against my instinct, but a good friend had asked I participate and so I did. . . . My first co-panelist to speak was a young woman, a German filmmaker. She spoke of how growing up as a German she felt ashamed and humiliated whenever it was necessary to admit her lineage and how her life was about working to ease her shame. It was pure self-hatred. Senator, by some strange alchemy I heard myself explaining to her the mantle of guilt did not fall upon the shoulders of her generation. In fact, I found myself describing Germany’s honest attempt to come to terms with the horrors committed in its name. I spoke of all the things they had done from which the French, the Ukrainians, the Poles had run. How they taught in their schools the truth of their actions, how they policed their civil society and punished words or acts that had echoes of that time, how they worked tirelessly to make reparation to those survivors not stamped out by their hobnailed boots. They had sought atonement. That is not say anti-Semitism and anti-Semites did not persist in Germany. Of course they did, as they do everywhere. But they are no longer the soul or intent of the German nation, they are seen for the abhorrent aberration they truly are. Mind you, Senator, the “new” Germans did not ask for forgiveness; they knew this was not within the power of humankind and could only be given by the grace of God. They acted out their atonement from pure understanding of what had gone before.

And in that instant I realized my hatred was unjustified. The “context” was false. I was nursing the anger for my own psychic advantage and not because the current state of humanity or my own experience gave it justice. And I shed my anger.

. . . That is the teaching opportunity I hoped you would evoke: not explaining Wright’s outrage to me, but explaining his outrageousness to him. That’s how we’ll reach the postracial era: by no longer justifying ourselves with what was, instead speaking to what now exists. Not deny the past, but recognize that’s what it is: past.

You say you are devoted to Reverend Wright because he brought you to Christ. I can only imagine how powerful a relationship that forges. But, my imperfect understanding of the Christian Faith tells me you can do him an equally magnificent service: You can help bring him back to Christ. Show him redemption and salvation lie not in the satisfaction of doing little dances in a pulpit while you slander good and decent people. Teach him that great leadership and Christian love abjures the very filth – and I pick that word deliberately – that he spews on an apparently regular basis. After all, Senator, you know our government did not invent the HIV virus to kill African-Americans. You know, Senator, this is not the United States of KKK America. You know the truth of 9/11. At least you should. Both you and Michelle have benefited mightily from the new spirit that has come to America in the last two generations. I thought you were part of that. I thought you were post-racial.

But in your silence, in your justifications, in your facile instruction to contextualize, you seem just a more presentable version of those dreary self-promoters, Sharpton, Jackson, Bakewell and the rest. Surely this is not you. Please, Senator, be brave. Lead. From a position of honesty where context is our daily reality, not drawn from bitter memories, no matter how justified they once might have been. Deny Jeremiah Wright your comfort of “context”. Be Presidential. To all Americans.

Yours sincerely, and in prayer for the Grace of God,

Lionel Chetwynd

PS – I would like to discuss your stereotyping of “typical” white people whose only valid dissatisfaction is apparently the occasional irritation at the misuse of affirmative action. But enough for now. Perhaps another time.

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