In light of what happened in Charlottesville last weekend—and what is probably always seething beneath the life of the United States—here are a few lines from my Civil War poem, To the House of the Sun. After speaking with a few captured Confederate soldiers in Washington DC, one character has these handful of questions to ask. (While not mentioned, slavery is the original sin hovering here, and which still covers everything we do.)

 


“How will any of us talk of this War when it’s over? Should the North win, will a man in Pennsylvania really feel so much pride, when going down to Virginia—or will a Virginian really feel satisfaction when walking Northern streets, should the South win?

That’s how it is now—
how it has to be now, for the newspapers & the public:
they’ve got to make generals divine & their soldiers into heroes:
& the dates of the battles:
& the ground:
& how the weather was—these things matter now—

but will they in the future: will we only focus on the understandable bitterness of our mother’s brother & our father’s uncle & our family’s old hometown—or will we find something better to do with all the memories: & will we rise somewhere in the air, where we can forget ourselves, finally:

& forget what our families did:
& forget what was done to them,
& instead see them all as God might, forgiven?
Or will the making of peace be like moving two mountains, for these people?”

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9 thoughts on “Charlottesville

  1. I’m not sure what you you mean here, Mr Miller. You are a person of wisdom and I’m thinking you’re calling for acceptance, on both sides. Acceptance is a good thing, something, as humans, we must all learn. How about crimes, then? Do we accept the crimes, as well? You say, “as God might, forgiven? ” What if I don’t believe in God, what if I’m not religious? Do you think the Native Americans will forgive the unpronounced holocaust both in North and South America? White men, Europeans, have taken their lands and destroyed their heritage. This is a fact no one talks about. Slavery, African Americans, who were brought to work on the sugar cane and cotton fields from Africa. Do you think they will forgive the suffering imposed upon them by White men? I have read many of your literary articles, Mr Tim Miller, with great interest. This is a fact and I have no answers. I hope you do. BTW, I’m not American, African American, Hispanic or Asian.

  2. https://peoplesrepublicofescotia.com/2017/08/14/1460/

    “Yet, when stating that we need to move away from punishment, we are not arguing for ‘forgiveness’. ‘Forgiveness’ is a problematic word that is connected with religious ideas of penance and therefore can actually involve processes of punishment. For example, Alice Miller indicates that religious notions of child punishment have (in the past and present) promoted an idea that children need to be beaten e.g. if they are to achieve forgiveness, or, that children should simply turn the other cheek e.g. in the face of adult abuse. Most recently there have been reports of religious orders forcing women to face there convicted abusers within church settings.

    Hence, the notion of forgiveness needs to be critically analysed. We are of the view that compassion, rather than forgiveness, enables us to recognise the context of decision-making. Compassion does not always require us to absolve (or forgive) people for their behaviour. We believe it is important for people to be compassionate when crimes are committed, because compassion may enable them to move from positions of anger and ‘stuckness’, into processes that enable them to move on from extreme life circumstances…

    ….Cummings talks of ultimately ‘forgiving’ his father but not absolving his father from responsibility for his actions.

    Cummings argues that ‘not talking’ is a kind of denial that prevents resolution from happening (see link here). We would argue that resolution, is different from the Christian concept of forgiveness and it should never be assumed that resolution can only be achieved by forgiveness. It is possible for us to understand the context of abuse without accepting the legitimacy of that abuse. We can understand why something happened and put it behind us without absolving others for their need to take responsibility for their own actions.”

  3. Sorry, I have no way to defend the words of a fictional character who exists in a poem—not a philosophical treatise or political tract, but a poem. I also have none of the answers you’re looking for, & really do think that assuming that there are answers is one of our biggest problems. There is no “answer” that will make any of this easier for Native Americans, slaves, immigrants, or anyone throughout all of history who were abused or mistreated. I can’t tell anyone how to react to anything. I’ve also written about injustice (here: https://wordandsilence.com/2017/07/09/the-book-of-job/) The real pain of that, too, is that nothing is really fixed. Even if someone is punished, the abuse (the murder, the rape, the genocide, even the smallest slight) remains something that still occurred, and can’t be undone.

    As to forgiveness, it need not be Christian or specifically religious in any way. I always recall the Tibetan Buddhists who refused to hate or wish revenge on their Chinese captors and torturers. And a Lakota man named Albert White Hat said it better than any Christian I know. You can watch his remarks here https://youtu.be/Qfzb8H46B7o?t=24m22s , but I type them below as well; but to be clear, none of this is an answer, only perpetual difficulty:

    “I grew up with a lot of the older people, listened to the stories. And those stories were in side of me. And I went into a [white run] boarding school system, and they kill those stories in that system. I came out of there totally ashamed of who I am, of what I am. In the late sixties I went back the culture, on my own. I let my hair grow, I started speaking my language. And in one of those times, I fasted, I did the vision quest, for five years. And one of those years, I … it was a beautiful night, stars were out, and it was calm, just beautiful. And it was around midnight, and I got up and I prayed, and I sat down and sat there for awhile and all of a sudden I had these, like a flashback, of Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, and every policy, every law, that was imposed on us by the government and the churches hit me, one at a time, one at a time, and how it affected my life. And as I sat there I got angrier and angrier, until it turned to hatred. And I looked at the whole situation, the whole picture, and there was nothing I could do, it was too much. The only thing I could do, to me, was when I come off that hill, I’m going to grab a gun, and I’m going to start shooting–and go that way, maybe, then, my grandfathers will honor me, if I go that way. I got up, and I came around, and I faced the eastern direction, and it was beautiful, I mean, it was dawn, light, enough light to see the rolling hills out there, and right above that blue light in that darkness was the sliver of the moon and the morning star, and I wanted to live. I want to live. I want to be happy. I feel I deserve that. But the only way I was going to do that, was if I forgive. And I cried that morning, because I had to forgive. Since then, every day, I worked on that commitment. Now I don’t know how many people felt it, but every one of us, if you’re a Lakota, you have to deal with that at some point in your life, and you have to address that, you have to make a decision. If you don’t, you’re going to die on the road someplace, either from being too drunk, or you might take a gun to your head, if you don’t handle these situation. So it just … this isn’t history, I mean it’s still with us, what has happened in the past will never leave us. Next hundred, two hundred years, it will be with us, and we have to deal with that.”

  4. Not sure what any of this has to do with anything outside of what sounds like an academic paper. I am not a Christian, and forgiveness need not be Christian or specifically religious in any way, but if it is religious I don’t see any problem with it. The Christians who forgave Dylan Roof for killing their loved ones in the Charleston church shooting weren’t overthinking the matter, it was just something pretty basic. It has nothing to do with the perpetrator taking responsibility for their actions, but of the victims safeguarding their own humanity and not wanting to dwell in anger and hatred. The perpetrator already did his deed; after he does it, it’s almost not about him anymore.

    I also always recall the Tibetan Buddhists who refused to hate or wish revenge on their Chinese captors and torturers. And a Lakota man named Albert White Hat said it better than anyone. You can watch his remarks here https://youtu.be/Qfzb8H46B7o?t=24m22s , but I type them below as well. I don’t see anything wrong with this kind of forgiveness.

    “I grew up with a lot of the older people, listened to the stories. And those stories were in side of me. And I went into a [white run] boarding school system, and they kill those stories in that system. I came out of there totally ashamed of who I am, of what I am. In the late sixties I went back the culture, on my own. I let my hair grow, I started speaking my language. And in one of those times, I fasted, I did the vision quest, for five years. And one of those years, I … it was a beautiful night, stars were out, and it was calm, just beautiful. And it was around midnight, and I got up and I prayed, and I sat down and sat there for awhile and all of a sudden I had these, like a flashback, of Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, and every policy, every law, that was imposed on us by the government and the churches hit me, one at a time, one at a time, and how it affected my life. And as I sat there I got angrier and angrier, until it turned to hatred. And I looked at the whole situation, the whole picture, and there was nothing I could do, it was too much. The only thing I could do, to me, was when I come off that hill, I’m going to grab a gun, and I’m going to start shooting–and go that way, maybe, then, my grandfathers will honor me, if I go that way. I got up, and I came around, and I faced the eastern direction, and it was beautiful, I mean, it was dawn, light, enough light to see the rolling hills out there, and right above that blue light in that darkness was the sliver of the moon and the morning star, and I wanted to live. I want to live. I want to be happy. I feel I deserve that. But the only way I was going to do that, was if I forgive. And I cried that morning, because I had to forgive. Since then, every day, I worked on that commitment. Now I don’t know how many people felt it, but every one of us, if you’re a Lakota, you have to deal with that at some point in your life, and you have to address that, you have to make a decision. If you don’t, you’re going to die on the road someplace, either from being too drunk, or you might take a gun to your head, if you don’t handle these situation. So it just … this isn’t history, I mean it’s still with us, what has happened in the past will never leave us. Next hundred, two hundred years, it will be with us, and we have to deal with that.”

  5. I am reminded of King Priam going to the tent of Achilles to recover Hector’s body. Both were great warriors. That night they seemed to have more in common than the walls that seemed to make them enemy. Both Patroclus and Hector were loved, and the loss of those two seemed unbearable for the men who were left behind. It is one of the most moving scenes not only in The Iliad but in all of literature. Seems that is the way of war.

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