Yesterday I addressed the issue of systemic trauma that often occurs from economic disparity. This issue is personal to me as I grew up in the American South, the state of Arkansas, and my family was impoverished for the first 10 years of my life or so. As I aged I began to become aware of the social atmosphere of where I lived and as I entered college years and became engrossed with the social sciences I began to scrutinize the socio-cultural context which had shaped my life and realized that this context was, in turn, shaped by historical processes that long preceded my arrival on the stage of life.
Study of history taught me of the social disruption of the Civil War in the American South and the profound sense of loss and alienation that swept the former Confederate states as they began to grapple with this “tragedy” that had befallen them. One conceptualization of this despair is known to historians as “the myth of the lost cause” and my studies quickly showed me how this despair had created the sectarian Baptist denomination that was the bedrock of my spiritual life. The multi-generational despair gave rise to a religion of hopelessness disguised as “belief in Jesus.” (I will attach a recording of an old hymn that vividly illustrates this issue.)
Another relevant term to this cultural atmosphere is dispossession. Civil War Era Southerners felt they had been dispossessed of what was rightfully theirs, that “big government” had intruded and taken away their god-given way of life part of which was slavery. Their sense of entitlement had been gravely imperiled. And this fear of “government intrusion” is still very much present as evidenced in our recent election. Related to the experience of dispossession is the existential terror of alienation, of not belonging, and the hope that a “strong man” would appear on the scene at some point to right these wrongs and, “Make American Great Again.” And, if that did not happen, comfort was found in the firm knowledge that God would make things right in the after life, punishing those who had brought this injustice on a “god-given” way of looking at the world.
Still another important dimension of this atmosphere is a deep-rooted suspicion and fear which often found expression in paranoid fantasies. I subscribed, and promulgated my fair share of these fantasies and recall well how reassuring they were to me, allowing me to focus on an external enemy rather than address the deep-seated insecurity and fear that I now know terrorized my heart. Fear is part of life and even a necessary part for survival. But when fear is a guiding force in a culture, it shapes the lives of the children so that they have no reality other than one that is fear-based and their coping mechanisms are usually not healthy. Mine were not. Obama was right eight years ago when he was overheard describing some people as “clinging to their guns and religion.” He had no problem with “guns” or “religion.” He knew that “clinging” was the issue, that it reflected an existential loss that is only temporarily and superficially assuaged with weaponry or a moribund, sterile, “letter of the law” version of Jesus.
Here is a recording of the hymn that I mentioned above. And, as I listened to it just now, the tangential demons of hopelessness, fear, and despair were resurrected in my 65 year old heart. Listen to it and you’ll see what I mean.