Thursday, February 9, 2017

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, Memorials, and the Eucharist (2) - Memorials of Shame

The 1st post in this series recounted and reflected on the story of the Inner and Outer Hornerites of George Saunders’ satirical novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.  I concluded the post in the same way that the book itself concludes; by pondering both the purpose of the statue of Phil and it’s disappearance from the collective conscience of New Horner.

Now, I don’t want to overanalyze the story as written or to read into it things that are not really there, but I think the following question is worth asking.  Why did the Creator – whose literal hands came down out of the heavens to “redeem” the Inner and Outer Hornerites from the mess of their division - leave the citizens with a statue of PHIL. MONSTER??  It certainly isn’t an arbitrarily chosen narrative device.

I'd like to reflect on this by way of a bold and courageous blog post by Richard Beck entitled America's Holocaust over at his blog, Experimental Theology.  I highly recommend giving it a slow, meditative read.

It's a post about national shame.  More specifically, it's about the ways that countries deal or don’t deal with the shameful parts of their history.

Beck talks about a recent trip to Germany and how "a national reckoning with the Holocaust had been and is being attempted."  He points to the memorial to Holocaust victims that's situated right smack in the middle of Berlin, the Topography of Terror Museum, and guided tours through the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Why not tear that Concentration Camp down?  Why does it still stand?  Why is it illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany?  Unlike the Confederate Flag, why is consideration of the Nazi flag as a "cultural artifact" an impossibility?

What sort of things had to happen in the world at large and, perhaps more importantly, in the minds and hearts of the German people themselves in order to take the steps to memorialize their shame?

Nearly all of the time, Beck observes, our memorials are about pride.  They celebrate our successes, generosity, exceptionalism, and sacrifice but never our failures, theft, or those who we've sacrificed on the alters of “progress”.

It's interesting, he points out, that the United States has memorials to the Holocaust in nearly every major US city - memorials to the crimes committed by another country and to which the United States played a role in stopping - but not to any of our own Holocausts.

"What American Holocausts?!" you say.  

Where is the memorial to Transatlantic Slave Trade?  Where is the memorial to the lives lost in the Middle Passage?  How many within our borders even know what either of these are?  We memorialize their bravery and courage via our sports mascots, but where is the memorial to Native American genocide?

Our memorials to the slave trade and to the middle passage best take form in Black History Month or the Martin Luther King Jr memorial.  That is, we've managed to turn these things into symbols of national pride and progress.  They console us.

But we don't like memorials to our shame.  Those sorts of memorials "give us the creeps".

We need to hear this, even if it's uncomfortable.  Maybe it's worth hearing precisely because it’s uncomfortable.

To bring it back to our story, perhaps the very thing that could keep New Horner from once again becoming Inner and Outer Horner (or some mutation of it) is the statue of PHIL.  MONSTER.  In it, the New Hornerites might remember what had happened, what they were capable of, and what they might be capable of again.

And as Phil's story goes, this was all divinely blessed.  Phil invoked the will of this divine being confidently and liberally throughout his rise to power.  Invoking the approval of the divine certainly tickled the ears of his audience, but Phil had this god all wrong.  So just as importantly, the statue might serve as a reminder of the One who put it there – “creepy” as the statue may be.  It might provide a reminder of the One who broke down the boundaries of string that divided Inner and Outer Hornerites, made one man out of the two, and told them that they are enough.  It might remind them of their story, their telos.  

Here’s the thing.  The New Hornerites have the statue, but their memories were wiped clean and they don't know actually why they have it.  They'd need it to be told to them by their "invading" neighbors.  You'd think they'd want to know.  But do they?

In the next post, I'd like to look at some of these themes as they relate to the Eucharist.

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