The Fourth Vow

January 9, 2005

Do you promise to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?

I wrote earlier about the vital place which Malcolm X occupied in my personal mythology. Because of the vitality of my faith in him, the following words, from Audre Lorde, made a strong impression:

There is no Black person here [writes Lorde] who can afford to wait to be led into positive action for survival. Each one of us must look clearly and closely at the genuine particulars (conditions) of his or her life and decide where action and energy is needed and where it can be effective. Change is the immediate responsibility of each of us, wherever and however we are standing, in whatever arena we choose. For while we wait for another Malcolm, another Martin, another charismatic Black leader to validate our struggles, old Black people are freezing to death in tenements, Black children are being brutalized and slaughtered in the streets, or lobotomized by television, and the percentage of Black families living below the poverty line is higher today than in 1963.

And if we wait to put our future in the hands of some new messiah, what will happen when those leaders are shot, or discredited, or tried for murder, or called homosexual, or otherwise disempowered? Do we put our future on hold? What is that internalized and self-destructive barrier that keeps us from moving, that keeps us from coming together?

When I first read this passage, one thing leaped out at me: heroes were a trap, because they convert the spiritual energy of a great mass of people into frail flesh, which can then be struck down.

Sometimes you see a “martyr” syndrome in which the death of the hero actually releases that energy, returning it to those who followed him (or her), and the followers suddenly find new resources of leadership and effectiveness. It’s like the Obi-Wan Kenobi phenomenon: strike me down, and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. It’s what some people probably believe accounts for the origins of Xianity. From her perspective, Audre Lorde could see quite clearly that neither the deaths of Malcolm nor Martin unleashed new energies in the many people who had responded to their leadership. The civil rights movement lost momentum, or at least that aspect of the movement in which black people were rising up and claiming what was rightfully theirs. As much as I loved Malcolm, Audre was pointing out what I could easily have observed for myself: his long term legacy, in terms of the changes he had wanted to see, was brutally limited.

What fascinates me now about this passage, which is from a talk entitled “Learning from the ’60s” in her book Sister / Outsider, is that it starts out with a heavy emphasis on individual responsibility but ends with the question, how can we come together? It at first appears to be saying, get off your ass and become a hero yourself instead of waiting for one to show you the way. More deeply, it’s saying that people must not only have a personal awakening in which they become (in the words of Fr. Fernando Cardenal) protagonists of history rather than spectators, but there must be a reciprocal and interdependent dimension to their awakening. They need to find solidarity and strength in numbers, not mediated by a charismatic leader, but in direct relationship to each other. It appeared in retrospect, observed Lorde, that communities, instead of being truly mobilized, had instead rallied around these leaders, and lost their power to some degree when they were struck down.

I think a lot about the Borg, the fearsome nemesis from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg “collective” was a perversion of the idea of community: “Your distinctiveness will be added to our own,” it would chant. “You will be assimilated.” The Borg had the strength of numbers and at the same time had the strength of acting with perfect unanimity. The only thing it lacked, it was often said in the show, was the presence within it of distinct individual consciences.

And that was the terrible flaw in that show: the discussion stopped whenever the sanctity of the individual was affirmed. It was supposed to represent a future in which people had come together at a global level, where the human race had finally learned to play as a team. However, you couldn’t help but notice that the captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, was the center of many of the stories and a mythological figure of heroic valor and virtue. He was the hero.

I can recall one story that made a valiant effort to work against this dynamic: “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which Picard was assimilated by the Borg, and the Borg, newly empowered by Picard’s distinctive knowledge and skill, was cutting a bloody swath through the galaxy towards Earth. Riker, now captain of the Enterprise, was at a loss. How could he possibly gain any advantage over such a foe? There is a beautiful scene where Guinan takes Riker to task: you have to let go of Picard, she tells him. He’s as good as dead – worse, because his very creativity and decision-making patterns are now part of the Borg. There is only one thing Picard doesn’t know about the Enterprise, and that is how it will fight with Will Riker as its captain. When you stop trying to do what Picard would have done (WWPD?), you will again have a fighting chance.

Nice, right? A beautiful illustration of Lorde’s principle: Picard was not only the dramatic center of the show, but within the story he was the emotional linchpin of the crew. When the Borg takes him out, the only chance is for the Enterprise to come together, not anchored in a single individual, but working together as a unique team. Of course, the story then undercuts this notion: the plan that Riker comes up with has as its primary goal the rescue of Picard. And once they have him back aboard the ship, he is able to pull off yet one more ship-sparing, Earth-saving stunt. It was inescapable – maybe because Patrick Stewart was so obviously the strongest actor in the cast – but the captain was really the main character of that show. It never became a true ensemble.

This is one way in which the reality is better than the fantasy. Because Jesus isn’t simply a martyr. He is, in a sense, the antithesis of a martyr: it wasn’t because he had died, but because he had returned to his disciples that they were forged into a distinctive community . Then, the best trick – one recommended by Alice Walker in her novel Meridian – he walked away. He ascended into heaven, leaving us with a great commandment, a great commission, and an extended family with God as the father.

Jesus is, in a very real sense, not the charismatic leader of the church he founded – he is not Jean-Luc Picard. He had the power to do what that fictional character could not – give his glory away, to us, so that we could become a true ensemble cast. That is the dream for which I lay down my claims to autonomy – not that Jesus can become a part of me, but that I can become a part of Jesus. I haven’t received Jesus into my heart – he has received me into his. He has adopted me into his family. And it is in serving that family and serving the world alongside that family that I will rediscover my old, toxic dream of doing good works in a context that makes “being good” a blessing instead of a curse.


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