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Our inhumanity and 'the arc of the moral universe'

Part One

I’ve mentioned before that I correspond by letter with a close friend who lives in Tucson, Arizona. We have shared our experiences coping with the pandemic and how it has redefined our lives. We agree that its tenacious presence continues to be unsettling at best and deeply disturbing at worst, as are our attempts to follow the harrowing responses by this administration, ever steeped in denial and distortion. And there is the seemingly intractable issue of systemic racism in America, a renewed focus brought about by the anguish-filled death of George Floyd. But something seems to have shifted, the prism altered, and perhaps the word “woke” is indeed applicable.

In any case, with regard to racism, I’ve come to realize that we both ponder and struggle with the stark reality of man’s inhumanity to man. How do we fully grasp the presence of evil and gross injustice in a moral universe — mysterium iniquitatis?

What came to mind for my friend was an image, a photograph taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s. He wrote, “There is a very old and obviously very orthodox Jewish man in the photo. He is kneeling on the ground in front of a pit opened in the earth. He is wrapped in his prayer shawl. And there isn’t a Jew in the world who would not say that at that moment he is singing, ‘Hear oh Israel, the one God is our Lord.’

“Any Jew would know this because of the situation in the photo. A very starchily uniformed German officer is pointing a pistol at the ancient Jew’s head. He will shoot the old man when he’s done singing Standing in the background is a group of soldiers in German combat fatigues, guns, etc. One of them is looking into the camera and smiling broadly.”

He mentioned that smiling stare into the camera because I had shared my reaction to the look on the face of a young man who stood among a large crowd who was gathered to bear witness to the lynching of a black man whose now lifeless body was hanging from a rope in the background. The man looking into the camera was smiling.

Implicit in our correspondence was the question: how do you comprehend the incomprehensible? The haunting presence of evil in that moment. It’s not just the chilling smiles of those two men, but the awful tableau, meaning the presence of so many others who offer only their approbation and not their condemnation.

Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, recently shared his painful attempt to understand that which is beyond understanding and in doing so stare into an abyss and ask: How is it possible that slavers and owners could justify to themselves that they had the right to own another human being? He puzzles and then comments that slavery, however framed, is profoundly abhorrent and depraved and was enforced by a violence both barbaric and unimaginable. What those Africans endured, who were kidnapped and shipped via the Middle Passage to America, was a cruel and willful horror that escapes language. It was evil.

Relying on the rare 1829 written record of the Rev. Robert Walsh, a British subject, Blow describes what Walsh encountered when he boarded an intercepted slave ship. “The ship had been at sea for 17 days. There were over 500 kidnapped Africans on board. Fifty-five had already been thrown overboard. The Africans were crowded below the main deck. Each deck was only 3 feet 3 inches high. They were packed together so tight that they were sitting between one another’s legs, everyone completely nude,” the choking air so foul and fetid it repelled. “Each had been branded on their breast or arm. Many were children, little girls and little boys.” Mysterium iniquitatis in a moral universe.

(To be continued)

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.

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