The following is an adaptation and expansion of a paper I delivered at the 2017 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, originally titled, “Without Death We Cannot Mourn, Without Mourning We Cannot Be Saved: Mormonism’s Confrontation with It’s Haunted, Invisible Body.” As I adapted the paper for publication here it meandered off in a slightly different direction, so I’ve added a good deal more (the last section is largely new), removed some parts, and tightened the language overall. It also contains some sections that can be found in other essays throughout this blog, but most of the piece is new.
Mainstream Mormonism (probably unbeknownst to most Mormons) has a rather complicated—to put it lightly—relationship with the New Testament, one that is perhaps similar in some ways to common Evangelical interpretations of scripture. There, Christ is God Supreme, a supernatural, foreknowing agent who condescended to come into the world in order to save us from ourselves. This is what Atonement is in modern Mormon theology, a mechanism as much as a divine gift, whereby each one of us becomes reconciled to themselves and to God through a third party—Christ—by obedience to practices centered in covenant promises that are assigned and ratified by authorized priests. We are split personalities, one personality being the sinful person we are, and the other the personality the one we see we must become but universally lack the will or the strength to do. Sin is the failed negotiation between these two personalities, the failed merging of reality with ideal, and atonement is the bridge, the “at-one-ment” between these, creating a whole, unitary individual with a single sinless identity in Christ.
But this is a rather Greek interpretation of New Testament themes in the sense that it focuses on the individual and individual salvation, a vision of how individuals enter the salvation process (or in the case of modern LDS Mormonism, families). The writers of the Gospels, however, had a much more communal understanding of salvation and how the entire community collectively would be prepared for salvation, with the exception, of course, of the writer of the Gospel of John, who was clearly more influenced by Greek and Gnostic sources. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the chief theme is essentially the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven and collective preparation for it realization and/or understanding that it’s already among us. In John, by contrast, the kingdom is rarely mentioned and its theology is much more individualized.
Yet what I have always found compelling in the Synoptic Gospels was Jesus’ lived religion, which was, essentially, that while no one would be getting out of this alive—certainly not Lazarus, who was consigned to die twice—we couldn’t really live while others were dying, and true religion was only found in the never ending response to who was doing the dying. I’ve always felt drawn to Jesus’ single-minded focus on “the least of these,” whom he identified in Matthew 25 specifically as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poorly clothed, the sick, and the prisoner. Normally, we might lump these all together and call them the poor and the marginalized. Jesus’ relentless focus here, to me, has long been the only real fire religion ignites in my bones. I’ve often reflected on why this is so but I don’t entirely understand it. I’ve been relatively poor many times in my life—at this point more often than not—and I’ve always felt at least somewhat alienated from my religious community. But I could hardly be described as poor, marginalized, and excluded in the way the poor, marginalized, and excluded are presented in the Gospels. Perhaps my personal life experiences were enough to at least crack open that door and allow what today are more “radical” readings of the Gospels to appear compelling to me. Certainly, those readings push against the grain of more common interpretations. For example, we might more commonly hear that yes, the poor suffer from hunger, thirst, sickness, etc. to a greater extent than those who have their material needs provided for, and Jesus specifically mentions the poor in other passages, but perhaps this reading is not the only legitimate one. We’ve all felt hunger and thirst to varying degrees. We’ve all been strangers in some fashion in some places. Perhaps many of us could recall a time we could have been better clothed. Certainly, we’ve all experienced sickness. Maybe most of us haven’t been physically imprisoned but we could rightly say we’ve been prisoners in other ways—of our choices,or habits, or addictions, or circumstances, etc. Indeed, we could probably only have empathy for people experiencing these things because we’ve experienced at least versions of them ourselves. Could it be, then, that when Jesus refers to “the least of these” he’s in a certain way referring to every one of us at different times in our lives?
This is not an illegitimate reading in a limited pastoral sense. We all live in stratified and segregated societies, and if you are not living the life of the destitute that Jesus turned to in radical compassion, the above story might resonate with you. After all, isn’t Jesus for everyone? Isn’t he, at least potentially, the personal savior of every human being, or at least every Christian? This would, of course, be the reading that is most compelling for those who do not fit the description of those whom Jesus walked among and healed, since the New Testament Jesus either doesn’t really see you (because, whatever your other problems are, you are not being trampled on and killed by powerful people), and if he does speak to you, it’s in angry condemnation and barely concealed disgust (because you are one of the powerful people doing the trampling and killing). Certainly that couldn’t be your Jesus. That Jesus doesn’t speak softly and reassuringly to you, that Jesus is not a Jesus who would particularly care to help you find your car keys. How, then, to have a Jesus you can call your own?
To have that kind of Jesus you would probably turn to the Gospel of John, the Gospel so many of us who live in relatively privileged and removed circumstances have been historically drawn to. The Prologue to the Gospel calls Jesus the Word, or in Greek, logos. In ancient Greek philosophy logos was the cosmic principle of reason. Jesus, then, (more “Christ” than “Jesus” in this Gospel) is presented as reason incarnate, the way, the truth, and the life for all people, universally. Christ is divine, no question (how he is divine is complicated depending on who you ask, but he is still a god in some fashion). In the first three gospels Jesus goes on at length about the kingdom of God, whereas in John he speaks of his own divinity. Most importantly for our purposes here, the Gospel of John is the only Gospel that so explicitly invites us to have a personal relationship with God through Christ (recall John 17 in particular here). In fact, it is only through Christ, as individually divine or as a member of a godhead, that one can speak of the possibility and importance of being related to the divine. Paul tells us Christ emptied himself of divinity in order to become incarnate and walk among us, and in an analogous sense, in the Gospel of John Christ empties himself of Jesus and becomes a being that is accessible to all, rich, poor, black, white, and everyone in between.
Of course, among believers, the Synoptic Gospels are not so opposed to the Gospel of John. John is merely an additional take, enhancing and adding to what we know about Jesus as the Christ. And yet the Jesus in John is unarguably different from the Jesus in the Synoptics, and those differences surely constitute some of the primary reasons more socioeconomically privileged persons and communities understandably frequently turn to John, or at least the theological framework that John popularized. In fact, this framework of personal relationship with the divine, of Jesus as divine cosmic reason incarnate that all people can understand, who has the power to save everyone individually, is often read back into the other three gospels and becomes the lens through which they are understood. Parables become metaphors for one’s individual spiritual journey back to God, etc.
Yet the Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels took sides, and not merely in a cosmic “good versus evil” sense. More than condemning the rich, Jesus condemned the politically and socially powerful. He was single-mindedly focused on a Kingdom of Reversal, and therefore a kingdom of divine weakness. First is last. Out is in. The lost are found. Weak forces like forgiveness and peace rule this kingdom, not strong forces like dogma and authority. The Kingdom of God reigned wherever the most vulnerable find favor and safety, where the one is preferred to the ninety-nine, where enemies are loved and family is despised (because we find it impossible to plug ourselves into the wider kingdom-community due to our single-minded attachment to family), and where the powerful are put on the defensive. Of course, what makes all of this so compelling, the reason why this narrative has endured the oppositional powers of institutions and privileged societies whose type does not fare well in it, is because Jesus didn’t just teach the divine Kingdom of Reversal, he lived it. He didn’t just declare to his friends the moral wrongness of Roman and Jewish power, he went to the ground zero of their wrongness—the powerless people they had created—and did what he could to feed, heal, and empower them. He went to the sick, despairing, and outcast and showed them the seats in the pews and the beds in the homes that God had sent him to build. And he spoke directly to the powerful, condemning their behavior in direct and unequivocal language. Even before he gave his life for this cause, he showed that a kingdom built by divine weakness can only be realized through personal sacrifice and collective solidarity, not by appeal to powerful institutions, and not by brute force.
Of course most of us might feel ourselves to be living on the margins in some fashion, and therefore to a certain degree we feel we identify with the least of these. Marginalization might be understood as multi-dimensional in this sense. I may be white but also poor, rich but also black, financially comfortable but also gay. But not all marginalization is the same, and the picture of marginalization and exile in the Gospels is much more vivid and clearly demarcated than this. There, it is explicitly about those who are crushed by the power of institutions and the people that hold power within institutions.
Truth and Power
Institutions, as the seats of consolidated and concentrated power, have long been the vehicles for this extreme and devastating marginalization. Institutions have the power to both bless and curse, create, and destroy. Naturally, those whom are their beneficiaries want to focus on their creative and life-giving capacities. To do this, these beneficiaries rely on what is promoted as the funique capacity for institutions to tap into and embody universal truths and values. French philosopher Michel Foucault famously took issue with this notion of truth, arguing that:
“Truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves.”
The understanding that modern Mormons (and, unsurprisingly, most post-Mormons), for example, have of truth is straightforwardly Platonic in this way, and actually reflects some of the cosmo-theological framing in the Gospel of John: the masses are imprisoned in a dark cave, mistaking the shadows dancing on the wall for the real world. What they need is an Enlightened One, he (almost always a “he” of course) who has been to the surface and has seen the whole of the Truth. And there it sits, out in the open, simply waiting to be gazed upon and accepted. We merely have not yet developed the eyes to see it. But upon re-entering the cave with this earth-shattering revelation, he finds that most of the masses reject the Real Light. They cannot conceive of a reality that is not the one before their eyes. Except, of course, for a chosen few, who follow the Enlightened One out of the cave and into the Truth. Now they will dedicate the rest of their lives to preaching the One Truth to those who sit in darkness, pulling as many out as they can, providing a safe space for these refugees of half-truths and lies.
Foucault rejects this account of truth, where truth is simply hidden, waiting to be discovered and utilized, and those who successfully locate it are then empowered to do things in its name. Instead, he asks, what if it is power that produces the truths that govern our lives and not the other way round? In other words, what if our institutions and traditions do not merely discover or preserve the truths that we give our lives to; what if they are the origin of these truths? And instead of looking where power is concentrated, trying to parse the good versus the bad that it enacts, we should be looking to who and what power subjugates, twists, crushes.
Individuals are both the vehicles of and the targets of power, and they are both vehicle and target through the institutions that produced them. Power isn’t merely an object that people learn to take for themselves. Power is given to them in varying degrees, and it circulates and maintains vitality through institutions. Where people sit within the vast cogs of these institutions (schools, governments, churches, businesses, practically any kind of substantial organization, even families to a certain extent) will determine what kind of power they both have and are pressed into service by. Our moral and even religious obligation is to deconstruct power at the contact points of its subjugative character, at the points where it hurts and exhausts those who become its malicious targets or who are cast aside by its and time-honored ordered procedures.
We do not, on the other hand, have a moral obligation to praise institutions for the good that they might do, to focus on how certain individuals may have been helped in certain ways because the institution had the focused resources to do so. If it is an institution, subjugation is occurring. Marginalization is occurring. Exile is occurring. People are being forgotten. Worldviews and attitudes that hurt or leave out individuals and groups are becoming entrenched and organizationally expressed. Institutions will do what they do. If they only exist to hear their own praise, then they doubly deserve to pass into history. Our moral obligation to make visible the contact points of subjugation and ghettoization does not include producing a balance sheet of pros and cons for the sake of accuracy. That institutions can also advance the good in various ways does not remove our obligation to deconstruct their power in the name of that which becomes invisible in their wake. And to hold up a putative good as a defense against criticism is always an attempt to distract us from the members of institutional bodies that are being hidden, forgotten, or abused by its machinery. Even when an institution highlights an oppressive or less-than-ideal feature of its operations, inordinate attention to this feature often pushes other forms of institutional oppression into even deeper obscurity, because institutions benefit from the social capital that comes with being seen as purveyors of justice, in whatever fashion and to whatever degree.
And this is not to simply be against institutions per se (as if we could ever be entirely free of institutions). Jacques Derrida, that great deconstructor of texts (and by extension institutions), insisted that deconstruction was not an attempt to destroy institutions but to open them to their own future. A persistent problem with institutions is that they cannot break with their pasts while inaugurating something genuinely new, a procedure they would need to perform again and again. That is, the inauguration of an institution is full of risk and novelty. This generates passion and purpose. But institutions quickly ossify and become that which they attempted to break away from in the first place. They become dogmatic and often held captive to authoritarians or charismatics. To deconstruct them is to point to what has been missed or cast aside or stepped on in the process of expansion and ossification. Deconstruction is the tension inherent in the preservation of what has been given and the heterogeneity of something new, of that which breaks with the institution’s self-glorification.
This is one reason why leaders of institutions can be so problematic and dangerous, especially where they are also founders of the institution that made them powerful. Rarely can they sit this tension on their shoulders, to preserve what might be worth preserving while constantly inaugurating the breaks with the past that are necessary in order for the institution to become less of a concentrated center of power that hurts and marginalizes. (It’s unlikely that any institution could rid itself entirely of its capacity to marginalize, so this is an always unfinished project). As products of the institution, but also as the primary vehicles of its power, leaders become the living avatars of institutions. The more powerful the institution becomes, the more powerful the leader becomes. And this makes it much more difficult for the leader to see what is being missed or who is being hurt. He or she has the most vested interest in ignoring the ways in which an institution must break apart in order to preserve that which is worth preserving and adapt to the changing needs of its constituents.
If you want to look to a leadership model that doesn’t come undone through the corrupting power of institutions, you can look, somewhat stereotypically, to Jesus (so here we’ll circle back to him for a moment). The founder of a movement, but not an institution, Jesus created no formal organization, and therefore his truths were not merely productions of economic or political organizations. Even in the most questionable version of his life (which, unironically, is the Gospel of John) where he insisted that he was the Truth, his transgressive style of teaching and the events of his life prevented his institutionalization until well after his death. His movement formed around his Galilean deconstruction of power in withering religious and political criticisms of Jewish and Roman leaders, as well as his novel re-formulation of a personal spirituality that had become so self-focused. Of course, the fact that he was killed for this criticism certainly did more than anything else to immortalize the truths he preached, but there’s an important lesson even here, which is that a leader is only as vital as his or her commitment to personal sacrifice on behalf of others, whether it is stepping down at the right time or recognizing that truths cannot be co-modified and sold at market and still remain recognizable as human values, or speaking loudly and boldly in condemnation of the powers-that-be. The more privileged you are by virtue of the institution that created you, the greater the personal sacrifice that must be made on behalf of its future.
There is a sense in which Nietzsche’s madman proclaiming the death of God is not for Christianity alone. It is for any god who rules over anyone through the institutions that give us the truths that govern our lives. Nietzsche, of course, believed that God’s death was good because it wiped out a toxic old world order that had imposed meaning and value on everything in the universe. Now, he thought, we could make our own meanings and value what we chose, free from priestly imposition. To deconstruct our institutions and their gods is merely–though very seriously–to insist that things as they are really might be otherwise than instituted.
But how to do this? Derrida suggests that we look for the tensions and contradictions within our own traditions. That is, you cannot effectively deconstruct something from the outside. You can only point to a tension or paradox that’s going on within the text or tradition itself, which, of course, requires an intimate familiarity with that text or tradition, or institution. For example, the Proclamation on the Family is, on its surface and in its ecclesiastical employment, a document that elevates and sacralizes the nuclear family. This text, more than any other, governs the beliefs and practices of the modern LDS Church. Polygamy is not mentioned anywhere in the text. However, the specter of polygamy not only haunts Mormon history, it is also entangled in the Mormon present in various ways; even the notion that marriage is “eternal” cannot be divorced from its polygamous origin or the way in which there is a polygamous aspect of eternal marriage that is hidden within all current Mormon temple marriages. This, then, would be a tension or contradiction within the Proclamation, not because it is explicitly there, but because it is latent, hidden, and must be revealed. And what would be the purpose of heightening that tension, of relentlessly pointing to the significance of its paradoxical existence? Because it shows that there is no clean gloss on what “family” means in the Mormon tradition, and therefore the idea of family can be reconfigured, that it has been reconfigured, historically. The meaning of “family” can be reconfigured particularly in order to fit the reality of a multiplicity of family configurations that already exist in the world. And to the extent that we provincially ignore the realities that contend to be part of this modern phenomenon that is “families,” our hold on the idea of family and our co-ownership of it it is weakened, and therefore ultimately our defense of it as a primary value is diminished because its universality is diminished. This doesn’t necessarily mean that polygamy must be more explicitly recovered or re-instituted, or that any specific, detailed response is required over any other. But it does mean that our particular definition of family cannot escape turbulence, and the more we insist that this definition is the supreme ideal, that it is “undeconstructible,” the more incoherence and lack of resonance we risk among both our own and the wider population, because we increasingly cannot respond to the ways this concept plays out in the world. Hence, the more people will get lost or excluded from its purview.
Unmournable Bodies and Unstoried People
And yet, after all this, our ability to deconstruct texts and institutions—even being able to see that this might be a good thing to do in the first place—is itself a privileged construct, one that is accessible virtually only to people with a particular kind of education (though it could be argued that all education is a form of deconstruction or the art of deconstruction). So while the act of deconstruction is good, and still necessary (at minimum as a form of resistance against one’s own insulation from others through layers of privilege and power), I’m going to suggest something that is a bit more egalitarian, something that is more common to the human experience as a whole, that has the capacity to reveal the invisible and challenge entrenched power, and that’s the act of mourning.
The philosopher and cultural critic Judith Butler asks an interesting question in this regard. What, she asks, makes for a grievable life? On the one hand all of have lost someone, or will lose someone. Loss, in this sense, makes a “we” of all of us. And loss and vulnerability seem to be possible largely because we are socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing attachments, exposed to violence to varying degrees from these attachments, etc.
Most people, says Butler, think that grief is private. (I would also add that this notion of private grief is probably more prevalent in Euro-American communities than anywhere else). But grief can and should furnish a sense of political community, and it does this by making visible the relations among various people and the different configurations of ethical responsibility we might have with regard to them. Mourning allows us to encounter one another and possibly, hopefully, be undone by one another. If we are not undone by one another’s suffering, we are missing something, she insists:
“For if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you. I cannot muster the ‘we’ except by finding the way in which I am tied to you , by trying to translate but finding that my own language must break up and yield if I am to know you. You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss. This is how the human comes into being again and again, as that which we have yet to know.”
Who we are allowed to mourn and grieve in a society tells us a lot about what we understand about being human. The human is fundamentally mournable; it is life that merits consideration, respect, and a kind of collectivized consensus of value. Mournable bodies that die are celebrated through acts of public mourning.
More importantly, mournable bodies are inherently mournable while still living. The consideration and respect extended at death by the still living begins with bodies that can and are respected, considered, and valued while still alive, or still present. The crucial question here, though, is: Who is mournable and who is unmournable? “Who is publicly grievable?” is one of the fundamental questions that pervades all politics. Bodies are considered fundamentally unmournable not when they die but while they live. For an inherently unmournable body to become a mournable body in society he or she must transcend their “unmournability” and become a part of the public consciousness to an extraordinary degree, becoming serviceable or useful to the majority population in such a way that they merit respect, consideration, and value disproportionate to those who remain in obscurity, but who are unmournable in the same way the now-mournable once were. Even here, though, the value of the newly mournable is utilitarian, not fully human.
The biblical “least of these,” then, in this sense, are those who are publicly, socially, not mourned in death and who are fundamentally publicly and socially unmournable in life. And they are unmournable not because they are invisible (though they are), but because they are disposable, and it is their disposability that makes invisible. Their disposability makes them socially unseen, and they are disposable because they are not fully “storied.” They are understood to exist as a matter of basic ontology, but they are not seen in the full narratival unity of their personhood. That is, their stories have not been allowed to reach the level of myth that creates the structural coherence of modern (Western) societies and cultures. The stories of white, heteronormative people, their struggles and triumphs, are the myths–presented and represented in books, cinema, and digital media–that weave in and out of the largest, most dominant social, cultural, political, and religious structures, the largest threads which knit together our understanding of our collective origins and present and future purpose. It is these stories, which are our collective myths, that make of white, heteronormative people fully storied, that constitute them in their full narratival unity of personhood that sees them represented everywhere and in everything. When you are not fully storied, however, when that which makes you who you are and helps us to better imagine why you do what you do, is untold and unheard, you are no more than a caricature, a one-dimensional simple thing that can be disposed and forgotten.
The act of mourning short-circuits some of this, particularly on an individual level. For example, someone I only distantly knew suddenly lost a loved one. This person was (and remains) a difficult personality for me. I virtually always disagreed with him and still generally find him to be abrasive, passive aggressive, and narcissistic. The virtual distance between us made it easier to think what I wanted about him, and I am sure there were many things I believed that had no factual basis. So I conveniently despised him from a distance, and he would conveniently, with remarkable precision, live up to my judgments about him. Yet, news of his family’s loss erased, at least for a time, years of compounded antagonism. It’s humbling the effect another’s suffering can have on us. Animosity and invincibility fall away upon being confronted with their loss. The parts of our hearts that have been broken by our own sufferings reach out to the broken heart of another, and, sometimes openly, sometimes silently and invisibly, we weep together. We feel in those moments, as Joseph Smith was reported to have once said, the desire to take their cares and sorrows upon own shoulders, and cast their (supposed) sins behind our backs.
But the mere fact of suffering doesn’t always have this effect. When our hearts soften toward others because of their grief or loss, we can scarcely believe this experience is not inevitable. But it’s not. There is nothing guaranteeing our empathy, compassion, and mercy. Sometimes the conditions for these virtues align themselves in such a way we feel compelled, against our natural, unthinking wills, to put aside our antagonisms. Other times, no matter the favorable conditions for forgiveness and compassion, we choose to bury these virtues, and reserve them for more worthy persons, often persons who can prop up our gods and make us feel better about ourselves. At times we feel irresistibly drawn to compassion; at other times confrontation with suffering presents itself as a choice. And we often choose hardness.
The work of mourning is a knife that efficiently cuts away the outer protective shells we have carefully built to keep others away, obscuring our view of one another. But what really changes here? Traits we formerly found so difficult or impossible have not magically disappeared. Instead, our eyes have changed, if only briefly. These things have faded into the posturing background noise (where they were always most at home) of a lived life. Now we see the enemy or the stranger truly, and as we mourn with them, they become a person we can actually love. Their stories mean something to us that they did not previously. They become, individually, at least, storied in a way that makes of them persons to us. Mourning elides space-time in this way, and takes what would have been years (if ever) of bitterly hard work and condenses it into a shared moment where time stands still and we are left with only each other. Mourning makes us real to one another, and in the case of an enemy, real for the first time. It counteracts the usual human work of cutting out caricatures of people to better serve our needs. Such caricatures are easier to use, dismiss, or even kill, than real persons. Only in suffering, as Butler suggests, are we really ever all together.
But beyond individual encounter, each community hides certain members of the community from itself and in their hidden state they become communally, socially unmournable. That they are hidden in plain sight makes their hiddenness that much more effective. What is being hidden? What specifically makes it so easy to hold them on the margins, and even to do to them what history screams at us over and over has always been done to them? It is their unheard stories that make it impossible for them to become mournable bodies as a socially constituting and binding act. Unheard, not untold. Unheard not just because we will not listen but because we will only hear those stories that please us, that exonerate us, that elevate us as saviors and heroes, and that do the same for our beloved institutions. And so, we have pushed to the margins and exiled to the borders those who are not mournable, whose bodies are not publicly grievable because their particular suffering, for all intents and purposes, does not exist, and it doesn’t exist because we won’t hear the stories that tell of it. And where there are no stories, there is no social or political change. We are human beings. We need a reason to do what we do, to stop doing what we are doing, to start doing things we’ve never done before. We need stories to inform our decisions. Collectively, we have prevented the stories of the marginalized from reaching us, and the stories we do allow within our gates we re-appropriate and re-narrativize so that they become palatable to our egos and traditions. Without their stories, we do not act on their behalf because there is virtually no one to act on behalf of. We keep them invisible in front of our eyes.
All of this comes to a particularly brutal head within institutions. Institutions unsurprisingly willfully blind themselves to the damage they do. And the method by which the institution blinds itself to its own damage is by seamlessly conflating human mortality with institutional political structures. Everyone knows the feeling of his or her proverbial house being on fire, and most people feel like they’re having to put out fires all the time. Difficult marriages, problems with children, financial struggles, others’ harsh judgments, illness, death, and on and on. That’s just being human. So when the privileged and powerful in the seats of the institutions hear that the proverbial houses of marginalized communities are on fire while their houses are comparatively unaffected, they don’t buy it, even if they can actually see that many of those other fires are likely worse or have been burning for a long, long time. Whether those fires are worse or not — they have their hands full with their own problems.
A recent article in the Guardian illustrates this well: “The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘be a man.’ ” This is the opening line for a piece that describes toxic masculinity, or how most boys are taught to suppress emotion, ruthlessly fight for success and sex, reject empathy, etc. The result is violence, depression, anxiety. We could say that the “houses” of these boys are just as much “on fire” as anyone else’s house. They are haunted into adulthood by impossible and poisonous expectations about what it means to be men, expectations which maliciously shape every facet of their lives. Yet we also have to note that these are boys. The majority of them are white boys. Many come from affluent homes. In many cases, then, they are the epitome of privilege, despite the fact that they all have problems, sometimes very big problems. But having problems, comparing whose problems are worse, is not what is being communicated in asserting that minority communities and individuals experience institutional suffering.
When we say that the marginalized are unmournable, we are not talking about having problems, or even exceptional experiences of intense and prolonged suffering. We are all valuable, we say, because we are all human. And all humans have human problems. Some in minority communities may have it worse than I do, but surely, with my array of difficulties and struggles, I have more than enough on my plate to deal with, and in some ways I probably do “have it worse” than many others. So, to say their lives specifically matter is to assert that my problems don’t matter, and therefore to assert that my house can’t really burn. Thus, my life doesn’t matter because my life, so this logic entails, is my problems. No other lives matter. Just marginalized lives. They’re the only ones that really matter because they’re the are the only ones with real problems. But I have problems too. They clearly just want special attention and advantage, all of it unmerited. But we’re all exactly the same because in the end we all die and God loves everyone equally.
But our shared mortality is not what is being asserted when we say that “the least of these” really do exist, that Jesus dedicated his life’s mission to them for a reason, that not all lives are equally valued and equally mournable, that we are not all, at one time or another, one of the least of these just because we suffer too. Our shared mortality is not what is at stake when we say that the marginalized are unstoried, that their stories must be allowed to rise to the same heights as our traditional cherished myths, that these new myths will displace many of our old myths, and this must be done if the “least of these” should have any genuine chance at a full human life. “The least of these” is a way of addressing not so much the people who constitute that category, but the powers that put them there in the first place, echoing John Dominic Crossan’s famous emphasis on why Jesus was killed and who killed him, not on why he had to die for some cosmic purpose. The answer to that question–who are the least of these?–constitutes the essence of the deconstructive mindset, the willful intention to see what is hidden, what is in tension within an institution or tradition, what is being left out and left behind, what is being pushed to the edges, out of sight so the institution may continue on as it has before, so those of us who are its beneficiaries might continue to live in peace and comfort with our families. And that mindset is often not possible where we cannot or will not mourn others in their full mournability, not only in death but in life as well. To mourn the living is to be open to the ways in which they are constantly dying, to that which is hastening their final death, to see them on the same horizon as one’s own impending death, to see the importance of them being “storified” in their totality. It is a willingness, too often imposed on us, to have our hearts broken on their behalf, to accept them fully into the body of the community by giving up the role of gatekeeper and defender of the community and its primal myths. The spirit of the movement and worldview that Jesus so fully committed himself to that he lost his life for it, is one of incorporation, of unplugging from everything, including one’s own family, in order to become a part of a greater whole, to make of the entire community a family, not to exist within the community as individual families, weakly and frailly tied to another through dogma and tradition. Where there are stories there can be mourning. And where there is mourning, there we will be, undone by one another, all together for the very, very first time.