In the summer of 2016, my sister Cecilia and I took a road trip to see our parents. We drove from the Northeast to the Midwest, making our way through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana (where I swore I would never ever live, and where I now currently live), and on to Illinois. We’d been looking forward to our time together, but our spirits waned as the trip continued, mine in particular. It took me so long to figure out what was wrong—why I couldn’t sleep, why I was sullen for long stretches of time, why I sometimes couldn’t breathe; why even now I can’t bring myself to write what exactly I kept thinking, hoping, wishing.
The horrifying events of June 2016, when 49 people were murdered in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, were weighing on my mind and spirit, threatening to pull me under. Like me, most of the victims were young, queer Latinos, and I was lost in the aftermath of their deaths. My depression wasn’t just sadness, but something deeper, something abiding and heavy. It made me realize that I was fundamentally changing. My relationship to the world was eroding along with me.
I didn’t think that I could cope, but somehow I made it through. Several months later, when I apologized to Cecilia while we were walking to get some Thanksgiving wine, we bonded over the heaviness of our feelings: sadness and anger, bitterness, despondency. These emotions seemed like more than moods. They were deeper than personal despair, more unruly and unmanageable.
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Right when I heard the news of the Pulse shooting, as Facebook has reminded me every year since, I looked up some Bible verses and posted them there:
I felt beyond distraught. I felt that nothing could ever change, that horror, violence, and destruction were the only possible outcomes of life. The verses were less like a balm and more like a lonely beer at a bar. They cooled something unnamable that seemed to steadily burn inside me; they quenched a thirst that seemed to be coming from my belly, not my throat.
What business does a profoundly Atheist person have in turning to the Bible in times of crisis? Though I have not kept the faith of my Catholic father or my evangelical mother, apparently I have kept their sacred text. I find the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible (or, as I grew up calling it, the Old Testament) to be especially fascinating and disturbing, even unnerving. But I also find some of them oddly calming, especially in the face of disaster, bigotry, and violence. They provide me with a powerful anchor in the various storms of the twenty-first century. What emanates from these books lends words to the voiceless sorrow I feel, to the rage and helplessness that pin me down. They provide a strange solace when I can’t move, when it’s hard to do anything but overthink, or under-think, or hard even to think at all.
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Even as I turn to the prophets in times of national crisis and mourning, I’m wary of some of the ways that they have been wielded in this country. I’m wary even though I can sometimes feel the appeal.
One of my favorite novels to teach is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s prophetic plea on behalf of America’s rural poor, displaced due to the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the changing economic and demographic realities of the United States, became an instant best-seller when it was published in 1939, so much so that it has become a cultural anchor. The title, suggested to Steinbeck by his first wife Carol, takes up the famous lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
These lyrics explicitly echo images of divine wrath and trampled grapes from the book of Isaiah. To my mind, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel form the linked strands of American exceptionalist rhetoric when it comes to motivating emotional and political reactions to injustice—messianism and millennialism intertwined to form a specifically American response to crisis. Like the God of these books, the United States judges, demands justice, and justifies taking vengeance on its own behalf: The nation becomes the “terrible swift sword” loosed upon the world, making sure that our version of truth marches on.
Steinbeck’s book can be read as a classic example of a jeremiad: a national call to repentance that takes its form and name from the book of Jeremiah, and that describes Isaiah and Ezekiel as well. Well before The Grapes of Wrath was written, the jeremiad had a robust history in American letters. (Sacvan Berovitch’s The American Jeremiad remains the quintessential study of this American tendency from the Puritans onwards.) And, as I have seen over the last several years, the jeremiad remains a powerful presence in our contemporary life, continually providing an expressive outlet for our anger about injustice. It tempers the steel of Howe’s divine retribution, of Steinbeck’s anger at a nation hell-bent on rejecting migrants, and of much of our cultural anger right now.
Turning to the prophets in this way gives many Americans a seemingly secure knowledge of a future that will eventually benefit us: Though the moral arc of the universe might be long, it bends towards justice, right? I teach American literature at a Catholic university, and I can see how this interpretive tendency gives many of my Christian students a sense of hope and blessed destiny—the universe, for them, has a predisposition towards correction. All they have to do is believe the right things, fulfill the right prophecies. This is supported by the self-fulfilling Christian teleological progression, which informs the possible interpretations many of my students bring to the table: They know the New Testament is the fulfillment and correction of the Old, because this is, simply, what they know. This means that the Bible’s complexities are quite often ironed over. Isaiah and Jeremiah point towards Christian theology, and the other prophetic books, by virtue of being prophetic books, must do so, too. Everything, it seems, leads to redemption.
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I want to suggest that many of us—as American Christians, or as adherents of American civil religion—have been reading these biblical books the wrong way. Perhaps we’ve even been reading the wrong books of the Bible altogether. This is a self-derived realization, one that maybe has no power outside of my own feelings, but it’s a realization that I’ve come to trust, and even to cling to.
In recent years, I’ve mostly stopped turning to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Isaiah to provide words for my fury, because it seems the moral arc of the universe is taking too long to come to its just conclusion. Perhaps it is even bending away from justice.
The end of times may be coming, especially given the disaster of what Jason Moore has called the Capitalocene (a stronger term for what many of us have been calling the Anthropocene). But despite the power of Howe’s poem, I cannot bring myself to imagine God “trampling out the vintage” to extract the juice of vengeance such that it benefits the nation’s image of itself as God’s aggrieved people. Or, to turn to the original, I can’t understand the world in light of Isaiah’s mediation of Yahweh’s anger: “The wine press I have trodden alone, and of my people there was no one with me. I trod them in my anger, and trampled them down in my wrath; Their blood spurted on my garments; all my apparel I stained. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, my year for redeeming was at hand” (Isaiah 63: 3-4).
God’s fury in this passage is terrifying, but it does seem uniquely suited to the American imagination: Isolated, God smashes the people arrayed against him, and their blood fertilizes the ground in waves of crimson. God stands uniquely above his enemies, alone in his moral certainty. His garments are stained, and his feet carry out his monomaniacal mission on “the day of vengeance.” This violent retribution, exacted through a terrible cosmic anger, creates an enormous mantle of outward-facing rage, one that the United States has cloaked itself with over and over again—exacting vengeance on the wrongdoers of the world, acting as the “world’s police force.” The world, which has wronged him/us, suffers God’s/our vindication through punishment. And, as in Isaiah, there can be no stopping the necessary anger of this solitary fury. As a nation, we’ve so often made a complete turn towards identifying with and as God, especially when it comes to vengeance and outrage on a national scale. Righteous and proud isolation, then, has so often been our chosen position: With or without the world, we will have vengeance, and through this vengeance, justice.
So, no: I do not turn to Isaiah anymore. Instead, I turn to two other prophetic books. Paradoxically, these books grant solace because they offer none, either through anger or through satisfying justice. I don’t feel nihilistic when reading these books, though I feel that in reading them, I can admit the depth to which our out-of-balance world is, indeed, harming us. It feels right and important to acknowledge that what matters, matters now, and that we shouldn’t wait for a perfectly redeemed afterlife. These are books of keening, of sackcloth and ashes, of judgment that bends not only on our enemies, but the entire world: Lamentations and Habakkuk.
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Habakkuk and Lamentations cry out for justice—but it is a justice that cannot be rendered according to our dictates:
You see, O LORD, how I am wronged; do me justice! You see all their vindictiveness, all their plots against me. You hear their insults, O LORD, the whispered murmurings of my foes, against me all the day; Whether they sit or stand, see, I am their taunt song. Requite them as they deserve, O LORD, according to their deeds; Give them hardness of heart, as your curse upon them; Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under your heavens! (Lamentations 3: 59-66).
The prophet here begs for vengeance, yearns for the vindictive destruction of his enemies. Yet, there is no righteous response from God. Indeed, the book ends thus: “You, O LORD, are enthroned forever; your throne stands from age to age. Why, then, should you forget us, abandon us so long a time? Lead us back to you, O LORD, that we may be restored: give us anew such days as we had of old. For now you have indeed rejected us, and in full measure turned your wrath against us.” (Lamentations 5: 19-22).
Turning towards reparation, Lamentations offers a vision distinct from Isaiah or Jeremiah. As many Jewish commentators have mentioned, it is a vision that names a distinct temporal and ethical vision that is geared towards atonement and reparation, and not towards individual self-fulfillment through the redemption of grace. This is a vision that Christianity, writ large, has studiously avoided. Reparation, while not the antithesis of redemption, is nevertheless a different way altogether of atoning. It means acknowledging and redressing harm in the present. It means seeking forgiveness as an active presence in the world, rather than building towards an afterlife. Reparation does not see sin as something washed away; even when forgiven, it is not forgotten or left behind (and so, hopefully, it is not repeated).
In October 2018, on another road trip, this time from Indiana to Connecticut, I spent the night in Pittsburgh at the house of my dear friend, Liz Reich. (It was exactly two weeks before the Tree of Life synagogue was violently attacked by a white supremacist.) On the night I saw her, Liz broke out a beautiful tequila, and we got to talking about our faith traditions. She explained, excitedly, that I was missing something important, and it was likely due to my cultural Christianity. Judaism’s robust attention to the prophetic books yields a form of atonement quite different from Christianity’s emphasis on salvation; the rituals on Yom Kippur, in particular, stress a communal repentance that forms a conscious act of reparation.
I realized that this longstanding attention to atonement and redress informs my friend Mollie Eisenberg’s Passover Seder, in which Alicia Ostriker, Emma Lazarus, Walt Whitman, Claudia Rankine, Joy Harjo, Audre Lorde, FDR, and Muriel Rukeyser form a constellation of justice-driven thought, all of them bearing witness and demanding repair. As someone outside of the tradition, I’m moved by how many Seder Hagaddot are collaboratively constituted by an accretion of thoughts and sympathies across time and space.
The recognition, in Lamentations, is of disastrous and grievous harm done to God; of the sundering of a covenant. Restoration is begged—but, importantly, it is a restoration that will not be granted according to our rules. Instead, it will remake the world, and not in any image we might conjure. Although “such days as we had of old” are begged of God, these days cannot and will not return. Lamentations is not a book of vengeance against one’s enemies, but a terrifying recognition of the slow violence being rendered unto us due to the harms we ourselves have inflicted on others. In Lamentations, the prophet means how we have harmed our covenant with God. For the purposes of this essay, and for the purposes of life in the US in the twenty-first century, it may well be a book about the ways we have harmed our covenants with each other, and the commandments we have been given: To be loving, to be devoted, to refuse to harm.
* * *
I consider Lamentations’ spectacular keening a poem uniquely suited for our time.
We have harmed the world beyond all hope, we have harmed future generations in ways that are grievous to the extreme.
We have refused to atone for the sins of chattel slavery, mass incarceration, and genocide, and have indeed built our nation in the valley of these dry bones (bones that Ezekiel tells us will rise up).
We beg for restoration (for America to be “great again”) but we do not turn towards loving justice; instead, we demand that our feelings of exceptionalism be redeemed as our specific birthright.
We define righteousness for ourselves (and make it tautological and self-fulfilling), rather than as something larger, something external and communal.
We celebrate freedom while we cage migrants (children, adults, asylum seekers, refugees, wanderers, hopers) in squalor and order those sequestered to drink out of the same toilet bowls in which they relieve themselves.
This kind of hubristic demand—for exceptionalism, for self-asserted righteousness—is looked upon in horror in Lamentations, and it is angrily condemned in Habakkuk. If Lamentations begs for forgiveness and restoration, recognition, and embrace, then Habakkuk shouts out a vision of justice, redress, and reparation. Habakkuk lays out a vision of world-shaking, world-remaking justice that smashes any scale of human recognition. There is no redemption, because there can never be redemption. There can only be reparation.
* * *
For the last several years, Habakkuk has been the book I have turned to most urgently and often. Even before I quoted Habakkuk on Facebook in the early morning of June 12, 2016, I turned to it after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Two years after Trayvon was killed, and a year after his murderer was declared not guilty, Michael Brown was killed. After no charges were brought against the police officer who murdered him, I mourned Michael with a Bible in my lap and the television blaring in front of me. Habakkuk, once more, lay open.
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Habakkuk is one of those books of the Bible that’s often more notable for its name than anything else. When I was a child, it was one of those Vacation Bible School gems of knowledge that helped one win prizes for remembering all 66 books of the Protestant Bible (and still brings forth an image of a “Ha-backpack,” which is what I first thought the name was, which in my mind’s eye was a backpack that looked like a book, strapped onto an old, bearded man). To my adult mind, Habakkuk blends the early anger of Isaiah with the mourning of Lamentations almost perfectly: The prophet stands helpless, watching fury and grief wash by and through him. Habakkuk begins with a scream to the cosmos befitting Job in his hour of deepest pain:
How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord. This is why the law is benumbed, and judgment is never rendered: Because the wicked circumvent the just; that is why judgment comes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1: 1-4)
Habakkuk was watching helplessly when Eric Garner’s executioner broke his throat and choked his breath. Habakkuk gushes forth as Sandra Bland’s blood still cries out for justice. Habakkuk screams when humans are encaged. Habakkuk shouts when the relatives of the Sandy Hook victims demand that something, anything be done to prevent gun violence. Habakkuk was the form my melancholy took when the Parkland shooting destroyed the lives of not only a school, but solidified a young generation’s traumas. My soul sought Habakkuk when the Pulse shooting rendered me sick with grief, imagining the desperation felt by the people at the club that night, who were there to find ways to give shape to the love they felt. I find Habbakuk in Orlando, Birmingham, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Poway, Christchurch, and countless other places woven together in the horrifying tapestry of white supremacist violations of sacred spaces. It’s what I was reading while editing this essay, refreshing the news from El Paso and Dayton. Habakkuk wails, “You do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin?”
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See who this reminds you of. After rendering his complaint, Habakkuk receives God’s word:
Then the LORD answered me and said: write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. … He who opens wide his throat like the nether world, and is insatiable as death, who gathers to himself all the nations, and rallies to himself all the people—Shall not all these take up a taunt against him, satire and epigrams about him, to say: Woe to him who stores up what is not his: How long can it last! He loads himself down with debts. Shall not your creditors rise suddenly? Shall not they who make you tremble awake? You shall become their spoil! Because you despoiled many peoples all the rest of the nations shall despoil you; Because of men’s blood shed, and violence done to the land, to the city and to all who dwell in it. Woe to him who pursues evil gain for his household, setting his nest on high to escape the reach of misfortune! (Habakkuk 2: 2, 5-10)
Eat the rich, indeed. Habakkuk’s God censures anyone “who stores up what is not his.” The temptation, of course, is to turn immediately to the man elected president in 2016; yet he is no fulfillment of any prophecy. No, the “he” here, in our time, is more than that man: It’s capitalism, it’s the despoiling of nature, it’s violence against women, it’s racism, it’s genocide. It’s the United States of America, which set its nest on high, and through its supposedly virtuous anger and its vehement righteousness “despoiled many peoples,” built a world through “violence done to the land.” Habakkuk’s God deplores everything that the United States lays claim to in pursuit of its laudable ideals, the “evil gain for [its] household” in its quest to build John Winthrop’s shining “city on a hill,” an ideal that has morphed into the “nest on high” that God roundly condemns to the prophet.
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Habakkuk ends with a canticle, and it gives me shivers to think about it sung aloud. It is to be sung “to a plaintive tune,” accompanied “with stringed instruments.” Watching God wreak his havoc on the earth, the prophet sings: “Is your anger against the streams, O LORD? …. Bared and ready is your bow, filled with arrows is your quiver. Into streams you split the earth; at sight of you the mountains tremble. A torrent of rain descends; the ocean gives forth its roar. The sun forgets to rise, the moon remains in its shelter” (Habakkuk 3: 8-11). As God tramples the nations, Habakkuk fearfully sings, “I hear, and my body trembles; at the sound, my lips quiver. Decay invades my bones, my legs tremble beneath me. I await the day of distress that will come upon the people who attack us” (Habakkuk 3:16).
I love the phrase, “decay invades my bones,” and I looked up the King James Version of verse 16 to see how the archaic English would render the lines (to be frank, I also love that this is a “3:16” that sounds nothing like the other, more famous one): “When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble: when he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops.” The KJV spells out the bodily effects of God’s vengeance: The belly quakes, the lips quiver, trembling abounds in the soul. “Decay invades my bones” is powerful, but “rottenness entered into my bones” is gratuitous and emphatic; it conveys a filthy sense of God’s rendered vengeance. God is not only creation, here, but visceral de-creation—he is not only abundance, but abjection, not only restoration, but rottenness.
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In Habakkuk’s final chapter, God storms through the earth like the mythic vision of Lake Okeechobee that Zora Neale Hurston conveys in Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be-conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.
God in Habakkuk destroys the world through the world; the world has turned against humankind, because humankind has turned against the world. It is Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation combined: a world that can no longer be contained, that can no longer be understood and interpreted, and all because we have flayed it and betrayed it. This is a world in which our butchery has been turned against us, in which justice means that we must bear witness to and suffer the terrible, overwhelming shape that it takes. This is not because justice must always be awful; no, as Habakkuk notes at the very beginning, it is because the world is out of balance. There is no justice because the greedy, the violent, the bigoted, and the tyrannical have bent justice towards their own benefit. Justice has become a means of justifying wealth’s creation and sustenance; it is not about love or truth. Justice has been betrayed, and so it can no longer be used to address the broken world. Reparation, instead, is required.
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Why do some of us have to witness and bear the destruction of a world—a destruction that we did not make? It makes no sense that those of us who have suffered through coloniality, white supremacy, religious fundamentalism, and the abusive ways that heteronormativity and patriarchy have been used as cudgels, must then also have the world collapse around us. But then another question arises: If that world isn’t torn asunder, then are we in danger of inheriting or continuing that very world? And another: Can a violent world ever stop being violent? Yes, Habakkuk and Lamentations tell us—but it must be undone, and a new world must be willed into being. The world must be repaired—and we must forget about our narratives of redemption.
Otherwise, we are left begging for mercy in the apocalypse, as the late W.S. Merwin expresses in his 1967 poem “For a Coming Extinction” (which my partner Brandon Menke emailed to his friends this spring for National Poetry Month). Merwin asks that a Gray whale (along with its calves, as well as sea cows, Great Auks, gorillas, and other animals he calls “Our sacrifices”) bear our witness to God. In his cutting final stanza, Merwin commands,
Join your word to theirs
That it is we who are important
Merwin’s bitterness pervades the poem, and his prophetic witness demands that we join his lamentation, that we understand precisely the contours of the world we have created. Merwin’s fury, rejecting the structuring bounds of punctuation and order throughout the poem, tosses aside the redeeming god of human invention in favor of a terrible deity who, surely, will render only one judgement. The poem reminds me of how Lamentations and Habakkuk (in opposition to how the American Christian imaginary has taken and used Isaiah and Jeremiah) form twinned elegies. Their keening, wailing verses do not conclude with visions of fulfillment or glory.
It is no wonder, honestly, that we do not often meditate on these books, and that culturally, we rarely search for consolation within them. These two prophets stare, open-eyed and weeping, as God tears apart creation. And they know, in that destruction, there is re-creation—but not redemption. What is left on the other side? What does paradise look like?
In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger woman whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.
There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had; of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home—the ease of coming back to love begun.
When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.
The final paragraphs of Toni Morrison’s Paradise imagine reparation, rather than redemption; Lamentations and Habakkuk do, too. “Now [we] will rest before shouldering the endless work [we] were created to do down here in paradise.” Paradise is down, and not up; it is here, and not there. But in order to make paradise happen down here, the world’s structural violence must be un-created, and the world must be undone and refashioned through reparation.
* * *
There’s another prophetic book I should mention, one that an exceptional prophet of our age, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., consistently referenced: Amos. The night before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave his extraordinary “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, in support of the striking sanitation workers. About a third of the way through the speech, King looks out at the crowd assembled in the Mason Temple and gathers himself. With the crowd’s participation (which The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute wonderfully transcribes), King builds a vision of prophetic witness:
We are going on. We need all of you. You know, what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. (Amen) It’s a marvelous picture. (Yes) Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somewhere the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones (Yes), and whenever injustice is around he must tell it. (Yes) Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, who said, “When God Speaks, who can but prophesy?” (Yes) Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Yes) Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me (Yes), because He hath anointed me (Yes), and He’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.” (Go ahead)
This whole essay, I’ve been suggesting in a wayward way that the problem with the dominant Christian interpretation of the prophets has been on insisting that Jesus is the messiah, that he’s the fulfillment of what has been re-titled, in an ambitious act of revision, the Old Testament. In making them subservient to Christianity’s interpretive directives, the prophetic books have had their remarkable heft distorted.
Dr. King directly links Amos and Jesus not through messianic fulfillment, but through anointment and appointment. Anyone can be anointed, and anyone can be appointed. As a great moral philosopher, this is the link Jesus himself drew to the Hebrew Bible he knew so well, and it’s the heart of his radical message: Anyone and everyone can be the child of God, and anyone and everyone can be anointed. By insisting that Jesus’ anointing makes him the only messiah, American Christian civil religion has staked its hopes on salvation in a world to come, at the expense of the world that exists.
What we should acknowledge instead is that we only have a partial vision, or, perhaps, many partial visions. And what Habakkuk and Lamentations give us is not redemption, can never be redemption—the gift is, instead, to always and ever repair and restore. And, indeed, the gift is one we share with our friends and our neighbors, in ever expanding circles of recognition and care.
Here, now, this is our task: Reparation. In the wake of endless harm, we must make reparations, and in doing so, admit that the world is larger than us. We must insist on and face towards truth and beauty even in their absence, and refuse to abide in a world built on the souls and bones of others.
Thank you to Briallen Hopper for the in-depth editing of this essay, and for the kindness of including this essay in Killing the Buddha. Thank you, too, to Brandon Menke, for a patient and considerate eye. Thank you to Yolanda Robles and Jay Miller for their feedback on earlier versions of this essay.
Francisco E. Robles teaches and researches American literatures of the twentieth century at the University of Notre Dame, with a particular focus on multiethnic American literature. His book in progress, Migrant Modes: Aesthetics on the Move in the Long Popular Front, examines literary and musical representations of migrants in the United States.