Letters | Stories of sin and redemption

FLANNERY’S SINS & OURS

Cathleen Kaveny makes two especially thoughtful connections in her essay on Loyola University Maryland’s decision to remove Flannery O’Connor’s name from a building (“Another Side of Flannery O’Connor,” September). She draws attention, first, to the kind of building it is, a dormitory, and second, to the recent commitment of the Jesuit order, which sponsors the school, “to critically examining its own complicity in slavery and systemic structures of racism.” She proposes that both connections should make us more sympathetic to the university president’s decision.

Along these lines, it is worth noting that the renaming of a student residence at Georgetown University was precisely the catalyst to that nationwide Jesuit self-examination. This building bore the name of a Jesuit who had organized a sale of enslaved people in 1838 to help support and grow the Jesuit mission in the United States. In the summer of 2015, the building was repurposed as a dormitory, which prompted the university president to reevaluate its name. By the end of the year, the working group he convened had made a comprehensive review of Georgetown’s history of slavery. But the starting point was as simple as a building name.

The lessons here are many. Things like building names matter; they shape how we think about the past, and can help or hinder the telling of our history. Revisiting names and dedications can be salubrious not only to our history-telling, but also to our contemporary moral self-awareness. O’Connor’s racism was not a decisive dimension of her personality to those who first named the dorm after her, no more than the nineteenth-century Jesuit provincial’s was to those who named that hall after him. But as Kaveny points out, context and circumstance matter. Right now, context and circumstance are challenging our Church and nation toward more forthright gestures of remorse and atonement for racism. In this context, it is a good thing to reexamine our heroes, even when the results are not a renaming, even when the results disappoint us.

What we might hope for is that the insight we gain into the moral ambiguities, mistakes, sins, and crimes of the past brings us insight into our own moral ambiguities, mistakes, sins, and crimes of the present. This is how knowing history can steer us—as Commonweal’s September 2016 editorial on Georgetown’s project (“Georgetown’s Sins & Ours”) put it—away from the anemic excuse that “mistakes were made” and “into the fundamental story of sin and redemption.” That story, as we know, was central to O’Connor’s own writing. Without it, what we do is sterile antiquarianism.

David J. Collins, SJ
Georgetown University
Washington D.C.

 

THE ‘COUNTRY’ SIDE

I appreciate the thoughtful editorial on William Barr and the Republican drive for an imperial presidency (“William Barr, Unbound,” June). That party often encourages an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, without any sense of what that means for the presidency, as is clearly evident in the present administration’s successful—so far—attempt to block any congressional oversight of the executive branch.

Americans of the Revolutionary generation were steeped in what is called “country” thinking, that is, the thought of English radical writers and opposition politicians of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They offered, as historian Bernard Bailyn described it, “a ‘country’ vision of English politics,” as opposed to the royal “court” vision. Country writers believed the duty of Parliament was to monitor and supervise the executive power: the king and court. In their view, the executive branch was always seeking to expand its reach, to the detriment of the people. They feared a tyrant. Country thinking persisted among the American colonists long after England had moved toward parliamentary supremacy. The colonists had a tremendous fear of prerogative power, or the power to rule inherent in the crown. Because of this fear, when the revolutionaries established state governments to replace their colonial governments, they most often turned the governor into a figurehead by denying him veto power and the ability to appoint people to office, while also subjecting him to impeachment. (Eventually, some of those powers were restored to the governorship.)

When the members of the Philadelphia Convention drew up the Constitution, they clearly intended Congress to be the principal branch of government. Article I, which runs fifty paragraphs, constitutes the legislative branch and invests it with the vast majority of powers. The creation of the executive branch runs only twelve paragraphs. The president’s duties are to protect and defend the Constitution, faithfully execute the laws of the land, serve as commander-in-chief, grant pardons, make treaties (with approval from two-thirds of the Senate), appoint ambassadors and federal judges (again with approval from the Senate). The founders established a judiciary in just five paragraphs. By assigning “the sole Power of Impeachment” to the House of Representatives, the chamber most responsive by election to the American people, the founders implemented the country thinking that drove the revolution: congressional oversight of the executive branch and even of the judiciary. To exempt the executive or the judiciary from congressional oversight would mean that portions of the government were no longer subject to the people or the rule of law.

Barr’s and others’ assertions that the president and his minions have constitutional protection from appearing before Congress when subpoenaed would make the “original” founders of our country rebel again.

Douglas Slawson
National University
San Diego, Calif.

 

1619 OR 1526?

In reading Andrew Bacevich’s article about the 1619 Project (“Reframing American History,” June), I find it interesting that the project only looks at the past four hundred years with a focus on English Virginia. It is worth noting that the first enslaved Africans brought to today’s United States came ashore in September 1526, probably on Sapelo Island, Georgia. It was a Spanish settlement known as San Miguel de Gualdape.

Even more relevant to the 1619 Project is the Fort Mose settlement. As early as 1687, the Spanish government had begun offering asylum to slaves from the British colonies in St. Augustine, Florida. Fort Mose became the first free-African settlement sanctioned in what would become the United States with a population of about a hundred. True, the Spanish imposed many restrictions, yet they could build their own tiny village with dwellings inside, as well as a church and an earthen fort. The first free-African community also played an important role in the violent wars between Britain and Spain.

Felipe J. Estévez
Bishop of Saint Augustine, Fla.

 

Published in the November 2020 issue: 
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