Dangerous Memories, Dangerous Movements: Christian Freedom in the Empire

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Dangerous Memories, Dangerous Movements: Christian Freedom in the Empire

Michael Jaycox


Recently some of us in the United States remembered an event that others would rather forget and some not even know. 74 years ago on February 19, 1942, the icon of the Democratic Party, the architect of the New Deal, the man who told his people there is nothing to fear except fear itself, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signed Executive Order 9066. This Order authorized the military to create designated “military areas” and forcibly relocate approximately 120,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry from their homes in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona to these internment camps. Daily life in the camps included the suspension of any constitutionally protected civil liberties at the complete discretion of military command. Although the Order applied to others, there was no widespread internment for American citizens of German or Italian ancestry. My own great-grandfather Enea Mazzotti, an outspoken supporter of the fascist Benito Mussolini, spent the entire period of 1941-1945 in Brooklyn, NY yet the government never suspended his civil liberties, nor was he visited by the military or NY police.

            As well as others of my generation I did not learn about Executive Order 9066 or the internment of Japanese Americans in school. Neither my white parents nor other adult members of my family, some of Japanese ancestry, taught me about the internment. Since moving to Seattle, I have learned from persons who remember living in the camps as children or young adults that the internment is not often broached in everyday conversation. It is a memory that recalls suffering, injustice, and indignity.

Moreover, to speak this memory is to be disruptive. It disturbs and subverts the dominant white narrative of the United States: a society and culture committed to freedom and justice above all else. This narrative, by means of a carefully cultivated innocence, refuses to acknowledge the internment of Japanese Americans. This narrative is the fruit of what Emilie Townes names the “fantastic hegemonic imagination,” the ubiquitous social construction that provides dominant social groups with the cultural resources needed to make the benefits they receive from structural injustice seem “normal” or even “good,” while maintaining their innocence.[1] The selective “memory” of the hegemonic narrative is ingenious and strategically designed to distort past and present injustices. By contrast, the memory of internment narrated by Japanese Americans is a “dangerous memory.”[2] It is dangerous since it is not the memory of the victors, but the memory of the losers, the memory of those who still bear the wounds of injustice that Empire has inflicted on them, of those whom Empire pressures to assimilate.

To allow a dangerous memory to inform your narrative is to place yourself at risk. The hegemonic narrative does not ask you to risk anything, except to forget. But the narrative informed by dangerous memory asks whether you have spoken the inconvenient truth, whether you will call the death or internment of innocent human beings unjust, whether you will resist what some accept as normal, and whether you dare to associate yourself with the victims of Empire.

Of course, some of us living in the United States take such risks only if we choose them as a deliberate rejection of viable alternatives involving more security, while others choose risk among very few alternatives. For example, I spent July and August of 2015 in and around Ferguson, Missouri, being present for community events remembering dangerously the murder of an innocent man, Michael Brown, Jr., one year earlier. My purpose was half social scientific research among members of the Black Lives Matter movement, and half fulfillment of my own white desire to build solidarity with black strangers struggling to survive and thrive. I was aware that cultivating solidarity in a situation of social conflict requires that beneficiaries of unjust systems “step back” and listen to those who suffer and are oppressed. Beneficiaries like myself can join movements already in progress, but not lead them. Well, this prevailing wisdom could get me only so far. Understandably, my sincere (and complex) motivations were met with suspicion by the local community. I anticipated this suspicion, but I didn’t anticipate the distinct impression that I was being tolerated rather than welcomed. Eventually someone asked what “skin I had in the game.” Not much other than the fact that I’m queer, I confessed. This exchange raised the question that had until then remained unspoken: How much risk was I really willing to take upon myself, and why? Would I engage in civil disobedience by breaking laws, be willing to be arrested by the St. Louis County police, to risk a felony conviction, to inhale tear gas, to be among protesters or bystanders who may be shot and killed?

Those who have the most social power and are likely to lose very little because they enjoy the most privilege are also typically those least willing to take serious risks. Meanwhile, those who struggle because they must in order to survive and live with dignity are also the most accustomed to taking serious risks, despite how much they may lose by doing so. This pattern of risk-taking expresses well the exercise of Christian freedom in the social, political, and economic context of the US Empire.

What then does interracial solidarity look like today in this strange and monstrous place, where agents of the state assassinate black and brown persons with impunity, where Executive Order 9066 interns citizens of Japanese descent, and where we don’t teach the deep roots of American hegemonic exceptionalism? It will resemble what Bryan Massingale calls “conflictual solidarity,” in which privileged persons take serious risks without expecting to see immediate social change or to be the primary agents of this change.[3] As we continue to struggle across the social intersections of privilege and oppression, it will be one thing for us to keep dangerous memories alive, but quite another to discern how to act in fidelity to these memories.

[1] Emilie Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

[2] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society (New York: Crossroad, 2007). On dangerous memory applied to the internment of Japanese Americans see Sharon Thornton, Broken yet Beloved (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002).

[3] Bryan Massingale, “Vox Victimarum Vox Dei: Malcolm X As Neglected “Classic” for Catholic Theological Reflection,” CTSA Proceedings 65 (2010): 63-88..




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