Antigone in Columbia

It’s been a remarkable week or two– truly ten days that have shook the world. The Pope issued Laudato Si’ , the encyclical on global warming couched in the language of that holiest of men, St. Francis. The Supreme Court upheld a key tenet of the Affordable Care Act, virtually ensuring its never being repealed. And then yesterday, the court decreed that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States: “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right,” as Justice Kennedy wrote memorably for the majority.

The overwhelming matter of the past few days has been the horrific shooting in the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The killer, an avowed white supremacist, had hoped to ignite a race war. “But God had other plans,” the President said in his truly astounding eulogy. The grace–the amazing grace– shown by the survivors toward this young man was both humbling and elevating to all Americans.

The Confederate flag has somehow become a critical issue in this discussion about race. Is it a symbol of heritage or hate? The politicians have dithered, as politicians do, waiting to run out in front of where the people are going and then claim to be leaders. It was ever thus.

In the meantime, those with clearer vision have acted. This morning, a young black woman named Bree Newsome climbed the 30-foot flagpole in front of the SC Capitol in Columbia. Police shouted for her to get down but she ignored them, reciting the Lord’s Prayer as she made her way toward the rebel flag that was padlocked in place.

At the top, she removed the flag and held it up. “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” Newsome then made her way down the pole to the waiting police. “I’m prepared to be arrested,” she told them. She and her cohorts face a $5000 fine and up to three years in jail.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, the protagonist stands up to King Creon hwo has forbidden that her (admittedly treasonous) brother be buried. She does so nonetheless, and is brought before him.

Were you aware of the proclamation that forbade anyone from burying Polyneices?
Of course I did. Everyone did.
And you had the audacity to break that law?
Yes, because this was not a law decreed by Zeus, nor by Zeus’ daughter, Justice, who rules with the gods of the Underworld. Nor do I believe that your decrees have the power to override those unwritten and immutable laws decreed by the gods.
These are laws which were decreed neither yesterday nor today but from a time when no man saw their birth; they are eternal! How could I be afraid to disobey laws decreed by any man when I know that I’d have to answer to the gods below if I had disobeyed the laws written by the gods, after I died?

Newsome will probably spend time in jail. So did Antigone, and Nelson Mandela, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Henry David Thoreau, whose friend Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him, asking, “What are you doing in there, Henry?” “What are you doing out there, Waldo?” was his reply.

Postscript, September 2015. There will be those who will invoke Antigone in talking about Kim Davis, the Rowan (KY) County clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples “under God’s authority.” But there is a critical difference here, for Davis is NOT practicing civil disobedience. She is not resisting the government; she IS the government. Davis is not to be likened to a conscientious objector who refuses to serve in the military, but rather to an officer who refuses to follow orders. In the United States, we understand and have always made provision for the former; the latter, I am afraid, have usually been executed.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Bible, Boston, Classics, Drama, Emblems, Mythology, Poetry, Race, Saints, Slavery, The South, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Antigone in Columbia

  1. William McKeachie says:

    The events here enumerated of an already historic “ten days that shook the world” have changed, changed utterly what it means for Arcadians in particular, at least as much as Americans generally, “to count our days and bow/Our heads with a commemorial woe” (“Ode to the Confederate Dead”). Thus, Bree Newsome’s invocation of God’s Law in defense of her particular civil disobedience has elicited your likening of her to Antigone. But does not such a “religious” claim for human agency, in the context of an otherwise post-modern notion of history, simply flatten tragedy to one-dimensional political theater? It seems all the more reductionist in the absence of any reference to the perspective of Antigone’s sister Ismene. Surely the a-historical narrative set forth by Sophocles reflects a virtue magnificently, overweeningly — therefore fatally — compromised by hubris on the part of Antigone, whose tragic destiny becomes understandable only in relation to sophrosune, Ismene’s perspective of propriety or moderation: understandable but self-destructive, like Adam’s very human pride and its historical consequences. Hence, the abyss! As Peter Taylor’s protagonist in “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court” puts it: “There have been moments when to deny anything at all would seem to deny everything and to have begun a great unravelling that might have ended I know not where.” Justice Antonin Scalia said something similar in his recent SCOTUS Dissent! So Bree Newsome is indeed a post-modern Antigone, confusing (as pinpointed by the Chorus in Sophocles) self-will with God’s Law and self-righteousness with sacrifice. The Bible calls it the sin of being a law unto oneself, the very usurpation by Man of the sovereignty of God. Eric Voegelin called it “the immanentization of the eschaton!” And Allen Tate said it is the solipsism that “smothers you, a mummy, in time.” Might not such be the result of the current Humpty Dumpty frenzy to invent a “brave new world” of self-constructed meaning after virtually all remembrance of things past has been exterminated. That would be worse than tragic.

  2. Pingback: Bohemian Rhapsodies, Part 1 | uncomelyandbroken

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