When We Define Ourselves by Grievance

June 14, 1995|By CHRISTOPHER LEIGHTON

A person is a person by means of other people.

--African proverb On August 19, 1991 racial and religious tensions exploded in Crown Heights, New York. The fallout continues to hover over urban America, threatening the nation with new outbursts of civil instability.

Anna Deavere Smith, professor, playwright and performer, entered the battle zone in the wake of the riots. She recovered the voices of 26 participants caught in the grip of the grief, rage and fear. Over the 95 minutes of ''Fires in the Mirror,'' playing this week and next at Center Stage, she brings her audience face to face with politicians and street people, religious leaders and community organizers, families reeling from loss and neighbors trying to dig out of disaster. Alternating accounts by Hasidic Jews and African-Americans lay claim to heart and mind.

Many in the audience may wonder, ''Is this a private fight? Or can anyone get in?'' A more unnerving question emerges: ''Now that the battle has gone public, can anyone stay out?''

To contemplate the significance of the stories Ms. Smith recounts, the audience needs to be at the intersection where the idiosyncratic and the universal converge. While the hostilities between the Hasidic and the African-American communities in Crown Heights drew upon specific social, political, economic and religious patterns that had over many years established an impassable divide, some of the most unmanageable difficulties between the two communities were rooted in the anguish of a broader experience. Shelby Steele, among others, has noted that both blacks and Jews know the accumulated weight of oppression and bear the scars of the outsider. This shared condition constitutes a special, if complicated, kinship.

''This connection,'' he says. ''gives the impression of more commonality than really exists. Differences between two groups are never more obvious and troublesome than when they chafe against a presumed commonality. I'm sure this is why the media are so fascinated with black-Jewish bickering. It has the fundamental irony that always makes for a good story, the same irony that seduces us to eavesdropping on family spats -- the irony of there being conflict where we presume there should be harmony.''

Ethnic and religious groups have often successfully transformed suffering into a moral advantage. In the past decade, however, this strategy has yielded little besides resentment, and the current debates over affirmative action, immigration and welfare reform show a country weary of this appeal. Misery loves no company except one's own, for the value of suffering declines with its proliferation. Every group has a stake in minimizing the other's suffering, or denying it altogether. Too often, pain is politicized, and society becomes polarized.

Ms. Smith's performance reveals a social order in which the moral horizons are circumscribed by afflictions that shape exclusive loyalties and bind the collective's memory. Her genius resides in her ability to enter two different worlds and to embody the multiple passions of these wildly disparate communities. Her capacity to hold irreconcilable positions within a single heart and mind expose our declining aptitude for empathy.

At the same time, she raises critical questions that extend far beyond the neighborhood of Crown Heights: What happens to a nation whose peoples define themselves primarily by their grievances? When do allegiances to our separate enclaves cease to provide strength and direction? When do group loyalties stunt our moral imagination and deafen us to the experience of our neighbors? Is it still possible to find common ground? Are there responses to the fear, the grief, the rage that will help mend our tattered social fabric?

The Crown Heights incident demonstrates an axiom of identity formation: Religious and ethnic groups are forged in the midst of intense opposition to competing cultural allegiances, and are often sustained by adversarial commitments. The religious leaders that Ms. Smith presents stake out protective boundaries that divide the world into insiders and outsiders. They also adhere fiercely to polemical traditions that sanction ignorance and reinforce antagonism.

Yet, our faiths possess knowledge that can wrest order out of chaos. They hold wisdom that can heal wounds, overcome rancor and endure the dislocations of death. When our religious traditions are true to their callings, they orient us so we recognize the dignity of our neighbors and inspire in us a quest for justice that transcends the familial.

And so, Crown Heights poses a challenge to our spiritual communities as well. Can religious leaders evoke a vision that might enable us to rediscover our common humanity? How might religious passion escape its captivity to a politics of resentment and contribute positively to the ordering of a democratic society?

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