The most personally and theologically formative literary experience in my life was reading William Faulkner’s The Bear (a novella that is also part of the longer novel Go Down Moses). The protagonist grows up in post-slavery, pre-industrialization Mississippi wilderness, “…the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document – of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any fragment of it, of Indian ruthless enough to pretend that any of it had been his to convey; bigger than Major de Spain and the scrap he pretended to, knowing better; older than old Thomas Sutpen of whom Major de Spain had had it and who knew better; older even than old Ikkemotubbe, the Chickasaw chief, of whom old Sutpen had had it and who knew better in his turn.” William Faulkner, “The Bear,” Three Short Novels (New York: Vintage, 1958), 185. Through his unique relationship with the wilderness told through the annual hunt of a particular bear over years as a youth coming into adulthood, the scales fall off Ike’s eyes about his participation in and perpetuation in the curse of slavery. In languid brush strokes, the story paints a picture of the corrupting lie that people can own anything – the land, people, and finally their own selves. For Faulkner, this lie of personal ownership is the source of the South’s great curse still being lived out today. The definitive moment of the tale is the hero’s choice which costs him his marriage and family – to repudiate the inheritance of his family’s land in order to attempt with his one life to live into God’s call for stewardship of creation, each other, and our selves.
There is plenty to critique, of course, about Faulkner as a person and a writer, let alone the fact that here I am as a white guy highlighting a problematic white writer with my first post… but this story opened my soul to my personal participation in not only the manifestations of white supremacy but the underlying ideas that go deeper than any particular policy or structure, which to this day form the basis of most of my work in theology, law, and economics.