I’ve always been attracted to books that explore the darkness of humanity rather than books that explore sweetness and light. When I’m compelled by a romance within a book or a movie, it’s because the romance offers a three-dimensional understanding of how relationships work—the dysfunction and darkness riddled through with grace and redemption, or vice versa.
I think this is one reason why Flannery O’Connor’s work is read widely by people in the world and misunderstood by religious people. She saw grace emerging right in the middle of sin, mushrooms growing in manure, and she didn’t try to mitigate the ugliness of evil even while she demonstrated the human capacity for redemption in the midst of it. Her stories are completely believable, whereas the message that the church sent me while I was growing up—that redemption is found only in places and people that have already been cleaned up and redeemed and sanitized—I discovered to be patently false as I grew older.
Lately, I’ve been reading a ton of mysteries and thrillers. The central mystery of my life—the human need for redemption, the fact that some people seek it and others run away from it—revolves around deeper things than murder or kidnapping or the myriad of crimes that crop up in mysteries. Yet crime plays a huge role in my understanding of redemption.
I’m terribly concerned by what I see all around me: how our society punishes people for being poor; how it ghettoizes poor people and then lets those neighborhoods rot and wallow in crime; how imprisonment is part of the status quo for young people growing up in poor neighborhoods, not because those kids start off bad but because there are few alternatives open to them beyond crime and gang life; how we feel justified in harsh prison sentences—after all, we’re protecting the rest of society from the bad guys; how we offer little that could uplift or redeem people out of violence and crime and poverty.
We offer neither mercy nor justice through our legal system or our welfare system or our education system. And we don’t uplift through those programs either. Though like anybody, I want to be protected from violent and evil people, I also understand the terrible cycle our society has created: though not solely responsible for what humans will do, we help create and maintain the criminal elements, and then we punish it. I’m horrified by the fact that we (both liberals and conservatives) pay enormous amounts of money for (and agitate for) systems that perpetuate the problem rather than alleviate it.
I’d like to see more redemption and less darkness. But I don’t know how to achieve it in human society, which often seems hopelessly corrupt to me. Yet I do see art as a shot of light in an otherwise dark situation. All forms of art—literature, music, film, paintings, etc—have the ability to reveal the truth of both darkness and light in a way that our political, legal, and educational systems can’t.
I guess that’s why I never became a political activist and, instead, spend my days reading and writing.