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[Chalice] Antigone [Chalice]
and the Politics of Mourning

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Presented February 24, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

You might think it odd that this morning deep in February of 2008 I have decided to call us back to this Greek tragedy written almost 500 years before Jesus. I have wanted to return to this play for several years, and especially in these years since September 11th, for reasons I hope will become clear. I have felt the need to return to Antigone here, with you, together, because I do think this figure of Antigone and we Unitarians, who are inevitably and inescapably progressives, are bound together through these many centuries past and to come in a common responsibility and destiny.

I wonder how many years it has been since you read or saw this play? However many it has been, you will doubtless remember that Antigone has just lost both of her brothers, one killed defending the city and the other attacking it. Because of this difference in the way the two brothers died, the King Creon orders that the brother killed defending the city be buried with full honors, but the other brother, Polynices, be left unburied, his corpse to be left to rot and to be torn into by dogs. Creon as king commands that anyone burying Polynices will himself be put to death. This insult to the memory and to the body of Polynices cannot be endured by his sister Antigone. Knowing full well what Creon has decreed, she defies the king and buries her brother anyway. Appalled at her defiance, Creon orders that the penalty of death be carried out against Antigone.

Of course this play has resonated in many different ways in different cultures and time periods. Certainly the most famous philosophical interpretation of the play was provided by the great 19th century German philosopher Hegel. It might surprise you to learn that Hegel in his reading of the play definitely takes King Creon's side. Of course Hegel was a great fan of the growing power of the nation/state in the 19th century, and that fact has a lot to do with his support of Creon. Hegel argues that Antigone and her defiance of the state shows that she is not very advanced in her own thinking about ethics and about responsibility and about identity. She thinks of herself only as a member of a family, and not as a member of a polis, and so she thinks of her ethical responsibilities only to her family, and not to the larger civil society of which her family is only a part. So her act of defiance and loyalty to her family for Hegel is evidence of her inability to realize that we humans sacrifice our own individual ethics to create a lawful and harmonious society. Antigone for Hegel represents immature individualism, and he says "the community can only maintain itself by suppressing this spirit of individualism."

As you might intuit in Hegel's support for the male King Creon and his denigration of the woman Antigone as a less developed and mature person, Hegel was no feminist. In the 20th century, of course, Antigone has become a feminist hero. She is, after all, a woman who stands up and openly defies the power of the male king. Her brave defiance of his authority even causes fear in him of appearing not manly and macho enough: "I hold to the law, and will never betray it-least of all for a woman. Better be beaten, if need be, by a man, than let a woman get the better of us."

The gender politics in the play is obvious and is one reason why this play written 2500 years ago seems so contemporary. Without wishing to discount or displace feminist readings of Antigone, Antigone as a feminist hero, I would say there is something else in the play that speaks to us very powerfully today in addition to the feminist defiance of Antigone. What stands out to many readers of the play today is not only the feminist Antigone but also the figure of King Creon. In his order that Antigone's brother must never be buried, Creon has come to represent for many contemporary readers today the power of the state to somehow control, limit, manage the grief and mourning of the subjects of that state, to determine who can be grieved and who cannot be grieved. As Judith Butler writes in her book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, her book written in response to September 11th, the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib: "The question that preoccupies me in the light of recent global violence is, Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, what makes for a grievable life?" (p. 20).

All these long years of the current war have forced us to think again about King Creon, about the power of the sovereign, of sovereignty itself, to limit and manage our own grief and mourning. We have all had to think about this from the very start of this war. Right away, at the very start, when the pictures of flag-draped coffins of our soldiers began to appear in the media, the order came down immediately from the king: NO PICTURES OF SOLDIER'S COFFINS ALLOWED. This of course is only one blatantly obvious way in which the current administration has been much more effective over the years at managing our grief and mourning than they have been at managing the war. The current administration has been able to mismanage a war for four years that has been much more costly in terms of human lives than they predicted, but they have been able to do so largely out of the sight and out of the mind of the American public. Think about it: over the years, how many times have you seen actual images of our casualties how many times have we been encouraged by the king to stop and recognize the sacrifices being made for us and to mourn our brothers and sisters killed in this war? Have we ever had a war with less mourning? The first president George Bush in the first Gulf War tried to bring us a war with no casualties, and this Bush administration has tried to bring us a war with lots of casualties, but no mourning. And when has this current administration ever encouraged our people to pray for, to grieve, to mourn for all the tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens who have lost their lives in the chaos that has followed our liberation of their country? These are certainly deaths that the Bush administration would like very much to go ungrieved and unmourned. Could there be any greater evidence of that than the fact that the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to count or estimate the number of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and others who have been killed since our liberation of Iraq?

This problem that contemporary readers of Antigone see in the play-the power of the sovereign to manage, control, limit, manipulate the grief and mourning of the people-goes far beyond this current administration. For 40 years the suffering of the Palestinian people has gone largely ungrieved and unmourned by the American public. What American president has ever really tried to focus our attention on the plight of the Palestinian peoples living in the territories and to encourage us to mourn the lives of those left for so long in such desperate conditions? Even when presidents try to put some pressure on Israel to stop expanding Israeli settlements in the territories, still they have not dared to make these Palestinian lives greivable lives. During the 1980s Sadam Hussein piled up his victims in Iran and in his own country, but all the while he was supported by the U.S. and considered an ally. When ever did the Reagan administration appeal to the American public to mourn for the tens of thousands of Sadam Hussein's victims? Only when Sadam Hussein invaded Kuwait and became our enemy did the first Bush administration describe their former ally as Hitler and called our people's attention to his murder of his own people and his gassing of the Iranians. The Clinton administration, given blatant warning that a genocide was likely to break out in Rwanda in 1994, decided to block U.N. efforts to do anything about it. 3 months later 800,000 people were dead. Do we really think the Clinton administration then led the way in encouraging the American people to understand what had happened and to mourn the lives of all the people swallowed up in this incredible catastrophe? The film Hotel Rwanda did more to make the genocide in Rwanda a grievable event than all the things the Clinton administration did in 6 years.

The power of the nation state and of the sovereign to control and limit and manage grief and mourning was perhaps most obvious and blatant in the first Gulf War. The George H. W. Bush administration did prosecute the war with a minimum of American casualties, about 150, but the casualties of Iraqis were extraordinary, estimated from 70,000 to 130,000. But for the first time in American history, the administration conducting the war refused to give a number of people we killed. Colin Powell said when asked about the number of casualties at a press conference, "Frankly, it is a number we are not interested in." The Iraqi casualties of that war went uncounted and unmourned by the American people, a remarkable feat given the extraordinary number of Iraqis killed in that war. This remarkable feat has of course been far exceeded by the current Bush administration, which has been able to bring us a war where not only tens of thousands of Iraqis but also thousands of our own soldiers have been killed and have died largely unmourned.

I hope you can see why contemporary intellectuals have come back to this play Antigone and to the command of King Creon to think about the power of the state and how it limits, manages, and manipulates what we experience as greivable, to think about what we might call the politics of mourning. We need to remember as we do so that in the play there is not only Creon and his law against mourning, but there is also that which resists this sovereign power, this power of the sovereign. There is also Antigone.

And yes, I do believe that Unitarians have a spiritual connection to Antigone. We have often played the role of Antigone, and we should continue to do so. As Unitarians, our allegiance is not to the state, or to the sovereign, or even to the law, but is to all the people of the world, so we have to resist the power of the state and of the sovereign to limit, control, and manipulate our own mourning. When America was celebrating its great victory in the Mexican-American War, those great Unitarians of the time, Emerson and Thoreau, not only criticized the war but publicly mourned for the Mexicans killed in the war. When The Supreme Court itself proclaimed in the Dred Scott Decision that the law of the land must consider African slaves to be nothing other than the property of their owner, Unitarians insisted that these slaves were greivable lives. In 1942, during what would come to be called the Holocaust, the U.S. State Department tried to get humanitarian and Jewish relief agencies to refrain from openly publicizing the mass murder of the European Jews. The Unitarians and other groups defied the power of the state and openly mourned for the 2 million Jews already murdered by that time. And we should not forget that in the 1980s Unitarian and other progressive groups joined gay organizations in publicly mourning the deaths of thousands of people dying of AIDS, doing so at a time when the Reagan administration was largely pretending this new plague did not exist.

Unitarians and other progressive people and communities are, I think, inevitably placed in the role of Antigone, defying the power of the king to limit, manage, control, manipulate mourning, to make some people greivable lives and other people ungreivable lives. This Antigone role is an important role progressive communities play, and it is certainly an important role for our progressive church in this in this in many ways nonprogressive community.

During these now almost 5 years of this war in Itaq, our church has held one service where we read the names of our soldiers killed in Iraq. We have done it once, and I wish we had done it more often, even though it is depressing. After that service in 2005 I took the article from the newspaper with the pictures of the soldiers killed in Iraq and I put it on my office door at QU. I did so partly because I believe the great majority of our students pay little to no attention to whatever happens in Iraq and Afghanistan. That article with those pictures is still on my door. Having put it there, it seems wrong to take it off. I have not added to it. The small pictures of our soldiers killed just between Veterans Day of 2004 and Memorial Day of 2005 covers my door. If I just put the names of the soldiers killed during the entire war I would have to take it some of the hall way. Should I do that? I have received no comments about the pictures of the soldiers on the door. At this point, I don't think anyone notices. Except the other day a female student whom I did not know came to my door. She started talking about the article on the door. I thought she was going to complain about it, maybe ask me to take it down. She explained that her husband was army and had been to Iraq on 3 deployments and that on the last one his best friend in his unit had gotten killed. But, she said, his name, his face, wasn't on my door. I explained that these were only the people who had been killed up to Memorial Day of 2005. She asked if she could write her husband's best friend's name and where and when he was killed on the door, to add it to the list.

We have had now almost 5 years of our soldiers being killed and various groups of Iraqis being killed, all this death, and very little mourning. The surge has certainly brought the numbers of those being killed down, and the administration is eager to talk about the success of the surge, as if no one is dying over there anymore. But it has been 5 years, and so much suffering, and we do not know as we walk around in our lives at this point who around us has been personally affected by it all. We really have no idea who has lost a brother or friend or father or sister. There has been so much suffering, and so much power of the king over mourning, so much politics of mourning. That power Antigone represents, to resist the king and to make all lives greivable, is still needed very much in our society. And as happy as most of us are to see this George Bush leave the White House, he is just the most recent King Creon. Unitarians and all progressive people and communities will always have to play the role of Antigone so that all lives will be grieveable.

©2008 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2008. Antigone and the Politics of Mourning, /talks/20080224.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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