Thinking We Understand Without Thinking

I was trying to see if I understand what the commenter meant by “love relationship.” As you know, the English word “love” has three or four Greek equivalents. – FB comment, Sunday, June 28, 2015


This morning I commented on this Roland Martin post –

“It trips me out how mainstream media is stunned to see what a Black homegoing service is like. I’m listening to @JoeNBC talk about Friday.”

I simply said –

“And it’s this failure to understand Black culture at a level deeper than hearsay, stereotypes, bad movie representations, and sound bites, which is a significant part of the problem.”

Of course, it’s nice if a few people “like” your comment, but I must have struck a chord, because I’ve had 46 likes so far today. I also had one disagreeing reply –

“I disagree! ‘Mainstream’ media is well aware of our culture and who we are; that is the problem!! Don’t assume they don’t understand us!”

I didn’t respond. Didn’t think it would be productive and also didn’t think it’d be appropriate in Roland’s thread.

However, I think the main stream media doesn’t get us of the darker persuasion. They imagine us against the prevailing dominant narrative and try to reconcile us to that narrative, but they don’t get us. – FB, Darren Joseph Elzie (used with permission)


Into each life, it is said, some rain must fall. Some people have bad horoscopes, others take tips on the stock market. McNamara created the TFX and the Edel. Churches possess the real world. But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists. . . .

The massive volume of useless knowledge produced by anthropologists attempting to capture real Indians in a network od theories has contribute substantially to the invisibility of Indian people today. After all, who can conceive of a food-gathering, berry-picking, semi-nomadic, fire-worshiping, high-plains-and-mountain-dwelling, horse-riding, canoe-toting, bead-using, pottery-making, ribbon-coveting, wickiup-sheltered people who began flourishing when Alfred Frump mentioned them in 1803 in his great wor n Indians entitled Our Feathered Friends as real?

Not even Indians can relate themselves to this type of creature who, to anthropologists, is the “real” Indian. Indian people began to eel that they are merely shadows of a mythical super-Indian. Many anthros spare no expence to reinforce this sense of inadequacy in order to further suppor their influence over Indian people. – Vine Deloria, Custer Died For Your Sins, pp.78, 81-82


A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed "Linear A". It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed “Linear A”. It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

One of the great conceits of Western Civilization (such as it is) is that we understand. Since the ancient Greeks first started arguing whether the world was made up of fire or earth or water; since Heraclitus and Parmenides offered contrasts between the reality of constant change and the illusion of constant change; since Plato insisted ours is a world reflective of perfect, geometric forms while his pupil insisted that forms were real things that gave reality to indistinct matter; all of this, when rediscovered in the 10th and 11th centuries, offered the West a vision of itself as those who seek to understand.

The success of our varied attempts to understand the world, using a particular method that means knowledge has led to the sprouting of all sorts of ways to understand. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science all claim to observe “the scientific method” as their practitioners go about the grunt work of gathering data, testing hypotheses, creating theories, all with the goal of understanding how we live, how other societies live, how societies now dead and gone lived, and how the human “mind” – whatever that may or may not be – operates.

Biblical studies have been no less prone to the attractiveness of understanding. With the growth of philology, historical and linguistic tools were used to take fresh looks at the Biblical texts. As theologians and philosophers, following Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Dilthey and others, discovered the necessity first of acknowledging the gap between these ancient texts and current reality, which necessitated a second move they called “hermeneutics” – interpretation in which text and current reality meet and inform one another – as a tool for “correct understanding” of what scholars increasingly understood to be opaque, often poorly edited, ancient texts. The spread of varieties of Biblical criticism has created rival schools of thought as how best to read, understand, and (most important) apply this understanding to our lives. It is more than a little bewildering.


Science is a great tool for getting at how the world works. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that success led people to misunderstand what was going on. Folks like Immanuel Kant (for example) thought that science was so successful because it arrived at truth. For a philosopher, that didn’t leave much space for what he was up to, which is why he wrote three extremely opaque, dense, partially unreadable volumes on what was left to philosophy to do. Truth was the province of the sciences; things like how we know, what are the good and beautiful, these more or less rest upon ways the mind interprets and understands (see that word again?) the world. Precisely because reason leaves the mind with what Kant called “antinomies” – contradictions due to the unfalsifiability of their premises – the best thing for philosophy to do was figure out how science gets at what’s really true.

All those words, all that valuable brain-time, and Kant never got that science works so well only because it is limited both in the questions it can ask and how successfully it can answer those questions. There’s nothing magical, certainly nothing metaphysically special about science. It’s just a tool, an extension of what human beings have been doing for tens of thousands of years to survive. Our survival depends upon our understanding the world. Once upon a time that meant figuring out an animal’s habitual movements, when bet to hunt, etc. Now, it’s about whether we can know both what an elementary particle’s position and spin are simultaneously (the answer continues to be no, by the way). Understanding is great. It also has its limits. The temptation to truth continues unabated.


When I was in Seminary, a good friend of mine and I were talking about the on-going AIDS epidemic. This was at a time when the death toll and infection rate continued to be staggering. He mentioned that there were troubles within the deaf gay community, partly ones of understanding, partly of trust, due to an inability to communicate properly as well as deaf person’s wariness regarding the hearing population. I sat and pondered not so much the ways these people continued to face obstacles in getting information that would protect them; rather I pondered that there was such a thing as a community of deaf gay folks who faced their own unique struggles distinct both from other deaf folk and other gay folk. My ignorance didn’t render such a community unreal; it just made me ignorant.

Seminary was a time I came to understand just how limited my understanding of the world really was. Reading James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation was, the first time, a trial. I found him and his work to be unnecessarily hostile; I found his tone confrontational rather than inviting. After all, I thought, he was writing in the wake of the reality of Martin Luther King, Jr.! It was only when I realized, with something like revelation, that I was being offered the opportunity to see the world through a set of eyes that weren’t blue, from a skin that wasn’t white, within a history filled with dehumanization and death at the hands of a system bent on violence that I understood Cone. From that moment, I realized I had to set to one side what I thought I knew about the world. I know more knew stuff about the world than I could waltz. All I had was my own fairly limited, extremely limited perspective. The work of Cone, of Gustavo Gutierrez, of Mary Daly, of historians like Henry Louis Gates, of sociologists like my own sociology of religion professor James Shopshire while providing new understandings, were even more a precious gift: the gift to see the world from different angles, places the light refracted in strange ways and lives were lived that were fully human yet so different I could only consider with awe the simple ability to exist within a larger framework bent on diminishing these people (and others like them) and their accomplishments.


One of the conceits of Biblical theology is that understanding the original languages of Scripture offer a unique understanding of the authors and their worlds. Contemporary understandings of language as historical artifacts rooted in real, historical communities hold as one of their theses that understanding another language – living or dead – offers an understanding of the society and culture that speaks or spoke it. A corollary, of course, is that “translation” is never a one-for-one match up between words in one language and words in another. Something as simple as “chair” in English does not have a correspondent across other human languages. Our word “chair” is embedded within a history of designations of particular pieces of furniture and their development; of skilled wood craft work; of distinct types of chairs and the uses to which they’re put. Knowing “chair” is “silla” in Spanish, “stuhl” in German, and “karekla” in Greek doesn’t offer readers the history of the word, how it relates to other words and other historical and cultural and social developments within those language-users. Believing that it does is one of the great misconceptions of our time, leading to all sorts of problems.

One of the best known, and over-used, bits of knowledge regarding the koine Greek of the New Testament is that the Greeks had three different words that correspond to the English word “love”. These are usually understood as “philia”, the kind of love that friends share; “agape”, or the selfless, self-giving love often demonstrated between persons with far deeper bonds; and, finally, “eros” usually considered as physical or sexual love. All this is true as far as it goes. I am quite sure philologists and specialists in Biblical language understand that these simple – and simplistic – equations hide all sorts of nuance and variety, that the words reflect no only distinct understandings rooted both in Greek thought as well as social practice but subtleties that are, by and large, opaque. Translation, we are often reminded, is interpretation, leaving the depth, the shadows shooting this way and that, of the original largely unseen and ungrasped.

We in early 21st century America face the daunting reality that our majority society and culture just doesn’t understand the variety of sub-cultures; we don’t understand how they see us, how they see the larger society, or even that they exist at all. We in the majority take for granted that whiteness, maleness, and religious Protestantism (both secularized and sacred) are the norm to which others “naturally” conform. When we discover this is not the case, the usual reaction is confusion. Why don’t women or black folk, our Native populations or the fast growing Latino population see the world the way do, or at least begin to conform to that way of understanding and living? Mutual mistrust and misunderstanding, fear and anger, and social and cultural acceptance of violence as a reaction to difference continue as barriers to working through our social pathologies.

With this being the case for people who work together, live side by side, worship together, do business with one another, I continue to wonder at how it is possible we believe it possible to understand a society buried under 2000 and more years of dirt and dust. How, for example, can we insist we understand the practices and relationships bound by words like “philia”, “agape”, and “eros”? How does that claim make these words meaningful for us – by far the more important question when appropriating Biblical texts?

At what point do we acknowledge that our understanding of other human societies, both contemporaneous and long in the past, is limited; that as much as we can learn about them, there will always be an opaqueness about them? When will we acknowledge, when it comes to reading and understanding and appropriating Biblical texts as sources for our current living, we should honor our ignorance as much as our understanding, remember the very real human lives hidden behind words whose fullness we will never understand? I mean, we living here in Rockford, IL refuse to understand the lives of folks who live a few miles away from us across the river; why do we think we understand the world of the authors of the Bible?


N.B.: The bold text is taken from a portion of Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent in Obergefell, v. Hodges

Human dignity cannot be taken away by the government.

The enclosure movement in England was one of the earliest and most enduring attempts on the part of a state to use its legal and administrative power to effect the involuntary removal of large numbers of its subjects from their native habitations and way of life. As such, the enclosures can also be seen as one of the earliest large-scale programs of population elimination in modern times. . . .

[I]n addiion to anticipating the state-sponsored programs for the elimination of surplus people of our own age, the enclosures can also be seen as the forerunner of a worldwide movement toward  the weeding out of uneconomic peasant holdings, their consolidation into cost-effective larger units, and the transformation of the majority of the world’s peasants into a propertyless mass wholly dependent upon wage labor in an insecure and brutally impersonal money economy. . . . [The peasants’s] loss of status was part of a more generalized loss of social, cultural, ethical and religious moorings that everywhere accompanied the passing of traditional society. – Richard Rubenstein, The Age of Triage, pp.34-36

Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.

When I learned the fact of my having been hired to a negro speculator, or a “soul-driver” as they are generally called  among slaves, no one can tell my emotions. Mr. Walker had offered a high price for me, as I afterwards learned, but I suppose my master was restrained from selling me by the fact that I was a near relative of his. On entering the service of Mr. Walker, I found that my opportunity of getting to a lan of liberty was gone, at least for the time being. He had a gang of slaves in readiness to start for New Orleans, and in a few days we were on our journey. I am at a loss for language to express my feelings on that occasion. . . .

There was on the boat a large room on the lower deck, in which the slaves were kept, men and women, promiscuously – all chained two and two, and a strict watch kept that they did not get loose, for cases have occurred in which slaves have got off their chains, and made their escape at landing-places, while the boats were taking in wood; – and with all our care, we lost on woman who had been taken from her husband and children, and having no desire to live without them, in the agony of her soul jumped overboard, and drowned herself. – “The Narrative of William W. Brown”, in William Andrews and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., compilers, Library of America: Slave Narratives, pp.189-190

Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them.

[George S.] tells of mothers concealing their children to avoid a selection. One mother’s child was found and taken; she went berserk, and began revealing the hiding places of the other children. The disintegration of basic life supports undermined the very integrity that Amery sought to cling to, especially when the security of one’s entire family was at stake. The consequences, as George S. recalls, were devastating, for him and the community as well:

I was ashamed of the whole thing – it was so shameful. It was so degrading. You were completely turned. Hunger was devastating to the human spirit; it was devastating to the human body, and you didn’t know how to function. Families were beginning to – some were even fighting among themselves over a piece of bread. Some were stealing from eatch other. It was horrible. Some became informers to the Germans for a piece of bread. They thought they would be saved, and [would save] their families. Everybody did what they could, just to save their family. . . .

Moses S: All right. A few weeks later, the English people came in and bombed the concentration camp [Mauthausen]. And I said, “Yankel, get up, get up, it’s no good lying here, ou’ll be a piece of gornisht [nothing at all.” So we gt up, and we found a hand from the bombing . . . A human hand. . . . Five of us. Divided. And we were eating it. And somebody died, we cut out a piece – and we were eating . . . human flesh – Lawrence L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, pp.91, 117

And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits.

When a loved one is in the hospital, you naturally want to be at the bedside. But what if the staff won’t allow it?

hat’s what Janice Langbehn, a social worker in Lacey, Wash., says she experienced when her partner of 18 years, Lisa Pond, collapsed with an aneurysm during a Florida vacation and was taken to a Miami trauma center. She died there, at age 39, as Ms. Langbehn tried in vain to persuade hospital officials to let her visit, along with the couple’s adopted children. . . .

“One of the things her partner said to her was, ‘I’m afraid of dying. Don’t leave me alone,’ ” said Judith A. Lonnquist, a lawyer for Ms. Reed. “That’s why the suffering was so enormous — she felt as if her partner was thinking she had betrayed her trust.” . . .

Despite repeated requests to see her partner, Ms. Langbehn says she was given just one five-minute visit, when a priest administered last rites. She says she continued to plead with a hospital worker that the children be allowed to see their mother, even showing the children’s birth certificates.

“I said to the receptionist, ‘Look, they’re her kids,’ ” Ms. Langbehn said. (Mr. Alonso, the hospital spokesman, says that except in special circumstances, children under 14 are not allowed to visit in the trauma unit.)

Ms. Langbehn says she was repeatedly told to keep waiting. Then, at 11:30 p.m., Ms. Pond’s sister arrived at the unit. According to the lawsuit, the hospital workers immediately told her that Ms. Pond had been moved an hour earlier to the intensive care unit and provided her room number. – Tara Parker Pope, “Kept From A Dying Partner’s Bedside”, The New York Times, May 18, 2009

The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greaterthan once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to livein 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. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered.- Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, Obergefell, v. Hodges

On Being A Christian In America

The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country. – Rev. Jerry Falwell


It is becoming more and more difficult to consider oneself Christian and American. – FB comment


See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. – Matthew 10:16


No church should feel safe to those who fear its message. Which might be why they are targeted by arsonists.

No church should feel safe to those who fear its message. Which might be why they are targeted by arsonists.

Nine people gathered to study the Bible are gunned down without mercy or remorse. Three churches housing predominantly African-American congregations are set ablaze by arsonists in three states in five days. As the  Supreme Court extends marital rights and responsibilities to all persons, many Christians rend their clothing, some declaring their willingness to martyr themselves in defiance of the law of the land. As our public mores continue to change, the role of the churches in shaping those mores seems to decline ever more. People of the Christian faith are nervous, wondering if being a Christian and an American is even possible.

We have always been a people of diverse faiths. Massachusetts may have been offered to the TULIP Calvinist Puritans, but Maryland was a Roman Catholic colony. The official religion of the Commonwealth of Virginia was the Church of England long after the War of Independence. Rhode Island was founded on the principle of freedom of conscience regarding religious belief. We have had Jews and pagans, Muslims and Japanese Shinto and Chinese animists and, of course, the variety of Native religious beliefs and practices, sometimes intermingling and cross-fertilizing with Christianity and other faiths. Still, our predominant civic faith is rooted in a secular version of the Calvinism that was at the heart of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when it was founded in 1620. In the centuries since, despite being officially secular and allegedly neutral in practice, our laws and public morals have walked hand in glove with a predominantly Protestant Christian sensibility. In my lifetime, most small towns were closed up on Sundays. Divorce, sex outside of marriage, the rights of women and minorities (including religious minorities such as Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, and others) were curbed by a legal system that reflected the preferences of the male, Protestant majority. We were, in many ways, a Christian nation in practice if not in name.

The past two generations have seen vast changes in that social, legal, and cultural landscape. While a vast majority of Americans claim some sort of religious allegiance, that number has dropped eight percent in a decade. While religious belief in some bland sense – an affirmation of the existence of God, however personally defined – continues, religious practice, adherence to even the most basic dogmas of the Church, and Biblical illiteracy are more the norm than the exception. We in the old mainline Protestant Churches – the United Methodists, the Presbyterians, the ELCA, the Disciples of Christ, the UCC/Congregational Churches – bemoan the graying of our congregations and continue to flail about as we search for something, anything, that will bring younger people back through our doors. The appeal of the church, it seems, is waning in tandem with the increasing separation of our social and cultural life from its influence.

What was once taken for granted is no longer the case. What once seemed an easy enough match up between our professed religious beliefs and our practiced social moral code now seems miles apart. We are, in the as Robert Heilein wrote, strangers in a strange land.

Which is as it should be.

When being a Christian is easy; when the state offers a silent nod of approval to the beliefs and practices of a particular religious faith; when we forget that our mission and ministry is rooted in conflict between the powers of this world that sent Christ to his death and the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead; when these things occur, being church is no longer a matter of being ekklesia, those called out. Being an Episcopalian is no different from being a member of the Chamber of Commerce or Country Club; being a Methodist is no different than being police chief or mayor; being a Baptist is no different than being a teacher or plumber. To be a Christian is just to be. Our sense of separateness, our understanding of ourselves as those who are in faith through grace no longer has the emotional and spiritual power it should.

None of which means we should love our country, or our fellow citizens whose lives and beliefs and mores may be very different – even diametrically opposed! – a whit less. This is our home, this beautiful, baffling, contrary country of ours. I know my life is enriched by all the different people I have known, by the friendships I continue to cultivate, and the conversations and arguments I will always have with people who are very different than I am. That some of my friends think Christianity is kind of silly, well, that doesn’t have anything to do with me. That some practice their beliefs in ways very different from my own practice helps me see how limited my vision continues to be. I hold those I know who are Jewish or Muslim or some other faith in as high regard as my fellow Christians. Perhaps a bit more, knowing how difficult it can be to be observant of a minority religion in a society that more than occasionally is actively hostile to them.

Those African-Americans I know who live out their lives in faith humble me; attending worship with them reminds me of the singular power of Christian faith: the affirmation of humanity in the face of systemic dehumanization. African-American worship, at least in my experience, is rooted in joy and celebration because it is as the gathered people of God they become a people, people, not whatever the dominant society says they are. Black churches have always been targets for racist violence. White folk know it is here, in this place, all the things whites say about African-Americans – their fundamental evil,  their laziness and shiftlessness, the threat they pose to white society – is not only denied, but their humanity is affirmed. Nothing is more threatening to principalities and powers than a people who believe themselves to be a people.

I find irony in the sign on the burned church pictured above. A church building should always be considered a dangerous place. To be a Christian should never rest easily with our other social relationships. We should always be troubled in our secular life by the insistent demands of the faith. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative or whatever, we should never forget our primary identity as Christians forms a filter through which we observe and live out that secular life. Entering worship on Sundays should make us uneasy; leaving worship on Sundays should remind us why we are uneasy. To be Christian and American is to be a sheep among the most dangerous wolves imaginable: they aren’t just in sheep’s clothing, but in the clothing of the sheep from our own flock. Lest we ever get complacent, we should always remember those who have been murdered in places of worship over the years; remember the church buildings set ablaze; remember that, increasingly, to be a Christian is to be thought someone who considers him- or herself better than others, rather than someone who is a servant to others.

Ours is a world filled with hazards. Our faith calls us to love and serve that world in humility. The transformation for which we work will never be voted upon, nor negotiated. It is the slow, steady work of millions of hands over many years, under the power of our loving, saving, ever-creating God. If that doesn’t make folks uneasy, I don’t know what will.

Taking The Easy Way Out: The Rebel Battle Flag

After the Civil War ended, the battle flag turned up here and there only occasionally — at events to commemorate fallen soldiers.

So, when did the flag explode into prominence? It was during the struggle for civil rights for black Americans, in the middle of the 20th century.

The first burst may have been in 1948. South Carolina politician Strom Thurmond ran for president under the newly founded States Rights Democratic Party, also known as the Dixiecrats. The party’s purpose was clear: “We stand for the segregation of the races,” said Article 4 of its platform. – Ben Brumfield, “Confederate Battle Flag: Separating Myths From Facts”, CNN, June 24, 2015


Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the four Confederate flags on the state Capitol grounds in Montgomery to be taken down Wednesday morning, NBC News has learned. . . .

Bentley told that his decision came, in part, as a response to the Charleston massacre as well as to avoid drawn-out political fights over the flag.

“This is the right thing to do. We are facing some major issues in this state regarding the budget and other matters that we need to deal with,” Bentley said. “This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.” – Erik Ortiz, “Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley Orders Confederate Flag Taken Down From Capitol,” NBC, June 24, 2015


Which is more dangerous? The flag he's holding in this photo or the .45 with which he killed 9 people?

Which is more dangerous? The flag he’s holding in this photo or the .45 with which he killed 9 people?

It seems many Americans are generally agreed on one thing in the aftermath of last Wednesday’s church shooting in South Carolina: States that continue to feature the Confederate Battle Flag on state  property, including incorporating it in to state flags, should remove it. Every where you look on social media, people are declaring that the rebel flag has to go. Righteous stories about the re-emergence of the battle flag first in the 1920’s rebirth of the Klan nationwide, then in post-WWII antipathy to the Civil Rights movement are posted and shared and copied and quoted in order to shame people who continue to hold to the chestnut, “Heritage Not Hate”. There are those who defend the private use of the flag. There are also those who defend its inclusion in public symbols. After all, it’s argued, it is part of the history of these states. To remove the flag would be to ignore part of the state’s history.

I want to make it clear that I’m certainly in favor of states removing the rebel battle flag from state property. Those states that want to remove it as part of their state flag are to be commended. Recognizing it is a relatively recent addition, a protest against the assertion of equal citizenship by African-Americans does as much a service to state history as claiming its original inclusion had something to do with honoring Confederate War veterans and the dead. I also believe these are matters best left to those states and their residents.

What troubles me is the way so many, especially white liberals, seem to be jumping on the anti-Rebel Flag bandwagon. Not that I’m surprised. It just seems to be a way for white folks to show others how righteous and non-racist they are. They can declare on social media they stand against a symbol used too long to express hatred for African-Americans and defiance of federal authority. What such actions don’t do, however, is participate in a much more important conversation regarding the persistence not only of violence and hatred on a personal level, or structural racism and dehumanization. What we need is a real come-to-Jesus moment regarding our too-long history of racial violence, how it continues still despite so many years of work to include African-Americans in the American mainstream. It’s still an uphill battle to get people to understand what racism is and is not; how its persistence isn’t a matter of personal animosity and hatred, but rather deep structural frameworks that perpetuate it in ways that continue to confound our abilities to address clearly and with something like finality; finally, and most important, that standing against a flag as some act of defiance confuses the sign, as it were, with the thing signified.

Would Dylann Roof hate and fear black folk any less if he didn’t wave the Confederate Battle Flag? Which would have been more deadly, Roof entering Emmanual AME Church waving the flag, or waving the .45 he use to kill nine people? Indeed, would Dylan Roof have hated and feared and wished to kill any less if he didn’t have access to guns? The truth is there will always be Dylann Roofs in this world, people willing to kill African-Americans and others perceived to be a social, cultural, and political threat. Insisting that removing a flag from state property in some way diminishes that hatred, or that keeping the flag in symbolic state property encourages hatred and breeds racism ignores the reality that racism isn’t about symbols, pieces of cloth, or even guns in private hands.

Racism is built in to the warp and woof of American society. From our beginnings, when the status of slavery was a centerpiece of debate about the Constitution, the dehumanization and violence, the theft of wealth and personhood is as much American as anything else. Much of the pre-Civil War national wealth was created from the free labor of slaves. Everything from export crops to the rise of property insurance received a boost from slavery. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the trend continued, as black share-croppers continued to work for what is, essentially, no income, American cotton competing on the world market with Indian cotton the British relied upon for so much of their income. While the labor movement fought for a more just economic system, the long exclusion of African-Americans from both craft and industrial unions helped build workers status at the expense of others, leaving African-Americans further impoverished and with fewer options when attempting to escape the degradation of Jim Crow. Up north was little different than down south.

We need to have a serious discussion about the structural nature of racism. We can’t do that when we’re arguing about a piece of cloth that only means what we decide it means. While certainly admirable, the calls for the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag are no substitute for talking about racism. While we argue about a large colored napkin, we aren’t addressing ways to further dismantle structural impediments to full inclusion of African-Americans and others; we aren’t helping people see the myriad ways violence, both low-level and overt, continue to plague communities across the country; we white folks make ourselves feel good without doing anything to make our African-American brothers and sisters feel not just good, but safe, secure, and unafraid even in their own homes, places of worship, and work spaces.

This isn’t a demand we stop the movement to remove the flag. It’s just a request that we remember what we ought to be doing to address matters of racism and violence against minority communities. I think we owe the South Carolina dead a bit more than declaring victory because a flag was removed from state property.

Anti-Haters, Kardashian Edition

I would absolutely characterize myself as ambitious. – Kim Kardashian


The wicked envy and hate. It is their way of admiring. – Victor Hugo


Kim has been singled out by a British headmistress as a splendid example of all that is wrong with Western society.

Dr Helen Wright, the head of St Mary’s School, an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Wiltshire, made her claim after one men’s magazine branded Miss Kardashian ‘the hottest woman in the world’.

A fuming Dr Wright said: ‘The hottest woman in the world? Really? Is this what we want our young people to aim for? Is this what success should mean to them?’

She also accused Kim of making her fortune from ‘meanness, scandal and boundary-less living’. – Claudia O’Connell, “A marriage that lasted 72 days. A TV career built on a sex tape. And a derriere a million times bigger than her brain. CLAUDIA CONNELL explains why this woman is the ‘world’s worst role model'”, Daily Mail, June 22, 2012


With the possible exception of the special loathing many Americans have for our President, I can't think of anyone who receives more negative attention than Kim Kardashian and her family.

With the possible exception of the special loathing many Americans have for our President, I can’t think of anyone who receives more negative attention than Kim Kardashian and her family.

Among the many things pop cultural form the 1980’s bequeathed to us, it was the emergence of tabloid television. Garish, loud, based around celebrities and their lives, it spawned all sorts of children, grandchildren, and now in the Internet Age, has become a species all its own. Among the first of such programs was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by that shouting Australian Robin Leach. Originally a “reporter” for Entertainment Tonight, Leach was given a chance to declare to the world how marvelous were the lives of the famous. He offered viewers walking tours of their homes. He went along on private yacht trips, private airplane trips, stood to one side during glittering premieres, all filmed so that we the viewers could participate vicariously in lives that were presented as ideal. If you weren’t quite ready to buy that, Leach’s presentation, twenty-two minutes of declarative sentences that pushed the limits of his microphone’s range, certainly attempted to do so through sheer force.

It has often been said that, with the dawn of mass media in the early decades of the 20th century, America was offered something it had never had: royalty in the personages of Hollywood. Followed as much for their lavish, overindulgent lifestyles as the films they made, actors and actresses became targets of obsession among young and old alike, with an expanding industry dedicated to the promotion, celebration, and careful management of the images and narratives of people who, otherwise, wouldn’t merit our attention. They were “famous”, if for no other reason than most people learned their names from going to weekend movies.

While many tut-tutted the burgeoning fixation with film actors and actresses private lives, it was generally assumed that, since some at least had enough talent and a work ethic worth admiring, the attention they received was admirable. It forced some among them, at least, to curb the worst of their predilections for  excesses. Today, however, we live in a time when fame is both cheap and easy to receive. My younger daughter can talk about “a famous YouTuber” without any sense of irony because, well, such persons exist. For what, exactly, are they famous? I couldn’t tell you. Probably no more than having all sorts of people watch their videos on YouTube. Any actual achievement is beside the point.

Yet, that has largely been the case for our celebrities. Actors, musicians, even writers become celebrities not because they have accomplished something unique in human experience. At least, that is not the substance of the reports on them. After all, VH1 doesn’t air a show titled About the Music. The show is called Behind The Music, in which viewers are treated to stories of sex, drinking, drugs, dysfunction, and that ever-popular cycle of collapse, reformation, and sometimes even relapse. We aren’t offered a glimpse of the hours of practice, the arguments in studios over song arrangement and production, or why one brand of instrument is preferred over another. These, the substance of a musician’s professional life, are neither here nor there. We want scandal, we want excess, we want photos of celebrities in bed with the wrong person, or better wrong persons. Do we want to see tapes of Marilyn Monroe’s acting classes? Of course not. We want endless calendars of her barely clothed.


The notion that Kim Kardashian rose to some kind of fame – or notoriety, if you prefer – because of a leaked sex tape is common. I’m just not sure that’s altogether accurate. Her father, the late Robert Kardashian, was a well-respected attorney who became a household name when he helped defend O. J. Simpson against murder charges. His children, living most of the time with their mother who had married the former Bruce Jenner, attended schools with children of celebrities as well as future fame-holders including Lenny Kravitz and Slash, the guitarist from Guns-N-Roses. Surrounded as they were by the glitz and glamour of the well-off Hollywood life, it seems little stretch to picture the youthful Kardashians trying to find ways to achieve the kind of success that, in their milieu, seemed to matter most. The sex tape itself was of little consequence; if Kim Kardashian and her large family held no interest, weren’t telegenic, and didn’t have some kind of sound business sense, even the proposal for a reality television show centering around her, her closest sisters, and her mother and step-father would have been laughed out of most producers’ offices.

This is more than a simple case of fame following on notoriety. The Kardashians, and Kim in particular, are very canny about how they manage their public lives, while ensuring that a certain measure of privacy be in place. After all, how much of their television program, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, shows her at work in her office, where she heads a multi-million dollar corporation? Like refusing to be interested in which guitar string Eddie Van Halen prefers, no one wants to watch the Kardashians actually do stuff. The show offers viewers what all such programs offer: The chance to live vicariously a life most of us could not ever experience. The root of the show isn’t voyeurism, or perhaps not only voyeurism. At heart, the show is rooted in the producers’ understanding that few things are as powerful as envy. We look upon the Kardashians and simultaneously we want what they have and we do not; and we declare them unfit to hold a position of prominence for everything from the extensive plastic surgery to the alleged moral turpitude in which they engage.

In recent years, Kim Kardashian has done the unthinkable: She rushed in to a wedding for which she wasn’t prepared, leading to divorce within a few months; she became pregnant out of wedlock by rapper Kanye West; she has since married Kanye. The fact that Kanye West is one of the more disliked musicians out there certainly hasn’t helped Kim’s acceptance among the public. That she is a white woman who has married an African-American man is also points against her in a racist society. All of these things are offered up as proof that Kim Kardashian shouldn’t be in any place of public prominence, not even something as harmless as a reality television program.

Except, of course, the very things that attract so much negative attention, from the press and the public, are a combination of common human foibles and mistakes and life-choices and carefully stage-managed image enhancement and promotion. How many among my readers have made a mistake when it comes to affairs of the heart, rushing forward when a bit more caution was warranted? I know several people who ended their marriages quickly for a number of different reasons. As for the sex tape . . . who out there has had sex? Married, not married, with the opposite sex or same sex, perhaps even with multiple partners? Come on, don’t be shy: Who has had sex? Who, perhaps in a fit of devil-may-care arousal, thought it might be fun to take a photograph or two for your own private enjoyment? Maybe even turned on that little video camera in your phone? You don’t have to say anything; I know it happens.

Imagine a woman getting pregnant out of wedlock! How horrible! I can’t believe such a thing happening! Especially to a woman who is wealthy, having the resources to care for herself as well as raise a child! How horrible is that? And only later marrying the father (I detest the term “baby-daddy”, reducing men to sperm-donating turkey basters)! I bet no one out there knows anyone who has done that! And can you believe she married a talented, successful man who isn’t afraid of self-promotion any more or less than she is?

The final refuge for most of those who enjoy denouncing the lives of the Kardashians is that old chestnut: they are role models and should act appropriately.

Seriously? If you’re a parent, and you offer this argument, you might want to consider your own life and how you model living to your children before getting all up in the face of Kim Kardashian. If you’re a teacher, a clergy-person, or otherwise interact with children and youth (such as the school mistress quoted in the epigraph) perhaps you should stop and think before denouncing the lives of others, and turn that hyperactive moral sense upon your own life. At the end of the day, the Kardashians are just people. They’re successful, sure, but many folks in America are successful in their own professions. They have a TV show, but that hardly confers some status upon them. It just means that a lot of people see their faces. They are a family of men and women and youth who are doing the best they can with the tools they have to make their way in the world; that some of those tools include ways of drawing attention to themselves isn’t their fault.

The Kardashians aren’t royalty. Nor are they “famous for no reason”, a phrase empty of meaning. They are famous because they have worked hard to achieve a particular status, using and exploiting both modern media as well as a kind of traditional American sensibility for both desiring and hating those whose perceived achievements might outshine our own. They’re very good at it. Which should make them far better role models than all those people who take the time to ridicule them on social media.

So Many Voices

At [Dylann] Roof’s bond hearing, Chief Magistrate James Gosnell allowed Collier to deliver a statement to the suspect who joined via videoconference: “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you, and I forgive you.” – Jonathan Merritt, “What Does it Take To Forgive Someone Like Dylann Roof?”, Religion News Service, June 22, 2015


I am a clergywoman in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I am in mourning and I refuse to be comforted. Like the story of Rachel weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18), I will not allow my anger and lamentation to be silenced. With silence comes complacency, and the stakes for are too high. The very soul of American Christianity is on trial, and progressive platitudes of reconciliation will not save it. The type of healing we need can only be borne out of lament — a lament that holds space in the deepest pits of our beings for the piercing sorrow and rage being expressed by black communities, cultivates empathy, and puts restorative justice at the center of our collective action. It is a type of lament some of my dear sisters in ministry have begun to call prophetic grief. As one of my beloved heroes, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in New York notes, “Love looks like this: Prophetic grief. Tears falling heavy. And activism that ends racism.” – Rev. Jennifer Bailey, “Refusing To Be Comforted: Charleston, Black Death, And Prophetic Grief”, Sojourners, June 20, 2015


"As James Baldwin and many others have observed, the presence of black people and the ordeal of black people in the United States stand as a mighty rebuke to anything remotely flattering that the white man wishes to think about himself: all of the white man’s ​notions of his courage, his generosity, and his Christian love get shattered to pieces by the mirror black people hold up to his craven, thieving, ​​hate-distorted face." - Peter Laarman

“As James Baldwin and many others have observed, the presence of black people and the ordeal of black people in the United States stand as a mighty rebuke to anything remotely flattering that the white man wishes to think about himself: all of the white man’s ​notions of his courage, his generosity, and his Christian love get shattered to pieces by the mirror black people hold up to his craven, thieving, ​​hate-distorted face.” – Peter Laarman

People take comfort in religion. I often find that amusing, because my faith isn’t very comforting, not really. Oh, I have a sense of inner peace that comes from what I can only call an intuition of the Divine. That’s just a fancy way of saying I have within me a sense of God’s presence in and around my life. That doesn’t keep away the nagging questions that arise most days. Certainly not in the face of events in Charleston last Wednesday night. That this mass murder happened in a church leaves me even more bereft. A holy space has been made an abomination. Holy ground has been more than shod upon by feet in shoes. Human blood has tainted a place of refuge and worship, sanctuary in all its nuanced meanings. What happened in Charleston strikes me, so far away and so different, as an act of violence not only against African-Americans as a people; it was defiance against God and God’s claim upon our lives, our spaces, and our hearts and minds. I’m at a loss as how, exactly, we are to move forward in the face of a simultaneous affront against humanity and God.

It certainly doesn’t help that the families of some of the victims have offered young Dylann Roof the one thing too many of us would find impossible. Statements of forgiveness from the loved-ones of the murdered ring so loud, it’s nearly impossible to raise an objection or offer a “. . . but . . .” after so that we don’t just stop with those words and pretend the world has been made right. Which is not to say such forgiveness isn’t a revolutionary act. It is, perhaps, perhaps the single most revolutionary statement to emerge from this horror. We who stand at whatever remove from events in South Carolina cannot gainsay what they have chosen. Forgiveness in the first instance was theirs to offer or withhold. I know that I, for one, only stand silently, my eyes closed.

I also know, however, that Dylann Roof has done so much more than kill nine faithful Christians gathered to study the Word in what should have been the most safe place imaginable. He has shown the whole world the horrible wriggling thing that exists underneath the rock that is our national self-image. Too many of us white folk will rush to silence any and all voices that don’t conform to these words. As one commenter on Peter Laarman’s piece, quoted in part as the caption to the photo above, wrote: “This article is darkness inspired by darkness. I see nothing redemptive or productive here. It’s cathartic and understandable maybe, but not helpful beyond that.” If as Christians our words are not “redemptive” according to some formula that is opaque to me at the moment, they they aren’t “helpful”. Of course, the entire article was, to my mind, redemptive precisely because it offered a vision of us facing the reality of our worst selves, as the author notes, in the mirror black folk hold up to white America.


All of us prefer simple cause-effect relationships. Whether it’s a bat hitting a ball that flies over the left-field fence, human conception that result from two special types of cells interacting, or the larger sweep of social movements and historical events, even if it’s something as interesting as that old poem, “For Want Of A Nail”, as long as we can trace effects back to their causes, we can understand how things work. In his essay collection After Auschwitz, the late Richard Rubenstein offered a simple cause-effect relationship that, as difficult as it was to consider, made sense: In the wake of the intentional, rational mass killing of six million Jews, belief in the God of the Covenant and the holiness of the Covenant people was no longer tenable.

In the summer of 1991, I read another book by Rubenstein, coauthored with Christian theologian John Roth. Approaches To Auschwitz: The Holocaust And Its Legacy, offers both a history of the development of the genocide against Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and others. It also examines the aftermath, from historical and social implications to religious implications. In the midst of having tidy, clear answers in my head, I read the following:

During the 1970’s, Reeve Robert Brenner polled a thousand Israeli [Holocaust] survivors to ascertain the religious change, rejections, reaffirmation, doubt, and despair that the Holocaust brought them. Selecting the subjects at random from survivor rosters, especially from those carefully maintained at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust Memoria, he received more than seven hundred responses to a lengthy questionnaire. Of those who responded, one hundred were interviewed personally, the remainder by mail. . . .

. . . Within hi random an representative sample, one of the most fundamental findings is that 53% “consciously and specifically asserted that the Holocaust affected or, to a certain extent, modified their faith in God.” The other 47% “averred that the Holocaust had no influence on their beliefs about God.” . . . The most salient feature of this [religious] transformation is that of the 55% who before the Holocaust believed in “a personal God” who is involved in humanity’s daily life, more than one in four rejected that belief either during or immediately after the war. Nor have they reclaimed it since. . . .

. . . Brenner’s research found a vast array of religious responses among the survivors who responded. They included Orthodox Jews who say the Holocaust was God’s punishment for Jewish refusal to honor their historic covenant with the Go who mad them a chosen people. Others affirmed God as One who is impersonal, uninvolved in human history generally or in the Holocaust specifically. And if nearly three out of four of the 53% who found their faith affected or modified by the Holocaust underwent “either a complete los or an attenuation of religious faith,” the remainder reported the the Holocaust made them more religious. Over all about 5% of Brenner’s sample were transformed from atheists into believers. If that figure seems insignificant, Brenner puts it in a different light by noting that “nearly one of every four religiously transformed survivors began to believe in God because of the Holocaust. . . . In all, Brenner observes, the total loss of faith in the existence of God among his sample of Holocaust survivors came to 11%. (pp.293-295)

So much for neat and tidy answers. Our prepackaged assumptions about how people should act, about the simple, clear cause-effect relationships between events and their impact upon social attitudes run up against the reality that human beings react in a variety of ways, including ways for which our own prejudices cannot account.

From that moment, I have preferred the messiness of reality, its contrariness and contradictions, to the all-too-tidy answers offered by those who claim to know how people ought to live their lives. Reality confounds us. Contemplating that too much can cause a person to seize up, not act. Sometimes, it can cause us to turn away, prefer the comfort of our prejudices. Rejecting reality, no matter how uncomfortable reality might be, is a sign of illness. Whether or not I like it, the world really is the way it is, and it is far better to consider the variety than rest comfortably with one’s preferred ways of living and understanding the world.


In the wake of last Wednesday’s shooting in South Carolina, there have been so many voices clamoring for attention. Yes, mine included. They say all sorts of things. They say we shouldn’t rush to judge or politicize. They say we should refuse to surrender our grief. They say we should understand the events in light of American’s blood-soaked racial history. They say we can never know why Dylann Roof did what he did. They say we must look in that mirror African-American lives hold for us, and recognize the reflection no matter how hard that can be.

They say we should forgive the killer.

At this point, I’m not sure to whom anyone should listen. I know I’ve fallen prey to leaning toward the words that accord with my understanding of the world. Knowing nothing will come from this event, no national come-to-Jesus-moment regarding race, I merely reaffirm my preference for more radical voices, amplifying them as much as I can. In these voices I hear the call to repentance and self-reflection, from the need for honest self-appraisal to the need for some act of mass confession for everything from stolen wealth to mass death that is as much a part of American history as our alleged exceptionalism. The voices, however, cover the gamut, and my preferences aren’t what is at stake. What’s at stake, rather, is how we as one people – black and white, Asian, Latino, Other, male and female, gay and straight and other – own this event as an American event. While I wrote yesterday the search for “meaning” in historical events, particularly religious meaning, is a fool’s errand, that doesn’t mean we cannot make sense of what happened.

It only demands that we answer the question: To whom do we listen for guidance? It seems too easy, at least to me, to settle solely for the voices of forgiveness from the victim’s relatives. That takes responsibility away from all of us to look at what happened. We can all say, “Well, they forgave him. Who am I to say anything afterward?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer called that cheap grace. It’s a dodge, a way around what is always more difficult.

All the same, I recognize that others will act and react in different ways. Which leaves me wondering if, perhaps, silence might not be the first order of business. I do know I have no answers that satisfy anyone but me. And I’m willing to allow that satisfaction to be disturbed by reality. I just don’t think anyone has a monopoly on wisdom.

So many voices. So many verdicts. Too many experts. Lord, teach us to listen with discernment.

Sucks On A Grand Scale

It’s exhausting enough to endure the dark hours here and not lose our religion, without the addition of a Maker who also makes us bleed. Instead, I prefer to understand God as One who bleeds along with us; Who sits with us in our agony and weeps, not causing us our distress but providing a steady, holy presence in it. This still leaves me with the nagging question of why this God can’t or won’t always remove these burdens from me, but it does allow me to better see the open opportunity provided in tragedy. – John Pavlovitz, “No, Everything Does Not Happen For A Reason,” Relevant, June 15, 2015


We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:29


Senior Allied military personnel witnessing the aftermath of an evacuated concentration camp in Ohrdruf, Germany, toward the end of WWII. Gen. Eisenhower insisted not just on the visits, but that a photographic and moving picture record be made so that the reports would be believed.

Senior Allied military personnel witnessing the aftermath of an evacuated concentration camp in Ohrdruf, Germany, toward the end of WWII. Gen. Eisenhower insisted not just on the visits, but that a photographic and moving picture record be made so that the reports would be believed.

It was a cold, rainy March night when I got the first call that something was wrong. I was in Washington, doing reading for my classes at the Catholic University of America. My mother asked me if my cousin Denise, then a student at SUNY Geneseo, had contacted me. Denise was my cousin Peggy’s daughter. I knew her name, had seen her face in photographs, but I’m quite sure that was probably the extent of how we knew each other. I told my mother I hadn’t and she sighed, telling me that Denise was missing.

I’m not sure how other people react in situations like this. I was far removed, physically and emotionally, from the situation. At the same time, I love my cousin Peggy dearly, and knew her children were the apples of her eye. When she asked, I promised my mother that, however unlikely the circumstance might be, I would get in touch with her if Denise happened to get in touch with me.

Being a worrier, I called Mom the next day. There hadn’t been any progress, any and every possible avenue had been pursued to a dead end. I knew then and know now that people don’t “disappear”. Except, of course, they do. People disappear every single day. Husband and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers: they go out and no one ever sees them or hears from them again. There isn’t even the mournful discovery of a skeleton in a shallow grave somewhere. They’re just gone. I kept telling myself this wasn’t a fate that would befall Denise. Of course, it could have been, but two days later, I received the call that Denise had been found. Walking back to her dorm after going to a music store to buy a couple CDs, she had taken a short cut along the Genesee River. She’s slipped and fallen in, the waters swollen and moving fast from melt runoff. Weighed down by heavy winter clothing, she had become trapped far beneath the racing waters by a fallen tree. What had been a hopeful search had ended in sadness. Driving up to Medina, NY for the funeral, I remember wondering if there was any meaning behind what happened, and kept running up against the reality that, sometimes, people slip and fall in to cold, rushing water and that’s it and that’s all. It’s a realization I’ve largely kept to myself until now.


I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Second World War, and in particular the German attempt to wipe out Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Christians, Slavs, and anyone else determined unfit to live. From the first time I really delved deeply in to the matter up to the present moment, it has not been easy. It never becomes easier to look at photographs, to read accounts, to let my mind wander wondering what was in the minds of those who operated the camps, guarded the prisoners, herded millions to killing zones. It’s a terrible thing to consider for too long. The images and words haunt you, the dead demanding more than justice. More than anything they want to be remembered as those who lived, yet the unknown and unnamed dead will always outnumber those recalled.

What’s worse, of course, is that all of it – the concentration camps and death camps, the Einsatzgrupen rounding up Jews by the hundreds and thousands and killing them, the ghettos constructed then emptied to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt and Treblinka – was meaningless. Twelve million people gone to no purpose other than to make reality conform to dystopia. Something in us refuses to accept meaningless death; history and circumstance, of course, laugh at our protests. Sometimes folks die in the hundreds and thousands and even millions and it makes no sense then or after.


Recent events in South Carolina would seem to prove me wrong. The nine dead, murdered by a young man twisted by hate and fear, have brought together racial communities in Charleston in acts of forgiveness and solidarity in the face of such horrific evil and violence in a way, perhaps, they could only have dreamed in life. Relatives of the murdered have extended forgiveness to this young man; I heard one man interviewed by BBC World Service early Sunday morning say, “We’re forgive him and love him and he’s going to have  to deal with black people forgiving him and loving him.”

To which I would respond, “Why didn’t he experience that before? Why didn’t he understand he was loved and accepted by all? Why didn’t he have this understanding of love and forgiveness so ingrained in his life that an act such as the one he committed would be unthinkable?” This isn’t a judgment upon those responding in love in the wake of events. It is, rather, a judgment upon all of us: Why do we allow such deep evil to exist without working harder to live out love, acceptance, and the beauty of difference? Our racial rhetoric in this country is overflowing with hatred; the freedom and impunity with which whites continue to act on black bodies and black lives is unabated.

On early Sunday morning, I also heard a report from BBC World Service that the FBI was considering whether some internet website contained Roof’s “manifesto”. Described as filled with hatred and violent rhetoric, at some point the author (still not yet determined to be Dylan Roof) wrote something along the lines that all the racists do is talk, and it was time for someone to act. Which sentiment I have often made when events such as this occur. The level of hatred toward African-Americans, towards gays, toward women, toward anyone perceived a threat by some to white male power and privilege is almost too much to bear. When I read folks who otherwise write horrible things about abortion doctors and black folks suddenly harrumph they don’t mean to include violence in their arsenal against all these targets, all I can think is they are cowards. Let’s not guild any lilies here: Dylan Roof did what he did in a time when our President is dehumanized, called a traitor and terrorist, despised not because of anything he’s done but because of who he is, a black man who is successful, powerful, and just isn’t humble and in his place like black folk are supposed to be. To pretend that the onslaught of violent words against all African-Americans, including our most prominent African-American, would not somehow push many to act is simple moral blindness. And those who pretend outrage are moral cowards.

None of which brings the dead back to life. None of which brings any meaning to Wednesday night’s shooting. Nine people are dead and a young man is going to have to live the rest of his life with that burden. What frightens me more than anything is, for Dylan Roof, this won’t be a burden at all.


First, Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake, killing a quarter million people. Afterward, jammed in to makeshift camps in filthy conditions, cholera spread like wildfire, killing thousands more. A person I knew on the internet demanded to know why I wasn’t enraged at God for these events. As for the earthquake, well, one had recently hit Chile as well; not long after the earthquake/tsunami hit Japan. Getting mad at God for earthquakes is a bit like getting mad at the plumber for not fixing a broken sewage system. Earthquakes, like rain, fall on the good and bad – and rich and impoverished – alike, and it seems a waste of emotional energy to get all up in the Divine Face because of it. As for the cholera outbreak, well, the responsibility for that lies squarely on the shoulders of decades of corrupt Haitian governance as well as American manipulation of Haitian governance that denied even basic sanitary services, creating conditions where a disease like cholera could thrive. Why get mad at God when there are responsible parties far closer to home that actually shoulder the blame?


That bumper sticker is so true: Shit happens. It’s funny, but it’s also true. Earthquakes kill thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Tsunamis wash across cities and towns, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Awash in a sea of hateful, violent racist rhetoric, killing African-Americans can seem to some a viable option. And sometimes, folks take the shortcut rather than the main route, slip and fall in to cold swollen rivers and there’s not a thing that makes sense out of it. The Holocaust? Anyone grasping for any meaning does a disservice to the millions of corpses by trying to drag anything other than evil out of that horror. We can read about it, see photos, but should allow the silence of the dead to have the last word.

We so want things to make sense. We are a creature designed to reason, to draw conclusions from evidence. That’s how we survive: That animal we killed, well, we decided to put its meat on some fire and it not only tasted better no one got sick after eating it. It makes sense, then, that cooking meat becomes something we do to improve our health. Evolution programs us to think.

Like every evolutionary development, however, thinking has its limits. Trying to find meaning in the midst of violence, natural disaster, even massive evil is something we humans do because that’s what we do. That we just don’t find any real meaning makes us do and say things that just don’t make sense. “Everything happens for a reason”; “God loved your child so much, He wanted her in heaven”; “It was God’s will”. More than not making sense, survivors, relatives, and friends hear these words and, rather than comfort, they feel violated. Mourning is necessary. Feeling loss and grief is necessary. Coming out the other side is also necessary, but not always guaranteed. All any of us who look on in the midst of events, natural and human, is remain silent, be a presence, and live with our own confusion, discomfort, and sadness without trying to make others comfortable in our discomfort.

And the last One we should be blaming is God. God didn’t create the conditions that gave Dylan Roof the idea to kill black folks at a Bible Study; hundreds of years of American history, our current political and social climate, provided all that was needed. God didn’t bring an earthquake and cholera epidemic to Haiti; earthquakes happen, and there are many human beings responsible for the conditions that spread cholera. Blaming God is a cowards way out. It keeps us from having to look at events as they really are. And it makes God out to be a monster. While I’m not sure John Pavlovitz (quoted above) is completely right about suffering being something holy – folks who suffer don’t usually consider it such – I do believe that, in the midst of our darkest hours, God is there even if we do not feel a Divine Presence. I believe God is there whether a person believes God is there or not. God is there with and for those who suffer. And, no, God doesn’t “fix” it, because the brokenness of Creation is on us. It’s up to us to take responsibility for violence and hatred, for imperialism and domination leaving billions vulnerable to disease and death, and even to make shortcuts just a bit safer to walk. Whether it’s millions dead or six dead or just one – it’s on us to get things right. That doesn’t give “meaning” to the deaths of so many. Such actions do make sure such things don’t happen again.

Which is the best any of us can hope for.


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