No One Ever Listens

Michael, Rena, Nalin and I are praying for the victims and families touched by tonight’s senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church. While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers. – South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Statement on Charleston church shooting

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Why can’t we simply grieve and pray for the families of the victims of the shooting in South Carolina? Instead, whenever one of these tragic events happen, we are immediately inundated with polarizing political punditry from both the left and the right. I don’t want a “conversation” about race, guns, or whether more mass murders are left wing or right wing. If your first thought isn’t for the victims or their families, then maybe you should remain silent rather than rush to make your political point while standing in a puddle of blood. – Post from a Facebook friend (and childhood neighbor)

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Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie. – H. Rap Brown

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I heard someone on the news say, “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know. So the idea—I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There is no nuance here. And we’re going to keep pretending, like, ‘I don’t get it, this one guy lost his mind.’ But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it. I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. . . .

Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some sort of civil war. The confederate flag flies over South Carolina and the roads are named after confederate generals and the white guy is the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage that we can do to ourselves on a regular basis. – Jon Stewart, The Daily Show

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I sang this song a hundred, maybe a thousand years ago.

No one ever listens. I just play my song and then I go. – Kansas, “Miracles Out Of Nowhere”, lyrics by Kerry Livgren

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We would so much prefer not to see victims of gunfire. Sorry, but we have to.

We would so much prefer not to see victims of gunfire. Sorry, but we have to.

I didn’t want to write this today. In fact, I thought long and hard before sitting down to put down on screen what I am thinking. Everyone and their brother’s sister-in-law will offer opinions, views, make declarative absolute statements about everything from race relations to Second Amendment rights to a preference not to “politicize” such horrible violence. There will be millions of words pouring on to computers around the country that plea for all of us to turn away from the violence, not to look at what happens when human bodies are cruelly violated by bullets, to just shut up and cry and forget everything else. We are really good at that, we Americans. We are so well trained to glance away from violence, to turn our ears from the wailing and screaming.

After the shooting in Newtown, CT, I did something really stupid. I started demanding we repeal the Second Amendment the Constitution. Circumstances that day, however, brought out the worst in me. I sat in my office that cold December day, trying to work while also trying to stay abreast of events. I refused to consider the worst was the case. When the news broke that 20 small children were among the 26 dead, I went numb. That afternoon, when I go home, I hugged my daughters and fought back tears. I was enraged. I was terrified. The thought that still haunts me, families burying their small children the week before Christmas, presents that would never be opened, voices of happiness singing carols and laughing when the best present ever were opened falling forever silent, was in the front of my mind. I reacted, and for that I apologize.

The problem, really, isn’t the Second Amendment. I will say right here and now that firearms aren’t an issue. Not really. Like hammers, they’re just tools. They’re not magical devices that make otherwise sane, rational people suddenly decide to kill. Nor are they talismans in the hands of the insane. They’re just tools. Some of these tools were made for the sole purpose of killing other human beings, to be sure. That does not mean, however, they are the problem.

We’re the problem.

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Many societies believe that names are powerful things. A person’s name tells others who that person is. Ancient Hebrew religious belief placed such a high value on names the God of the Hebrews refused to offer such a name. Reference to the God of the Hebrews was oblique, referencing what God did without ever saying who God was.

In the same way, long-standing Roman Catholic practice in the Rite of Exorcism is to demand the demon give the Exorcist it’s name. Once the demon has surrendered its name, the exorcist has power over it and expelling it becomes far easier. Names have power, you see.

We Americans, by and large, refuse to name our demons. We won’t look them in the eye. We’re terrified that saying the name will only make them appear. We would far prefer mundane words are used, that no one says anything that might bring to light the horrible monsters that eat at our soul. Many of us demand silence from those who insist we need to invoke the names of our demons. For the most part, we don’t want an exorcism. Isn’t it terribly modern to insist demons don’t exist, that Exorcism is the residue of some kind of magical thinking that no longer applies?

The terror behind all this is fear the demons are all too real. We see them all the time. We hear their voices. We know what evil they wreak. Too many of us feel helpless, scared these demons might find their way to us, leaving us strangers to our better natures. The faces we see are just too familiar for us to rest easy these creatures will pass us by.

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A young man comes to a Wednesday night Bible Study. Of course he is welcomed. Why wouldn’t he be welcomed? An hour passes. What goes through that young man’s mind, well, we’ll probably never know for sure. Was he building up courage? Was he waiting for some particular moment? Do these things matter in the end? You see, in the end, he pulled out a firearm and killed nine people. He killed them because they were black and he white. He killed them because black bodies have always been targets for white people. Black women can be raped by white men at will and whim; a black man would pay for his life by speaking to a white woman. Black men were strung up, emasculated, burned, beaten, their deaths the focus of community gatherings, a kind of rite of social purification at which people took photos, fighting for a place by the corpse. To pretend these realities played no role in what happened Wednesday night in Charleston is to refuse to see our national demon.

People who don’t want to see this demon, well, I get it. Who wants to look at our national ugliness so clearly? Who wants to admit they share in our on-going national mental illness? Who wants to be tagged racist or bigot? Who wants others looking at him or her with fear or disgust? As long as we continue the pretense that we are good people, that we Americans are A Good People, then we can dismiss events such as the shooting in Charleston as unfathomable tragedy. As long as we don’t see the black bodies pierced by bullets, their beauty disfigured by violence and hatred, the blood everywhere, we can mourn without really knowing what it is to die as an African-American in America. We can mourn, we can pray, and then we can forget all about it because making fun of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian – a black man marrying a white woman, something that offends our national sensibilities to no end; let’s not forget he’s a black man who refuses to be silent or humble like we expect black men to behave, and she is portrayed as a whore because only a whore would be willing to marry a black man – is so much more important than considering how it might be possible that these folks might not have died in vain.

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Our history of racial violence is not something that ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Courthouse. It didn’t end with the Supreme Court decision Brown, et. al. v Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Folks didn’t suddenly embrace African-Americans as equals when Pres. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Too many people dismiss the realities of the daily humiliations and fears of our fellow Americans as the creations of fake demons we call “race hustlers” and “reverse racists”.  There are so many people who will console us with the false peace of easy answers, or refusals to talk about what’s going on, or who will point at a young white person killed by an African-American. These are all actions of our national demon. That demon doesn’t just kill; it lies, it offers us blindness masquerading as comfort, and tells us stories with just enough truth to keep us from asking difficult questions.

This isn’t about some “Other” who is racist, as opposed to we well-intentioned and certainly good white folks. This isn’t about making distinctions between “black thugs” and “innocents dying in Church” so that our conscience isn’t troubled by the need to mourn all the deaths by violence of African-Americans. Until we all say this demon’s name, own it, and say that it possesses all of us, we are no closer to being able to get rid of it than any other time. Until we can look at photographs of bodies torn apart by bullets and see our brothers and sisters lying there, surrounded by their life-blood spattered everywhere, we are going to continue to hear stories of more people dying. Because black bodies have always been the property of whites, rage and fear will push others to destroy that property. Racism and all that is bound to it; violence as American as cherry pie; our refusal to name what ails us, to confront it without fear; these are staring us in the face from Charleston, SC.

Do we look away?

I have a feeling we will.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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