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
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.