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

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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

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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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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