Lord make me an instrument of thy peace
Before going to bed last night I hopped on Twitter, and Twitter was doing what it does best: providing breaking news and commentary about a heart-rending story hours before mainstream news outlet picked it up. It was the mass shooting (which, I hope and pray will be investigated and classed as an act of domestic terrorism) at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The suspect is a young white man, and 9 people have died as I write this.
This story is gutting on many levels. It breaks my heart to see a house of worship, often safe harbors for people sheltering from many of life’s storms, to be the site of such tragedy.
Many people on Twitter were saying many of the hard truths that this country — and specifically white Americans — need to wrap our heads around.
In the past 10 months, we have literally seen 60+ years worth of history repeat itself.
— Pete Haviland-Eduah (@TheNotoriousPHE) June 18, 2015
Why do we need to speculate whether or not this is hate motivated when we have an accessible history that tells us as much. — I’m Black (@Awkward_Duck) June 18, 2015
And here we are, repeating everything that much of America would like to think it solved decades ago. In particular, that an attack on a black church is terrifying precisely because it cannot be alienated from its historical context; black churches were routinely targeted during the civil rights movement, with the most horrifying act of white violence against black church-goers culminating in the deaths of four little girls.
It’s worth remembering that what’s happened since Trayvon Martin was killed is a sliver of the staggering amount of contemporary state-sanctioned and societal violence against black Americans since the passage of federal civil rights legislation. In my hometown of Cincinnati, you might know that fatal shootings by police officers happened a lot in the 1990s/early 2000s. But what’s happened in the past year is, without a doubt, a magnifying glass on how insidious and well-established structural and cultural racism continues to embed itself within America, and how saying Black Lives Matter is still heard by many white Americans as a statement, as opposed to a truth.
I think what marks the terrorism in Charleston as a particular zenith of horror is for many people, houses of worship are a bedrock of one’s community and an avenue for renewal. It’s bad enough that black Americans cannot walk down the street, spend time in their community, or be at home without being harassed, abused, and targeted by white and state-sanctioned violence. Targeting a church, a space that people rightfully expect to be safe in, and an important place in the history of black America’s struggle for justice, takes it to a whole new level of evil.
And yet, as many people point out, if you know your history, a shooting attack on a house of worship is par for the course when hate-fueled people are looking for convenient scapegoats. This is not new, and indeed it’s happened several times in the last 10 years alone.
In 2008, a Unitarian Universalist congregation was targeted during a children’s musical performance by a white man with “hatred of Democrats, liberals, African Americans and homosexuals.” Two people died, including “an usher who deliberately stood in front of the gunman to protect others.”
In 2010, abortion provider George Tiller was killed while he was ushering at his church, by a white man who had harassed and intimidated abortion providers since the 1990s. The gunman threatened “two others who tried to prevent his departure.”
In 2012, a Sikh gurdwara was targeted during services, by a noted white supremacist. Six people died, and the government treated the attack as an act of domestic terrorism. The president of the congregation died while trying to prevent the attacker from inflicting any further harm, and his actions helped many of the children get out of harm’s way.
…and this short list doesn’t even begin to include the many acts of vandalism and intimidation against houses of worship, in particular black churches, mosques and synagogues, that are fueled by racism and bigotry.
We know in this country that one of the largest threats of domestic terrorism comes from right-wing extremists. These extremists are overwhelmingly disaffected white men who direct their anger at people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and non-Christian faiths. But what we talk about when we talk about terrorism and community violence does not seem to indicate that we take threats of domestic terrorism carried out by white men seriously. We perpetuate white privilege by treating white gunmen as lone wolves, or people who had “mental issues,” while we hold entire communities responsible to higher standards. The point is, white privilege gives white people the permission to be judged as individuals while it does not afford the same to others:
Muslims are called upon to denounce terrorism, blacks to denounce looting. Where are the demands for whites to denounce systemic inequality?
— Deborah Roseman (@roseperson) May 1, 2015
I did not quite appreciate the reality of violence at houses of worship until I began dating my now-fiance, who is Jewish. The first time I attended services with his family was during Rosh Hashanah, and law enforcement was very visible walking up to the synagogue. Having grown up attending suburban Episcopal churches, this sight was pretty jarring the first time I saw it (and if I’m being honest, I still haven’t gotten used to it). I have a pretty small sample size, but visible security measures and/or armed law enforcement have appeared at every Jewish congregation I’ve had the privilege to visit so far.
What does it do to people’s spiritual health to have to contemplate their own physical safety while spending time at their congregation?
I drifted away from any semblance of spiritual practice for most of my late teens and twenties. My parents married in a UU church, and I grew up Episcopalian. My father attends a notably progressive Presbyterian church. For years he has been involved with anti-death penalty activism as an expression of his faith in action. I was involved with anti-war activism when the US invaded Iraq, and many of those I worked with came from a Catholic and mainline Christian social justice background.
For much of my adult life I’ve been a “devout agnostic” — contemplating the existence of God and spiritual matters seemed like a luxury, an unknowable question that distracted from working towards the “real” questions of poverty, war, bigotry, and environmental destruction. Even as I didn’t attend church or cultivate a sense of spirituality, I still silently prayed when ambulances went by, on behalf of whoever they were heading to. I’m guessing that when an ambulance is heading your way, it might be one of the worst days of your life. I have no clue if anyone’s listening, but doing it felt like the right thing to do.
I’m not sure what flipped to inspire a search for spiritual nourishment, but it happened at some point last fall. I think it was in the aftermath of Ferguson and a feeling of growing helpless rage at the trajectory of our country. I was angry so many friends of color were terrified for their own and their children’s futures. I was angry that my fundamental human right to control my own reproductive decisions remain under serious threat. I was angry that the rich were getting richer, that destruction of the planet was a key indicator of economic growth, and how very helpless I felt.
I’m still angry about these things. I show up and do the work of activism when I can, but it still doesn’t address my inner fatigue. I knew I needed to find a way to channel my anger constructively, or else it would consume me and prevent me from being the advocate and compassionate human being I want to be. I knew I needed a community, and something led me to a Quaker meeting. The Quakers were always on my radar because of my college-era anti-war activism. I’ve been attending a meeting for several months now. While I’m not sure yet if it’s a way station or a permanent home, I recognize it’s filling a vital spiritual need for me, in a way that I never would have anticipated had fury and rage not flung me towards something bigger than my own helplessness.
So where does this leave us? For those of us who incorporate aspects of faith in our lives, it seems that a universal value is challenging ourselves to bear witness to the suffering of others. The golden rule doesn’t mean shit if you’re willfully blind to the pain and agony of people who don’t look like you or live your life’s circumstances.
One of the most insidious responses you see whenever a national tragedy occurs is a rush to tell people not to politicize it. The problem is that bearing witness — acknowledging other people’s pain and agony — cannot be separated from “politics.” If a central article of faith is to do unto others, you have to square that with recognizing how privilege, systemic bigotry, and structural violence is used over and over to hurt communities who have asked you to recognize injustice time and time again. You cannot do unto others unless you recognize what is being done to others. You cannot bear witness until you learn how to listen as much as you learn how to speak.
Categorised as: life