You may have noticed that this column disappeared for a few weeks. The break in my writing had little to do with a lack of “fruit” to gather in this time: commentary abounded on the Orlando shooting, Brexit, Trump contra mundum, Clinton, and now these recent shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas, and Ballwin. Rather, I have found it hard to get my bearings in this less-than-quiet summer. Forgive me if I explain why.
In this week when America has been touched yet again by violence, two posts by Covenant colleagues especially caught my eye and expressed the range of emotions, as well as confusion and disconnect, that I and perhaps many others have been feeling. Esau McCaulley wrote “Alton Sterling, a son’s tears, and psalm 137: a lament” at Thicket of the Jordan.
What does it look like to reach the breaking point of orthodoxy? What does it look like to arrive at the place where the desire for reconciliation gives way to anger and resentment? It looks like a fifteen-year-old boy weeping uncontrollably over the death of his father. His tears and our anger are not new. The Psalms knew of such breaking and lament:
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:7–9)
Among other things, Esau added later: “For God’s sake let us weep for a while before being assaulted with calls for perspective and theological sophistication.”
I have been unwilling to write in the wake of a variety of events in the past few weeks because of my undigested horror, grief, and shame, knowing that I do not always speak well in such circumstances. As I have said before, teachers are held to a higher standard of speaking, and they must learn carefulness of speech (cf. James 3:5-6).
At the same time, I have to confess how easy it is simply to move past things, or become absorbed in my own life. In America, gun violence and racial inequality can feel so difficult to solve that we simply pass by: Congress faces yet another deadlock over assault weapons; we throw up our hands and move on. Or violence happens so frequently that it simply becomes the backdrop: we tilt toward despair.
For this reason, I was also struck by Stewart Clem’s post at Covenant this week, “Praying off-center with W.H. Auden.” He highlighted the issue of distance and numbness remarkably, tying it to Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking
For Auden, this was true of everything from the Nativity to the Massacre of the Innocents, but he anchors it in a specific tragedy.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
If I read him right, Stewart was not counseling a sort of blithe disregard for injustice or tragedy, but was recognizing our ability to ignore or move past tragedy, as time marches on:
I may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but I can pray. Yet I cannot pray unless I am attentive, and attentiveness requires openness to interruptions. I often have “somewhere to get to” and sail “calmly on,” but sometimes a splash in the ocean is not just a splash.
Such attentiveness in prayer is, I think, the best discipline for many of us: we must learn to focus hard on suffering and injustice in the world, to hear and to listen, to cry out and seek justice from the Lord. Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, the shootings in Dallas and Orlando — all these were no mere splash. Last December, I said
[I]t is precisely because I have an aversion to suffering that I draw nearer to the mystery of the Cross, to all our Lord’s sufferings, to the pain in his Body today, and to news about injustice around the world. I saw a recent meme that spoke of this dichotomy. One character said, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” We so often look away from news that we cannot bear. When a story of a mass shooting in America comes up, I want to look away. When another story about ISIS atrocities comes up, I want to look away. When the police needlessly kill or abuse another black man, I want to look away. When I pass a homeless person on the street, I want to look away. My desire to fight injustice is at odds with my desire to remain sane.
But the spiritual health and sanity of a Christian may look a little different from the well-preserved, undisturbed, and sanitized life that many affluent people now live. We are summoned to the foot of the Cross, just as much as we are summoned to struggle for justice.
What I was trying to say there resonates, I think, with what Fr. Tim Schenck was getting at this week over at Clergy Confidential with “Miranda Rights for White People.” If you’re white,
You have the right to remain silent.
You have the right to wait out the news cycle.
You have the right to maintain the status quo.
You have the right to temporarily change your profile picture on Facebook.
You have the right to keep those affected in your “thoughts and prayers.”
You have the right to support social justice issues from the comfort of your temperature-controlled living room.
You have the right to wear a colored ribbon in solidarity with the suffering.
You have the right not to sacrifice any of your personal privilege and still feel good about yourself.
You have the right to be let go with a warning.
You have the right to open carry a gun without being shot.
You have the right to wear a hoodie at night.
You have the right to interpret the Constitution to your advantage.
You have the right to think the Civil Rights Movement is over.
You have the right to a well-paid, three-piece suit-wearing attorney who will get you a slap on the wrist and a knowing nod from a judge who understands “youthful indiscretion.”
If you cannot afford an attorney … hahahaha, yeah right.
Do you understand your rights?
But I’d add a bit to that, in the wake of the Dallas shootings: many of us do the same thing with attacks on cops. We don’t worry about violence against law enforcement because we take for granted that they will be there. There is little solidarity.
Sometimes our silence and lack of action result from complete horror or rage. We can only lament. Sometimes they are simply a part of our nature, our physicality and temporality, as Stewart noted. But sometimes, both are a result of our privileged position. Quite simply, many of us can move on and be quiet; the world need not change for us.
But if we are attentive to our world and attentive in our prayers, we cannot simply be quiet as gun violence, racial inequality, and social division tear apart our church and our nations. Each part of the body must learn to grieve with the other, and to extend healing and comfort and zeal.
As we prayed in Psalm 39:3-4, set for Friday: “I kept silence, yea, even from good words; but it was pain and grief to me. My heart was hot within me: and while I was thus musing the fire kindled, and at the last I spake with my tongue.” Let us not hold back the Lord’s “loving mercy and truth from the great congregation” (Ps. 40:13).
We cannot imagine that our task is easy, nor that everyone will agree with us. But we must remember to hope in the Lord as we turn to these social ills. As our brother Esau said:
It disappoints our Christian brothers and sisters who are deeply asleep and only want us to speak about the saving of souls, not the rescue of black bodies. So today, and for many days to come, we will again weep. I place no restrictions on our mourning. But in the end, we will remember that our God, through a tremendous act of love, has overcome the world. In the end, despite ourselves, we continue to hope.
A series of other pieces caught my attention this week. Here they are, in no particular order.
- “A White Woman Fighting For Her Son, A Black Boy,” Akreinking (July 7).
- “On Alton Sterling and why I will always film police interactions with people of color,” Rage Against the Minivan (July 7).
- “Again,” Snakes and Ladders (July 7).
- “American Tragedy,” A Word from the Bishop: Episcopal Diocese of Dallas (July 7).
- Jon Stewart on law enforcement and police overreach.
- Some photos of the protest from photographer Richard Hill appeared at The American Conservative.
- “Crying out, Reaching Out: A Statement by Bishop Greg Brewer,” The Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida (July 8).
The featured image comes via Joe Brusky. It is licensed under Creative Commons.