Two and a half weeks ago, I wrote about singing at the memorial service of an elderly friend. A week after that memorial, I sang with 30 other people for a friend’s wedding. The wedding was glorious: a full church with both families present, wonderfully chosen organ and choral music, and palpable love and joy that were filling the church and spilling out of the doors. Both services, spaced exactly a week apart, were celebrations of life. The first was a celebration of the memories of a long life, fully lived. This second service, which occurred two weeks ago, was the celebration of a loving couple, starting their life together.
But here’s the thing. Until a week ago, with the United States Supreme Court’s ruling making same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, there were still 13 states in which my friend would not be legally married. Because he is gay. Because he married a man. Because he now has a husband. Because of this, all of us had been looking forward to the wedding. It would give us a chance to witness, and participate in, a celebration of equality.
And then just two days before my friend’s wedding, the mass shooting happened in Charleston, South Carolina at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. A shooting in which nine innocent people were killed. Some politicians tried to put a spin on it by saying that it was an attack on Christians. Their statements are insulting, and make me incredibly angry. The shooter targeted the members of Emanuel AME Church not because they were Christian, but because they were black. It was a hate crime.
The mass shooting in Charleston is particularly painful because for us in the United States, it evokes the memories of other hate crimes. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, in which 6 little girls were killed, and 22 others injured. The shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in which 6 people were killed, and 4 injured. The murder of Larry King, a 15 year old 8th grade student who was shot in the back of the head during a computer class by a fellow student who was 14. He was killed in school because he was openly gay.
These are just the sensational events. The ones that make the news. The reality is that more subtle acts of violent discrimination occur every single day. We just don’t hear about them. What kind of society do we live in, in which such acts of bigotry and hatred continue to occur?
Part of the answer is that we live in a country in which discrimination is endemic. African American slaves existed in Jamestown, one of the earliest American colonies. Even before that, as the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World, their psychological dominance and superior weapons enabled them to enslave the indigenous population. This is the part of our early history that we don’t like to talk about, especially on the 4th of July. It is true that our country was, and is, founded on noble principles. But if we are serious about “Liberty and Justice for all,” as we say in our Pledge of Allegiance, then we must grapple with the fact that freedom and justice have existed for some at the expense of others, for as far back as our history takes us.
Discrimination and its inherent inequality is our country’s demon. It’s the monster in the closet that no one talks about. And if it is talked about, the conversation often goes something like this:
“There’s a monster in my closet.”
“I know you’re scared of that monster, but it will be alright. It will go away if you just ignore it.”
The trouble is, the monster doesn’t go away. Not as long as it is left in the closet. Especially if the closet is locked and boarded up so that the monster has no way to get out. But letting the monster out of the closet will force us to face our fear. And so we keep the monster out of sight and try to forget that it is there.
I am a survivor of childhood violence, and I tried to keep my own monster stuffed down, out of sight, and locked up for years and years. I thought the best thing I could do was to just get on with my life. But finally the internal havoc wreaked by trying to keep that monster under lock and key was so great that I had to let it out and engage it. That process sometimes brought me to the extreme edges of pain and I often wondered how I would be able to keep going. I know the devastation violence can bring to a life, and the tremendous effort it takes to move toward imperfect healing and forgiveness. But you can’t do any of that until you let the monster out.
I also am a woman of faith, and my faith calls me to be a fierce fighter for dignity and justice. A society is made up of people, and people are messy. Each society has it’s own history, and histories are messy. We are complex social creatures. We want life to be simple. We fear change. We fear shifts of power. This attitude is not bad of itself: it contributes to our survival. But fear can cause us to do terrible things, hateful things. And we must not let it.
We are more than our fear. We are beings who can also embody love, hope, forgiveness and grace. President Obama gave the eulogy at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, the Pastor of Emmanuel AME Church. In it, he talked about grace. Amazing grace that can come both from God and from each other. He cites the grace of the families who lost loved ones, and goes on to say that by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace. He talks about how we need to make changes in our laws so that we can curtail the carnage of gun violence. He challenges us to talk and to work openly to end the systemic prejudices of our society that result in ruined lives that are absent of hope. He reminds us that as we fight for dignity and justice for everyone, we embody God’s grace.
But that embodiment can be difficult. It requires commitment. Grace is not some amorphous sense of contentment that makes us feel good. The embodiment of grace requires action. We have to act in order to let the monster out of the closet. It won’t get out by itself. That action can be both painful and terrifying. But slowly we will discover that letting the monster out opens us up to grace. We will learn that the pain and fear can sometimes crack us open so that grace can pour in.
Below you can listen to President Obama calling us to let that grace into our lives so that we can bring freedom and liberty to all. And then remember the victims of the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel Church. I can think of no better tribute to our great country on the 4th of July than to commit ourselves to not let their deaths be in vain.
Photogrpah courtesy of the author. First appeared in Zebra’s Child, July 4, 2015.