My contribution to Dale and K’lee’s Cosmic Photo Challenge: Up Close and Personal.
I’m still devastated by the shooting on Saturday at the Chabad Poway Synagogue in Southern California. This quote, copied from the New York Times, says it better than I can.
And yes, I have put this post under the category of Civil Rights because the first Amendment of the Constitution of the United States guarantees the free exercise of religion.
“This shooting is a reminder of the enduring virulence of anti-Semitism. It must serve as a call to action for us as a society to deal once and for all with this hate. People of all faiths should not have to live in fear of going to their house of worship. From Charleston to Pittsburgh to Oak Creek and from Christchurch to Sri Lanka, and now Poway, we need to say ‘enough is enough.'” —Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement.
Once again an attack of hatred has occurred in a house of worship. This time at the Poway Synagogue near San Diego, California. This shooting occurred exactly six months after a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
I don’t understand hatred. Especially hatred based on faith. Over the last few weeks the world has seen hate crimes perpetrated against people of all three of the Abrahamic faiths: Muslims, Christians and Jews. But it seems that antisemitism especially is once again rearing its monstrous head. I had not thought to see this level of hatred against Jews in my lifetime.
I was born not long after my father returned from helping to liberate France in WWII. I was raised as a child of a military officer, and growing up, almost every man I knew had served in the war. It wasn’t talked about much; most of those who served in the combat zones of WW II wanted to forget the trauma of their experiences. But as a result, I paid more attention than most children my age when the war was occasionally mentioned or when I studied WW II in school.
I first learned about the Holocaust in 8th grade American History. I couldn’t emotionally understand why anybody would try and annihilate 6 million people based solely on their religion. But I did understand that my father, and anyone else who had fought in Europe, had helped to put a stop to the Third Reich’s unfathomable mass killing machine.
This hatred and rage still does not make sense to me, many decades later. But having grown up in the shadow of WW II and knowing about the atrocities committed in both theaters of the war, I honestly thought that we, at least the countries who had participated in the war, had learned a lesson. I truly thought that “Never Again” had been inscribed on our souls.
I was, and am, apparently naive. Where has this burning hatred emerged form? I have some complicated philosophical theories that I won’t go into here. But I’m still heartsick and confused. Why do we hate at all? Why do we continue to terrorize and kill because of differences of faith? How has it once again come to this, that people need to fear when they walk into their houses of worship?
I have more posts in my head about the Charleston mass shooting, but I am finding them difficult and painful to write. Many of my thoughts are tangled and sorting through those tangles is taking time.
But at the moment I want to call attention to the fact that we need to honor two sets of victims of the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina: those who were murdered and those who survived.
We are good at remembering the dead. That is in part because of the horror we feel when we think about how nine innocent people were gunned down in a place of worship simply because they were black. We are also good at remembering the dead because we think the dead no longer require anything of us. Few things could be farther from the truth, but that is the subject of another post.
We are not so good at remembering the living. We have seen pictures of those who died, and have both read and heard their names many time. That makes it easier to think of them as individuals. Remembering the survivors of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church is more difficult. To begin with, most of us don’t even know, or can’t remember, how many survivors there were. I certainly didn’t. I had to look it up. According to the Wikipedia article, 4 other people were in the same room. Three were uninjured. The fourth was injured but survived. Unlike those who died, we have not seen these names listed multiple times, nor have we seen their pictures. This is as it should be. Their privacy should be both respected and honored. But it does make it harder for us to remember them as people. Harder to remember that they were each witnesses to something that no person should ever have to see or experience: the sight of friends and loved ones being gunned down at close range, and the horror of wondering if they were going to be the next to be killed. That is an experience they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. An experience that typically produces feelings of intense relief that their lives were spared, and also feelings of guilt that they are still alive and others are not.
We need to remember those four survivors, as well as Rev. Pinckney’s wife and daughter who were present in another room of the church during the shooting. It is harder to remember the survivors, but we must. We must continue to hold them in our thoughts and prayers because they have had unspeakable violence perpetrated against them as well. We need to continue to remember the living as well as the dead, and work harder than we have ever worked to reduce the racial hatred and violence that exists in our country. We need to learn to recognize ourselves in each other, no matter the color of our skin, so that terrorist acts against those who are different do not continue to repeat themselves. We need to do all of this not only to honor the dead, but to honor and remember the living.
It has been 3 weeks since the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In our modern world with our instantaneous social media and 24/7 news cycle, three weeks is a long time. Our various electronic devices ping and swoop and chime, constantly clamoring for our attention, each one urgently trying to convince us that something earth shattering has just happened. As often as not, we find out that the momentous event is only a picture of what a friend just ate for lunch. Then we move on to the next thing. We have become a nation with a very short attention span.
Our human brain can only hold a finite amount of recent information before it has to clean house and make room for more. And I’m afraid that our brains have already tidied up the clutter a number of times since the massacre in Charleston. We have moved on to more recent events: the US women’s team winning the World Cup, the fact that we need to remember to fill up the car with petrol on the way home from work, and Greece’s impending economic collapse, to name just a few. That makes me afraid that we will forget.
I’m afraid that we will forget the horror of a gunman entering a house of prayer and, with malicious intent, murdering 9 innocent people.
I’m afraid that we will forget how unconscionably easy it was for him to get a gun and ammunition for the sole purpose of ending 9 black lives.
I’m afraid that we will forget to look seriously at the societal factors that caused this young man to hold such violent hatred in his heart that he thought these 9 lives were of no account.
And we mustn’t. We must not forget these events, nor the hard conversations we must have so that we can face, and then work to change, the discrimination and violence so many still experience in this country.
We must, in fact, remember. Remember and understand the deep truth that President Obama expressed in his eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney when he said that “My liberty depends on you being free as well.”
We must remember, and continue to hold in our hearts, The Mother Emanuel 9:
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd
Ethel Lee Lance
Clementa C Pinckney
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.