We Are Who We Are

I’m proud of my president tonight. I can’t always say that, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but I’m proud of him tonight. He (finally) said some challenging things in a challenging time. In fact, I would say that tonight he was not just a president, but a prophet, calling the country to account. And, sadly, he was also a prophet in that he made a prediction about the future which is pretty much guaranteed to come true: that this won’t be the last time he has to make a statement after a massacre.

I’m also proud of President Obama for calling for common-sense gun laws. I agree, particularly in the realm of gun-safety education. The trouble is, I’m fearful. I’m fearful that no such law will ever pass this particular Congress—or any Congress, really, because I fear there will always be at least forty senators who owe more to the National Rifle Association than they owe to their consciences, and four or five Supreme Court justices who often distrust or outright despise government interference in general, and these days that’s enough to halt any law in this country.

But I also have a more direct fear: I’m worried for the president’s life. He’s already said enough that will make certain people want to kill him. If, by some miracle, he managed to get a gun-control law passed before he left office, I’m convinced that he would be attacked, possibly repeatedly, quite possibly by very well-trained men. Many would be killed. The president himself might be killed.

And we already know what the attackers would say to explain themselves, don’t we?

“He was reaching for my gun.”

After all, we know what happens to black men in this country who even appear to be trying to take a gun away from someone, even when said gun is pointed straight at their heads.

Friends, here’s the heart of my fear and the heart of the problem: this is America. We live and die by the gun. The Second Amendment exists because many of the founders of this nation were afraid—afraid that the people they had enslaved would rise up in revolt, afraid that the people they had taken the land from would come to take it back, afraid that the new government they were actually forming at the moment would turn tyrannical. After all, they’d just fought a war against a government that had done just that. Thus our country came into existence by violence, and by violence alone, in at least three different ways. And it was maintained by violence: for all the rhetoric and eloquence of our governmental system, the enslaved Africans and the disinherited First Nations were not persuaded by it. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to suggest that political violence was necessary. And so the Second Amendment legalized the tools to make all that violence possible.

This nation was then shaped by violence; for all that I admire President Lincoln, he was willing to kill to keep the country intact. Then, after a gun took him from us, guns rewrote his legacy, too, disenfranchising the newly-emancipated black people of this land. A reign of violence kept people of color powerless—be it the KKK attacking black families, the Texas Rangers attacking Hispanics in the southwest, or the US Army itself bludgeoning the First Nations to death. Guns and violence took US power around the world and built us an empire—an empire we still maintain, in altered form, with our global military presence. President Obama himself has used violence against his enemies extensively, even when the drone-strike program has left so many innocent dead (along with some judged guilty, but not judged so by means of a trial). And, of course, the United States was the inventor of the biggest weapons possible, the atomic and hydrogen bombs.

We are who we are.

Why will now be any different?

Dr. King—almost exactly a year before he, too, was shot and killed—explained it best. Speaking in 1967, he described going around the country to speak with black rioters in Watts, in Detroit, and in scores of other places. He told them they shouldn’t be using violence to get what they wanted. “But Dr. King,” (he recounted them saying) “what about Vietnam?” And he understood at last that we use violence to get what we want, or to feel just a little bit safer, all the time. Every damn day we use violence, be it yet another case of domestic assault or yet another cop killing yet another black kid or yet another US military op dropping bombs somewhere else in the world. Every damn day.

I’m proud of my president. I’ll stand with him, if he pushes to get a law passed. But the trouble is, he’s treating gun violence as if it were a cancer. As if with the right bone-marrow transplant we could cure ourselves of this. But every era in our history makes it plain that this is not a fluke. It is what it is, and we are who we are. Until we come to grips with the complicated history of violence that has brought us to this state, blood will still be shed.

Guns aren’t a cancer in our bones. They are our bones.

Can a country cut out its own bones?

Occasionally we’ve started to—the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow—but we wouldn’t finish the job, and we wouldn’t even start until we saw Emmett Till lying in his coffin and Medgar Evers lying in his driveway. And even then we still looked away, from the crimes and from their causes. We refuse to look, and refuse to admit what we’ve done. How could we let someone kill a man like Dr. King? Well, because we’ve already let thousands of people like him die, before and since, because we looked away, and lied the American lie that “It can’t happen here.” We are well-trained in separating causes from their effects.

The first step of the cure is not to look away. God knows it will hurt, and fixing the problem will hurt even more, because the second step is actually admitting what we’ve done, which will burn our lips to ash. And then it’s on to the pain of Step Three… cutting out one’s own bones is not an easy process. But if this is who we are, and we want to be somebody else, then that’s what we’ll have to do.

I was always taught that we Americans could grow up to be anything. Can we grow up to be people who do not look away?

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Ferguson Queries

As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.

For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.

As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late: Continue reading

The Problem of Evil

For centuries, theologians have wrestled with a simple problem. If there is a god, then that god would have to be all-powerful and all-knowing; any limitations would make such a being less than divine. But if there is such a being, and that being is loving and merciful, then why do terrible events befall the world? Surely a powerful and loving god would step in and do something. I feel, however, that (with apologies to the Bard) “the fault is not in our gods, but in ourselves.” The worst evil and the darkest disaster, such as the storm that has just pounded the Philippines flat and left death and desolation in its wake, is not the fault of any god above, nor necessarily the fault of the lack of such a god, but due to our own inaction. Edmund Burke probably never said “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” But my point remains regardless. If there is evil in the world, it is because we allow it.

Longtime readers will remember, however, that I am not concerned with the proof of God. I will not try to prove the existence of the divine, nor will I try to argue against it. It is, quite simply, not my issue. I don’t care if God exists, though I believe that the Holy Spirit is real—God or not, my actions would be the same. So why am I, so resolutely dedicated to the here-and-now world, addressing a theological debate? I do so because there are real lessons in the discussion for believers and doubters alike. Continue reading

Senseless?

Last week the flags were at half-mast again. I am beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t just leave them down all the time.

With the half-mast flags come the attempts at explanation. But the attempts usually fail: “Senseless,” cry the papers. “Mindless,” declare the TV anchors. Investigators digging for “clues” to the “motives” assure us that we may never truly know why such things happen. Regarding the latest incident, the Seattle Times opined: “The shooter in Oak Creek, Wis., took six lives and wounded three others in a mindless display of firepower fueled by a motive he surely cannot articulate.”

Oh? It seems to me that his message was “Kill the brown people.” Wouldn’t you say he delivered that message well? Continue reading

The Last Judgment of the USA

Then the people of the United States were brought before Christ, and were divided in two, the sheep and the goats, and the goats were placed at his left hand. And he said to them, “You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and you did not cure me, in prison and you did not visit me.” And they all answered, “When was this precisely, Lord?”

And he told them:

“Whenever you drove past East St. Louis or around Watts, and did not stop; whenever you passed over Gary or avoided the South Side; whenever you ignored Baltimore or the Bronx, stayed away from Philly’s heart, fled DC at nightfall. Continue reading

Suspicious

Students at Howard University put out this video in response to Trayvon Martin’s tragic death. I strongly encourage you to watch it, because of its powerful refrain: young men on their way to careers in history and law put on “hoodies” — like the one I’m wearing right now — and say, “Do I look suspicious?”

And my gut response, my immediate reaction, no matter what I tried to stop myself was, “Yes. Yes you do.” Because I’m white, they’re black, and I’m racist. Continue reading

Righteous Among the Nations

There is a dark place in Washington, DC, and not one of the ones you might be thinking of. I mean a place that is physically dark as well as metaphorically, a place with black walls and low light, and terrible things on display: the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is an intentionally oppressive and uncomfortable place, where visitors walk through the records of death.

There is, however, a literal bright spot: a white wall, well-lit, standing out from the gloom. It is the list of rescuers, the “Righteous Among the Nations” as honored by Yad Vashem: the ones who risked their lives to save the Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They were listed by country. I found a few familiar names quickly: Raoul Wallenberg among Sweden’s contingent, for instance. Then I looked for Denmark.

Denmark, after all, had one of the more remarkable rescue efforts of the Holocaust. The Germans had let Denmark be, to a great extent; the Jews had not even been required to wear the hated yellow star. This unfortunately means that the legend of King Christian X wearing the star in solidarity is apocryphal, although elsewhere in Europe non-Jews did put on stars in protest. But eventually the Holocaust reached Denmark, too. Continue reading