Continuing our series of posts from LGBTQ authors, in our next blog post we hear from theologian Dr. Laurel Schneider – Professor of Religious Studies, and Religion and Culture at Vanderbilt University – and her thoughts on the fraught intersection between public tragedy and public grief. Where as Dr. Sneed was forthright with his suspicion towards reforming corrupt systems, with systematized incredulity Dr. Schneider, with systematized incredulity, reminds us that tragedy is tragedy and death is death and that taking a salacious or self-interested view of it does more than confuse the public, it also distorts the grieving process and keeps every wound (new and old) from healing. Please read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
It was just one year ago that nine folk were gathered for bible study and welcomed a young stranger among them, a stranger who sat quietly with them reading the Bible, and then shot them all, just because they were Black. Ten days ago it was a stranger who walked into a gay club in Orlando, when June’s pride weeks across the country gather us in dancing and flamboyant celebration of our whole selves, pulled out an Sig Sauer MCX and killed 49 people. Both times the motivation was clear enough: race hatred in one and homo-aggression in the other (thanks to Valerie Bridgeman for that lexical improvement. As Morgan Freeman put it colorfully “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia, you are not scared, you are an a$%$&#*.”)
There is the tragedy and horror of these killings – even those words do not adequately convey the fresh ripping tear in the fabric of our human community, the slamming punch to our daily work at racial and gender justice, the grief, overwhelming grief, that we feel for each person in those blood-soaked rooms, for each friend of each of them, for each mother, father, and child of each of them, for each of us, connected to them by so many threads of identity, hope, and shared precious, fragile, life. And death.
And then the media industry stuns us in its amnesic mad rush to capture a mad moment. As each family doubles over in the searing pain of the loss of their one, their only, the news industry races to make this massacre into a numbers game, a competition with other killings, declaring over and over in the 48 hours following that, as NBC put it (like ABC, CNN, NPR, and CBS) this “massacre early Sunday morning at an Orlando nightclub is the deadliest single-day mass shooting in the modern history of the United States.”
The immediate and almost universal dissemination of this declaration by all of the major news outlets is evidence of their hunger for hyperbole, but revealing of the way history is produced, digested, and closed in this country. Big events, it seems, can only be about one thing. The Orlando massacre was about hatred of gay people. And gay people, it seems, are not themselves complex in racial, ethnic, class, and gender terms (the majority of those killed that Sunday night were Latino/a, by the way.) What makes the Orlando killings “deadliest?” What about the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of at least 250 but possibly 300 Lakota men, women, and children? The Gatling guns certainly made it modern. It all happened in a few hours of thorough and relentless automatic gunfire surrounding the encampment of families. One day. When there are at least 250 murdered, what makes “deadliest” not apply?
Not to mention 1917 in East St. Louis when labor strikes gave white vigilantes the excuse they needed to massacre hundreds of black members of the neighborhood.
Or 1864 in Sand Creek, when a Methodist pastor who opposed slavery nevertheless saw no reason not to lead a troop in to slaughter and mutilate an entire village of Cheyenne.
Or the 1919 massacre of black families in Elaine, Arkansas, Tulsa in 1921,
or Rosewood in 1921.
All of these were swift and horrifying. All of them mass killings.
None of them white communities.
The blatant amnesia of racially motivated massacres in American history is heart-stopping. NPR came out with a statement in defense of its declaration, agreeing with Grant Duwe that “a shooting that takes place in a public place and does not involve another crime like robbery’ [makes] what happened in Orlando the deadliest of the 178 public mass shootings Duwe has counted since the early 1900s.”
Why is this distinction so important to NPR?
Why defend this macabre “best of”?
There is an offensive parsing going on of what “counts” as massacre in the aftermath of Orlando’s horror, and there appears to be a thinly veiled will – conscious or not — to discount murderous racism in that effort. A “single-day shooting” of gay club-goers, of church bible studiers, of school children, of villagers, the wiping out of whole neighborhoods, the rampage of racist bigots against a group of people who have committed no crime — or even have committed some crimes that do not suit the punishment — all seems the same to me. The difference may be mob violence vs. individual violence, but as the still-grievous massacre in Charleston one year ago showed us, mob violence has become individual with the capacity of the internet to inspire and goad – the virtual pitchforks, torches, and burning crosses line up behind the murderers as surely as Rev. Chivington’s troop lined up behind him at Sand Creek, just before they rushed in to slaughter. And maybe there’s a difference between Orlando and the – what was it? –178 mass killings in the United States since the early 1900s? — that deserves mention on the back page having to do with the capacity of individuals to carry mass-destruction guns under their coats (can’t do that with a Gatling gun).
THAT distinction makes some narrow, pedantic, sense, but completely misses the point, in my view.
If we want to grant to Orlando some kind of record, then make it accurate and historically relevant, like “a single-day massacre carried out by one individual in the anniversary week of the single-day massacre in a Black church” or something like that.
What does size matter when people are being gunned down?
Dr. Laurel Schneider is a scholar of modern and postmodern Christian thought, trained in gender theory, and sociology of religion. She is interested in intersectional questions of identity, meaning and divinity as they pertain to contemporary political and social questions of justice and liberation. Race, sexuality, culture, narrative, poetics, and colonial history cannot be separated in the make-up of persons, societies, or religions as if strands in a rope. Rather, identities and ideas—especially religious identities and ideas—come into being in the relationship. Her books have explored the limits of traditional dogmatic approaches to religious questions in the Christian tradition, introducing potential openings and movement from other sources.