“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).” And so does The Teacher, Prof. Jennifer Harvey from Drake University, remind us that – contrary to common belief and popular media – that the violence that so saturates our discourse and our Facebook feeds is no new thing, that there was never a “better time” in “days of old.” The question is, then, how do we respond as these incarnate, systemic evils become harder and harder to ignore? Read, comment, and share, friends.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
The stories we tell about trauma and horror matter. We use them to explain and make sense out of the inexplicable and nonsensical. Stories are interpretations that make claims about why things are the way they are. In turn, they give directives about what responses are required of us. Stories have intense moral and spiritual power.
So, if you are still reeling from Orlando, as I am, I want to invite you into a story. It’s less a story about Orlando than it is a story for Orlando. It’s also a story for Charleston and for Tamir Rice, for Sandra Bland, for Jamar Clark, for the people of Flint and for so very many others.
When Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, Anthea Butler wrote about American Exceptionalism. This is the notion, of course, that the United States is innately good and is characterized by a commitment to equality. It permeates the U.S.-American psyche with a deep-seated belief that “liberty and justice for all” is core to “who we really are.”
One result of American Exceptionalism is the baptism of virtually anything the U.S. does as, by definition, good and just. But Butler revealed others that have to do with exceptionalism’s racial and religious core.
Historically, American Exceptionalism was built on the belief that the U.S. was called into existence and given its mandates by God; who is always with “us.” And the “us” has always meant white/Euro-descended people, for exceptionalism has especially been generative fuel for projects that are deeply racialized. These projects include everything from the work to create a nation-state out of an “uncivilized” and “empty” land-mass (both adjectives deadly lies), to articulate an expansionist rationale for pushing beyond borders and across oceans (the war with Mexico, occupation in the Philippines, overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii and on).
The superiority of “the Anglo-Saxon race” is not invoked explicitly and with the regularity with which it was in the first hundred or so years that Manifest Destiny wed American Exceptionalism with white supremacy (although Donald Trump’s rhetoric comes very close to doing so). But, the presumption of white dominance and the assumption that a religiously-inflected whiteness is the heart of U.S.-American identity remain powerful to this day.
It’s in this context we need to pay attention to a prevalent story being told about Orlando. The story goes something like this: “Dear god! What has this nation become? How could things have gotten this bad?”
This story interprets the present as erupting with violence at levels we’ve never before experienced. It infers the existence of a past, therefore, that was better.
This story emerges from real grief and I confess that I am tempted mightily by it. I share a sense that somehow things have gotten worse. And, yes, I think I may be more personally frightened now than I have ever been.
But while I empathize for the reasons this story is compelling, I remain clear it must be resisted.
First of all, by looking backwards and presuming there exists for us a less violent, less scary past from which we can draw in our grief this story falls far too easily into the following call-and-response pattern. Question: “what have we become?” Response: we must return to something that existed before and “. . . make America great again!”
Of course, the version of reality and aspirations for this nation endorsed by Trump and his supporters are radically different than are those held by folks grieving Orlando in the terms I’m describing here. Still, it’s critical to recognize how similar and dangerous is any logic rooted in backward yearning for a mythical past; especially when we do so as a way to summon the moral courage to face the present and change the future.
emilie m. townes insists that the only way we tell the truth and can arrive to a place of genuine hope is by first lamenting well. We must lament with specificity, clarity, and authenticity all that is wrong, she says. If we do not, we languish in our search for “paradise in a world of theme parks.”
The backward-looking story about Orlando simply erases too much. Just how much was captured in a tweet someone shared the day after the massacre. It went something like this: “Orlando, the worst shooting massacre in U.S. history . . . that is, since Wounded Knee.”
A similar story took hold last year. When nine Black Christians were massacred at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston I heard many white U.S.-Americans—people who, after Michael Brown was killed and Ferguson erupted in resistance, were suddenly becoming more aware than we had ever been of the epidemic of killing of African Americans by police—express grief and horror in this way: How have things gotten this bad for Blacks in America? What have we become?
Forgotten? Endless anti-black killing—from massacres in Wilmington, North Carolina and Rosewood, Florida to the 41-bullet assasination of Amadou Diallo by the NYPD. Erased from white collective national memory? Foundational stories about from whence the power and wealth that built this nation actually came and the epidemic violence (never redressed) through which it was, and is, secured.
As Butler put it “Sure, America is exceptional. Exceptionally racist, and exceptionally violent.” I doubt she would object to an expanding the lament to clarify the intersectionality of U.S. violence: “Sure America is exceptional. Exceptionally racist, homophobic, misogynist.”
Orlando and Charleston—worse than before? Exceptional? Unique from who we actually are and an aberration from our core character as nation?
I don’t think so. I reject this story and the partial, truth-less lament on which it stands.
Instead, I invite you into a different story for Orlando. This story begins like this: “Dear god! This present is our past. We have been living with this racial-religious violence for such a very, very long time.”
It continues with a lament that names the connections among the horrors of 49 people killed and hundreds injured and terrorized this June, the nine people massacred last June, and the so much that has come before and between:
- Orlando and Charleston were atrocities committed in spaces of sacred, sanctuary for these respective groups (club and church)—there is no refuge;
- the ever, always deep entanglements of white supremacy and christianity in this land persist (let the white queer folk not forget that the queer folk killed at Pulse were Latinx and Black!; let the Christian folk not forget that genocidal violence against African-descended peoples, indigenous peoples and Latinx peoples both U.S.-born and immigrant have always been as religiously driven/defended/justified as has been the hatred of lgbt folks that same tradition has spawned and sustained);
- the murderous violence of lone gunmen (whether in police uniform or not) against black and brown bodies—queer, heterosexual, old, young, religious and not—is the same murderous violence committed by governmental officials who pour poison into the drinking water of these same of black, brown and indigenous bodies in a myriad of places on this land-base (as we recoil at the body counts, we must see all the bodies and the diverse, relentless ways atrocities against them continue);
- that Orlando and Charleston and the so very many others are of the same cloth.
None of this violence is exceptional to who “we” are as a nation. It lies directly at the at the heart of who we really are and have always been.
This remains a story for Orlando, however, because, it is not a story of despair. A specific, clear, authentic, and truth-full wailing lament, that names all that is wrong and the ways these wrongs are connected is necessary. But it is not the end point. Truthful lament becomes a source of genuine hope.
For if and as we confess that we have recourse to a better past, then perhaps we may be liberated in the realization that we have no choice but to seek out and to create, radically different ground from which to summon moral vision and courage to commit to a radically different future.
This is a story of deep pain, yes. But it is not a story of despair.
So, if you are determined to continue to search for paradise, as I am, I invite you to root in the deep connections and intersections between Orlando, Charleston and the so very many more.
As Vincent Harding put it: “It is easy for us to forget that you cannot be an empire and a compassionate community at the same moment. You have to make a choice. We are now in a time when we must choose. It takes courage and wisdom and insight to ask ourselves: ‘Who do we want to be?”
It’s time to choose. Fierce love wards off despair, because fierce love removes despair as an option (ask any parent). Meanwhile we know, because Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, that the public and political expression of love is work for justice. Action.
So, it’s time to choose. Again.
It’s time to choose love and justice. Again.
And the good news is that in so many places and among so many peoples these choices are already—have never ceased to be—being made. And so, a story for Orlando means it’s time, again, to continue to walk.
Jennifer Harvey is Professor of Religion at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her teaching, writing and public speaking focus on encounters of religion and ethics with race, gender, activism, politics, spirituality, justice and any other aspect of social life in which religion decides to “show up.” Her greatest passion and longtime work, however, continually return to racial justice and white anti-racism.
Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Wm. B. Eerdmans) is Dr. Harvey’s most recent book. She publishes widely in academic contexts as well as in a variety of public venues including the Huffington Post, Feminist Studies in Religion Blog and at her own blog formations. living at the intersections of self, social, spirit.
Dr. Harvey is ordained in the American Baptist Churches (U.S.A.) and travels the country speaking with faith communities, educators as well as activist groups about the challenges to be faced and frameworks needed to create robust multi-racial solidarity for justice.