Three enormous issues come together in the slaying of nine black church members at Emmanuel AME in Charleston: Guns, mental illness, and race.
Why the U.S.A. has its particular gun culture is complicated at best and frankly mysterious to me. The role of weapons in our history is not that different from the rest of the Americas – conquering indigenous peoples, fighting wars, hunting, self-defense. But rates of gun violence are highly disproportionate to other countries with similar economic, governmental, and societal security. Views on how to curb the violence differ dramatically. Yet our very inability to talk about the options, much less take significant action and see what the results are, is deeply entrenched.
Mental illness is another subject we scarcely understand or talk about, still shrouded in shame and misunderstanding. Fear of stigma makes us reticent to share our own experiences of mental illness, in ourselves or our families. Privacy regulations intended to protect individual dignity end up reinforcing stigma. Even when we see things in friends that seem out of character or unhealthy, we hesitate to speak up, to get involved. We detach exactly when connections, relationships, and help are most needed. While it is uncertain yet just what role mental illness played in Dylann Roof’s action, such deep-seated hatred does not flourish in happy, healthy persons. Friends noticed a clear shift in him in recent months, but felt unable, unsure, or unwilling to act.
And then there’s race, the subject we can all talk around but is so uncomfortable for most whites to address directly. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo uses the term “White Fragility” to describe whites’ inability to tolerate racial stress, and demonstrates how our social setting insulates us even from racial awareness. We are racially comfortable and have developed an unexamined expectation to remain so. As Dr. Jennifer Harvey explained during her keynote addresses to the Minnesota Conference UCC Annual Meeting in June, even “good liberal Christian whites” prefer the story of racial reconciliation and are ignorant of its failings. We do not dwell deep enough, long enough, with the painful parts of racial tensions and injustices, some of which result directly from premature reconciliation. In her book Dear White Christians, Harvey advocates that we replace the reconciliation paradigm as we have understood and exercised it, with a paradigm of repentance and reparation (think of reparation not simply as “direct cash payments” but more as actions – and yes, money – that repair a broken society).
(FYI, both DiAngelo and Harvey identify as white.)
We have a lot of conversing to do – a lot of listening to do, a lot of honest sharing and digging deeper, a lot of learning. We have a lot of DOING to do – shaping policies, engaging in already-established programs, creating new opportunities and expectations, all to form a society that looks a little more like what Jesus had in mind in using that phrase “the kingdom of God.” Guns, mental illness, and especially race: conversations we need to have NOW, issues that need action NOW.
First, however, let us honor those whose lives were taken from them, through the power of naming names:
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd Tywanza Sanders
Susie Jackson Rev. Daniel Simmons
Ethel Lance Myra Thompson
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Long after we are able to recall any of these names, may we honor them with our actions to transform ourselves and our world into the realm of justice, compassion, abundance and mercy that God intends.