By: Greg Williams
“Lord God, merciful God, our Father, shall we keep silent, or shall we speak? And if we speak, what shall we say?” – Dorothy Day, January 1942
FRIDAY—THE BARE FACTS AND THE CHURCH’S RESPONSE
This is going to be a very difficult piece to write and, in all honesty, I do not know if I am going to do a very good job. The region where I live has, in the past few months, witnessed two very heinous acts of violence that were prominently covered in the mainstream media. On December 14 of last year, twenty children and six teachers were gunned down in a school shooting in Newton, CT. Yesterday, three people were killed and 126 wounded when two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Both of these events are horrific and inexcusable. As followers in Jesus’ way of peacemaking and justice-seeking, I do believe that we are called to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) and to “persevere in prayer” (12:8). In this light, how could we, the Church, not respond to tragedies like these by holding services of commemoration to mourn the loss of life involved in these events? How can we not pray for the dead, the injured and those still in harm’s way? These are, on one level, profoundly understandable responses.
Yet, speaking only for myself, I see something else in the response to both of these events in communities to which I belong that I find a lot more troubling.
We are not only commemorating these events, we are collectivizing them. We are going beyond saying that the Newtown school shooting and the Boston marathon bombing are traumas--which they are—to the point of saying that they are our traumas. Facebook memes are abounding encouraging people to hug their kids or drop f-bombs about the levels of evil in the world and the like—things that one would normally do not to sympathize with another person but rather to express grief for one’s own loss. In Church, we are singing songs like “I Want Jesus to Walk with me” and “How Can I Keep from Singing?” songs that express a personal sense of grief and loss.
This isn’t compassion or solidarity. This isn’t reaching out in love to others who are suffering. So what is it?
Many people on the radical left—where I locate myself—want to respond to these events in one of two ways. One thing that they will do is to point out the underreporting of other tragedies. After Newtown, friends and authors justifiably asked “why isn’t there this much media coverage when young, low income people of color are killed by gun violence in Newhallville or Dixwell,” neighborhoods in my city like other neighborhoods across the United States where racism, income inequality, police brutality and the criminal injustice system are conspiring to gun down children every day. Many of the same folks are now encouraging us to remember that, on the same day as the Boston bombing, explosions also tore apart limbs and lives in Iraq and Syria.
The other response among radicals is to point to systemic causes. Within an hour of Newtown hitting the media, memes were circulating on facebook calling for stricter gun controls. Somewhat braver souls are now venturing to point out that, if the Boston marathon bombing was a terrorist attack (and, as I write this, it is not yet clear that it was), that it is the inevitable response of some to an ongoing (and infinitely deadlier) campaign of terrorism being carried out by the American state.
For the sake of full disclosure, I will confess that this is the direction that I was first tempted to move in. My first response, upon hearing the news, was to remember what Rev. Jeremiah Wright told us after 11 September: “now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is going on in our own front yards . . . Violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism!”
These are good ways to start to think through what is going on, but they are inadequate, in my view, precisely because they do not address the difference between commemorating and collectivizingtrauma. It is all too easy to fall into either a cheap radicalism of “my tragedy is worse than your tragedy” or an easy liberalism that simply takes the existing news coverage, adds a coma and inserts other issues and events.
None of this addresses the issue that I am trying to raise here: if Newtown and Boston are not only traumas but OUR TRAUMAS, who is the “we” or the “us” in this equation?
SATURDAY—COLLECTIVE VICTIMHOOD AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF WHITENESS
I want to raise the difficult and frightening idea that the “we or “us” to whom tragedies like Newtown and Boston are deemed to be communal traumas is the collective “we” of white America.
In the case of Newtown this process was somewhat more apparent, first of all because the shooting occurred at a relatively affluent and predominantly white school. Of the twenty children killed in the shooting, nineteen where white. But even the internet memes and news coverage of the Boston bombing has focused largely on white suffering. On the other side of the equation, almost nothing was made of the race of Adam Lanza, the Newtown Shooter. Much was made of the possibility that he was mentally ill. No such discourse has surrounded the man being held in connection with the attack on the Boston Marathon. In the news, he is only described as “a 20 year old Saudi man,” emphasizing the fact of his race.
As a dear friend of mine remarked today, “when white people commit acts of violence, they are crazy. When brown people commit acts of violence they are terrorists.”
I do not have space here, nor do I think it would be helpful, to systematically go through the news coverage generated in the last twenty four hours, or several months ago, and do an academic analysis. What I am putting down on paper here is a set of personal observations, not something I make any claim to have systematically proven. But here it is, in a nutshell.
I believe that the victims of the Newtown School Shooting and the Boston Marathon Bombing are being set up by our collectivization of the trauma of these events as martyrs to white identity and white privilege.
In collectivizing the trauma of these events, we have set up an “us” that I believe is implicitly coded as being white in a number of ways. There is, first, the focus on events that primarily affect white people. But there are also subtler dynamics too. One of the biggest is the way that these particular victims are conceived of as “innocent” and the violence as “senseless.” Have you ever noticed how, when a white person of a certain age is killed, that person is referred to as a “child” (read: innocent) but when a person of color of the same age is killed, that person is referred to as a “youth” (read: reckless, irresponsible, living on the edge)?
Our collectivization of grief and trauma also sets up an implicitly racialized, threatening “them.” If these particular acts of violence are not only tragic but against US, then we are called to feel threatened by “crazy, senseless” people (read people of color) against whom we have to defend ourselves. Whenever a Newtown or a Boston happens, the President always pledges to “hunt down” the guilty party.
Sometimes, this collective energy is leveraged in relatively positive ways. After Newtown, it was used to push for stricter gun control laws that will probably save lives. But it is also extremely dangerous, precisely because, in setting up a pure, innocent, martyred, collectively traumatized and implicitly white “us,” we create the conditions necessary for extreme violence against the senseless, raging, violent, collectively othered and implicitly black or brown “them.” We saw after September 11, 2001, a frighteningly quick move from “we are all New Yorkers” to a “crusade” that has lasted more than ten years and killed, in its first few days, more civilians than were killed in the violence to which it was purportedly responding.
Given that the Boston Bombing is being described as an act of terrorism, I am deeply worried that our collectivization of grief and trauma—and the racial dichotomy that it sets up—will create the conditions necessary for more and more extreme acts of violence.
This is not something that I feel comfortable saying and I expect that this article will get many negative reactions. But as a white person myself, I feel that it is my responsibility to name these dynamics, even if they are uncomfortable for me to say or for others to hear.
SUNDAY—“WE ARE STILL PACIFISTS”
I am inspired by the example of Dorothy Day who, in the article that I quoted at the beginning of this piece, was also struggling to respond to an inexcusable act of violence that was being turned into a collective trauma and therefore being used to “move our country from undeclared to declared war” with Germany, Italy and Japan. Day wrote in circumstances far more dire than those we find ourselves in. The violent rage that was consuming the American psyche as she wrote would eventually consume millions of lives and help justify the production and use of nuclear weapons. In that sense it is a violence that still lives with us.
Day also struggled for the words to speak in the face of very real tragedy on the one hand and the publicly constructed collective trauma that would lead to war on the other. In the end, she had no direct answers and neither do I. I cannot shut off the media or stop the explosion of memes on facebook. Realistically, I cannot even stop my own clergy from aiding in the process by expressing what they legitimately feel is a necessary form of pastoral care.
Like Day, however, we can continue to preach the Gospel—the same Gospel that we preached yesterday and the same Gospel that we will preach tomorrow—the Gospel of Peace and Liberation in Christ Jesus, Crucified and Risen.
We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts.
We may not be able to stop the construction of whiteness through the collectivization of trauma. But we can preach love, which means, in part, preaching racial justice. We may not be able to stop the Church from participating in this process. But we can ask—and should ask—why, if these traumas are “injuries to us all” our first response should not be to remind ourselves and one another that the love we show our enemies (real or imagined) is the yardstick by which the Church measures its love for God.
To the very real tragedies of this world, to the myths of Empire by which those tragedies are turned into excuses to murder other people’s children, we can only preach love. We can do nothing but continue in works of justice and mercy, in prayer and in the faithful reading and preaching of the word and ministration of the sacraments. We can, in short, do nothing but continue to follow Jesus to the Cross, the place that absorbs all tragedy and all imperial violence, in the radical and possibly foolish hope that this journey will ultimately lead to resurrection. Amen.
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