Thinking of Charleston

I’ve spent the last week reading all the news on Charleston, and trying to figure out how to respond. I’m not sure this response is a particularly good one, and in the week since then, happy and terrible things continue to happen in America, France, Tunisia, and Kuwait. It might be beyond human emotion and understanding to grapple with so much at once. The old default is to not bother. But Charleston, and the ongoing debates on race that have come out of it continue to needle me. Responses by prominent black and white writers (see anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rachel Held Evans’ blog this week) have convicted me, and I think, for myself, I want to get some of this down.

When the Newtown shooting happened, I cried. My nephew was the age of the victims, and one of my best friends is a school teacher. This shouldn’t have been happening, but it did, and not a bit of it made sense.

When the Seattle Pacific shooting happened in the summer of 2014, I was furious, because active shooters are now considered a likely threat at universities, even Christian universities in nice liberal neighborhoods in places like Seattle. When it happened at Virginia Tech, it was shocking. Now it’s almost expected, and yet we do nothing, because the loudest voices in this conversation will always be someone shouting on behalf of the Second Amendment.

In all the days since the Charleston shooting, however, I have been sad, in a dull, tearless way, over the continued theft of life and hope from the African-American community. I also keep thinking of the yama of asteya, or nonstealing. Deborah Adele, author of The Yamas and Niyamas, points out that we can “steal from others, we steal from the earth, we steal from the future, and we steal from ourselves. We steal from our own opportunity to grow ourselves into the person who has a right to have the life they want.”  African-Americans have been killed, mistreated, and misjudged in ways I never will, and often fail to receive justice or even sympathy. Wednesday’s shooting was the apex of this theft.  Unless I move to Pakistan or Syria, this kind of intentional, symbolic gunning down of my culture and faith won’t happen to me, but I will continue to see it happen to my fellow citizens and students. If one of my male African American students and I commit the same traffic violation, or buy a gun in Walmart, or show up at a place of public unrest, one of us will not worry about dying in the process.  Both of us might worry about getting shot in church, but I will never worry it is because of my race.

What bothers me so much in these stories is the theft of empathy grief. It happens every time someone talks about Charleston in a way that changes the subject. Whenever I hear a pundit try to argue this was an attack on faith, not race, I think of asteya. When I read of an NRA official blaming the victims for not arming themselves, I think of asteya. When I read a blogger argue as to why the Confederate flag is really essential to understanding his personal history, I think of asteya. When I remember the Rachel Dolezal news cycle, I think, however good her intentions, of asteya. “We need allies, not replacements,” Jessica Williams said on The Daily Show shortly after the Dolezal news erupted. Williams’s words still apply here. The black community, particularly of Charleston, has lost essential members of their community as well as any sense of safety in their churches. They need space to mourn this, and they need mourners who can respect and listen to them. Not radio talk hosts dismissing them. Not people dumping salt in the wound by pointing out black on black crime or what a black person did to them. Not even helpful allies trying to speak over them.

What I keep wanting to say is to quit stealing people’s pain from them. This isn’t a defense of bitterness, but of the grieving and healing process. Grief is personal. No one gets to tell us how to feel about it, or when to stop hurting, or that our emotions are valid or our loss isn’t real. No one gets to tell us how fast the process needs to be. The African Americans of our country were denied grief, and many other aspects of humanity—like marriage, churches, families—for a long time. This isn’t about reparations (that’s for another time) but I am asking those of us who will never understand what this community has been through to practice some empathy, and rather than take something from that community to make ourselves feel better, to offer something loving in return.

Last spring Christena Cleveland spoke at my university, and pointed out that as a highly educated black woman with several books, a popular blog and speaking schedule, and enviable teaching positions, she is a person with privilege. Yet, she says, when she goes into her mostly poor African American neighborhood to do service, she puts aside her privilege and follows the leadership already doing work there. Listen, she says; follow, be respectful. Don’t steal the power that is already there. Be willing to put aside your own privilege to lift up others.

I watched the President’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney yesterday, and finally had tears for Charleston. What was it about the simple leading of “Amazing Grace” that moved me so much? I think it might have been the putting aside of privilege. The most powerful man in the world was willing to risk singing off-key and alone to meet the grieving African-American congregation where they were, and then give them a chance to lift up their voices louder than his.

Stealing is easy, and in the quest for becoming a better human, useless. Working on myself is hard, and learning my own complicity in the taking away from others is harder. However, “where stealing unleashes pain and suffering on our self and others,” Adele says, “building our competency opens up a world of joy and possibility. It is a grand adventure to turn our attention away from stealing and towards the life long task of shaping ourselves into someone of value.”


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