I love my job. Over the years I have been so bold as to say that I have never felt more in touch with my calling from God than I have in this work. Rarely do I consider it a job. Most mornings I thank God for the chance to do what I do. But today is one of those days when I don’t like my job.
I don’t like it because I am tired.
I am tired of once again learning of and responding to a senseless act of violence in our midst. A young man walks into a house of worship and makes his opinion the agenda. Nine people are shot. Without adequate words or passion, we revert once again to our standard phrase, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” But that’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough.
In his response, President Obama summed it up well, “Any death of this sort is a tragedy. Any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy. There is something particularly heartbreaking about the deaths happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship.”
But he didn’t stop there. Our President added, “Until the investigation is complete, I’m necessarily constrained in terms of talking about the details of the case. But I don’t need to be constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise. I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times.”
And he didn’t stop there. He said, “The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history. This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked. And we know that hatred across races and faiths poses a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”
As he spoke, he looked tired. His voice was weary.
On the night after the attack, comedian Jon Stewart took to the air in his latest edition of The Daily Show. It is a funny and often irreverent look at people, politics, and culture. But, on Thursday night, Jon Stewart was in no mood to tell jokes. He said, “I have one job, and it’s a pretty simple job. I come in, in the morning, and we look at the news, and I write jokes about it . . . But I didn’t do my job today, so I apologize. I got nothing for you in terms of jokes and sounds because of what happened in South Carolina.”
He didn’t stop there. This comedian said, “I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do (anything about it). Yeah. That’s us.
And he didn’t stop there. He said, “I heard someone on the news say ‘Tragedy has visited this church.’ This wasn’t a tornado. This was racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know, so the idea that – you know, I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There’s no nuance here. And we’re going to keep pretending like, ‘I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.’ But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper.”
As he spoke, he looked tired. His voice was weary. So is mine.
I’ve grown tired of our own version of this racial denial. Over the years I’ve heard all of the excuses, from the seemingly rational claim that we shouldn’t expect a passion to heal racism in a place where our census data shows that we are 98% white, to the insane comment that we’ve stopped going to church because we don’t like nor understand our pastor’s dialect. There are hundreds of other excuses rationally and irrationally placed between those two extremes. I’ve grown tired of hearing them. They are racist and they are wrong.
Just because we feel a certain way about a subject doesn’t mean that it’s a right feeling. And just because we downplay the significance of an event because it makes us feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean the event deserves less than our full attention. Like a parent who corrects a child’s bad habits, we all have to have the courage to say, “You’re not going to like it, but you need to hear this.”
I’ve grown weary, in large part, because I have this huge naïve optimism about the church and its people. This is a place and these are the people that claimed me when I wasn’t liked at school, loved me when no one else but my parents would, and called me in spite of my glaring imperfections to serve this church as one of its ordained servants. I owe my life to this place and to these people. And, as a result, I will defend this church when she is attacked by her harshest critics.
But, naïve optimism aside, I have grown weary when we fail to take it upon ourselves to do all in our power to correct an evil that exists within the church and throughout our communities. I grow weary when we downplay events such as this, underemphasize them, and only give them lip service for a day or two when another hate crime takes place.
I grow weary, most of all, when we make excuses for our own attitudes and behaviors around this subject. And, lest you think that I’m pointing the finger at someone else, I’m also weary with my own reluctance and hesitancy to speak out at times.
When I get tired, I tend to make blunt and simple declarations in a feeble attempt to correct what has made me weary or address a situation where I am completely dumbfounded as to how to solve it. I feel that way as I write this.
I just want the racial biases within our church to stop. They are not acceptable within God’s church and among Christian people. I long for good, well-meaning people within a God blessed and ordained church to have the courage to address prejudice when and wherever it rears its ugly head. To laugh at an inappropriate joke or ignore a racially biased statement condemns us just as much as it does the one who said it.
I yearn for love to be the constant order of the day and judgment to be locked away in the container where we so frequently lock away controversial subjects like racism that we just don’t want to deal with. We shouldn’t be leading with judgment. Never. We should be leading with love. Always.
When God created people like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln, they were born as normal, everyday human beings. They were not born as heroes. They were simply born like you and me. But these common, ordinary people found a way to embrace courage and assume leadership in the midst of unfortunate and painful circumstances. From humble beginnings, they became great leaders. The very same opportunity lies in front of you and me. The situations we face are ugly and painful and uncomfortable. Those situations demand leaders who will rise to the occasion, face the injustices, and speak with courage.
Where will those leaders come from? They will come from the ranks of people just like you. I speak as one of those people who long to be a better leader in the midst of this weary trail of sins of commission and omission.
Today let’s ask God to forgive our racial prejudices and put them away forever. Let’s find a way to replace the hatred that boils within with a love that will heal all wounds. Let’s think about what we are not saying today and how God might bless us with the courage to speak out against the injustices around us. Let’s try firing off rounds of love instead of firing guns and verbal barbs that kill the spirit and the body.
Over the years I’ve used my columns and blogs to tell some of my best stories. I have none today. I’ve got nothing for you, in terms of stories, because of what happened in South Carolina. All I have is a longing in my heart to see something change.
The Journey Continues, . . .
Thomas J. Bickerton
WPA Commission on Archives and History