That’s the thing that has occupied my mind and brought such a heaviness of heart for the past weeks.
Things have been pretty silent on this blog since early June. On June 1, I left for vacation in the Colorado Rockies. I had intended to keep up at least a posting a week.
Then Charleston happened. At first, I experienced simple disbelief, almost like my initial reaction on September 11, 2001. As more details were reported, the tragedy became more and more shocking and horrifying. It numbed me.
The ink was not even dry on the first reports when the opinions started coming out about what caused it and what we should do about it. How quickly we turned to explanations and solutions. In those days following Charleston, because seemingly everyone was saying something, I felt compelled to say something. But I had nothing to say.
Maybe we say too much too soon, especially when these kinds of deep tragedies happen. In our collective problem-solving mentality, in our 24 hour news cycle that requires many words and images to fill the space, and when everyone is a pundit with an opinion, we seem to think that offering explanations and solutions will make everything come clean in the end. What happens is that nothing comes clean, but we numb ourselves into believing that it won’t happen again and nothing really changes very much.
In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies, there is a ritualized period of mourning. Here’s how it’s been described to me: first, there’s aninut, the death and the burial. It’s an all-consuming few days as the body is prepared for burial, funeral plans are made, and then the funeral and burial happen. Then there’s the shiva, a period of seven days after the burial. The mourners return home and sit on low chairs, taking a cue from Job’s mourning for his family when his friends sat down with him towards the ground for seven days and seven nights and no one spoke a word to him. During this time, mirrors are draped in black and the mourner lights a memorial candle. The mourner wears no make-up, no perfume, engages in no sexual activity, listens to no music, and wears no shoes. During this time, family and friends call at the house. The mourning becomes a communal mourning with distractions stripped away. For this time, there are no explanations and there is no push to move on. The mourners sit in their lament, surrounded by family and friends. Lauren Winner writes that “what has struck me about a shiva call is the sheer crush of people.” (Mudhouse Sabbath) On the last day of shiva, friends come and take the mourner by hand, lead him out of the house and down the street for a walk around the block. It’s both the literal and figurative reentry into society.
I wish we could have a national shiva when something like Charleston happens. I wish we could shut off our televisions, ban anyone from writing anything about what has happened for a week or so, and just sit in collective lament. At least in the Christian tradition, we don’t do lament very well. We do funerals, but not lament.
It feels like we have a cultural diarrhea of words about why these things happen and what we should do; we get all riled up for a few weeks and then everything goes back to normal. When the Newtown shootings happened over two and a half years ago, we all thought that would be the game-changer in forming a society in which we would make sure that such mass shootings would be a matter of history. When Michael Brown was shot and Ferguson erupted, we pledged that things would change.
As far as I can tell, not much has changed.
I don’t know what to do. Big things like racism and violence in America are complex challenges and solutions are perplexing. My heaviness of heart and mind about both issues are close to despair, feeling in some moments like we will never get past this; this is our destiny; racism and violence are so embedded in our national DNA that the best we can hope for is to keep the beasts at bay.
Yet my faith is based on hope for what is not seen and even for what does not seem possible. My trust in God’s covenantal promises tells me that even in the midst of these societal Gordian knots, God is at work. Somehow I need to be part of that work, even though I haven’t wanted to say anything or do anything.
Last week, I went to our denomination’s national youth gathering — 30,000 high school youth descending on the beleaguered city of Detroit, bring their faith, their witness, their dollars, and their willingness to get into the trenches and work. It was exhilarating. And it was hopeful.
Apparently, that was my walk around the block. It’s time.