Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Response to the Immediate Politicizing of Yesterday's Tragedy

1. Yesterday's events in Newtown, Connecticut -- less than an hour northwest of where we live -- were an unspeakably horrific tragedy. It is not only difficult but impossible to put into human words the evil and misery wrought on an entire community and its families.

2. The United States undeniably has a gun problem. In their affection toward them, in their manufacturing of them, in their fetishization of them, in their absolutist attitudes towards ownership of them, in their inability to talk about them calmly and respectfully, in their catastrophically high death tolls at the hands of them: Americans have gun issues.

3. Yesterday's events were not the occasion to make Americans' gun problem the central topic of discussion. It is unseemly and distasteful that, while the blood of children was still drying inside an elementary school, "friends" on Facebook were lambasting one another for their politics on gun control.

4. Some say: "We are indeed politicizing this tragedy, and we are right to do so, because politics is life together and/or because politics is the way we stop such tragedies from happening again." While the intention behind this stance is commendable, it is shortsighted and unhelpful. In the U.S. context, to politicize something is to make it a means to some other end. And that is what these asinine and overwrought gun debates did: they instrumentalized the suffering of others for the sake of some greater goal or principle. That is, they made it about something else. But yesterday was not about something else. Yesterday was about the senseless deaths of human beings, most of whom were barely six years old, at the hands of a deranged man's wicked actions. Is it ever inappropriate to politicize such a thing? When the murders are still in process? When the death count is still rising? They were counting bodies of dead children yesterday while people argued on the internet about the second amendment. Do not defend this.

5. The unhesitating politicization of events like yesterday's does something else: it makes evil explainable. It says, "We know what the problem is here, and we know how to fix it. In fact, we've known all along -- this is just one more instance of a larger issue. Now, finally, let's get to it!" But we do not know what happened yesterday. An adult man apparently intentionally shot and killed over two dozen other human beings, mostly children. This is not intelligible. This is not comprehensible. It is absurd. It is evil. It is not a genus of a species (whether this be "evil things" or "mass murder shootings"); it is not an instance of a larger nameable phenomenon. It is entirely dumbfounding. It is speechlessly, unspeakably, astonishingly wrong. Language cannot encompass it. And when we rush to our laptops and smart phones to pronounce and link and debate -- again, while authorities are still transporting dead bodies out of an elementary school -- we make this evil speakable. It is not.

6. Christian friends and colleagues in particular are accountable here for certain rash and unwise aspects of their responses. One is this. It seems to me that there are two and only two things we can do in immediate response to events like yesterday's when we are not part of the local community experiencing it: pray or remain silent. How could we ever presume to have words appropriate to the situation -- words, that is, explaining or arguing or discussing or pronouncing or holding court or commentating or whatever? To speak in such a way is a temptation; silence is the better path. Let such an event reduce us to silence, not elicit hasty speech. Almost certainly the words that will come out will be bullshit.

7. Our only alternative, if we are to speak, is to pray. This need not be the glib half-baked theological commentary of all-knowing biblicists. It is simply our only recourse in a world where children are murdered and yet God is and the world is God's. Let us first pray for this world, in particular for the mothers and fathers, sister and brothers, neighbors and friends of the victims. (There are children who huddled in bathroom stalls yesterday praying that they would not be shot. There are children who saw their friends shot and killed. How, in God's name, does anyone have the gall to pick an ideological fight while these children are still on lockdown?)

8. If we cannot move our lips for intercession beyond the mere petition, "Lord, have mercy" (though this is indeed enough), or if we are angry and shattered and want to call for action and make this about something else, then let us turn to lament. Let us rain down our broken and uncomprehending words upon God; let us hold God to account; let us demand that God answer for how and why this could happen; let us bewail this absence of divine justice; let us follow the psalmist and wake God up to this nightmare. This is our recourse for our sorrow, for our damaged words. Not pontifications for others to read. Lament to God.

9. Bizarrely, I saw Christians consistently opposing action (or "politics") to prayer in their responses to yesterday's events. What does this mean? Prayer and action are not contraries, nor are prayer and politics. They are not competitive with each other. Time and again people were prioritizing action/politics over prayer. I truly can make no sense of this. Christians' politics is not other than their prayer; at its best, Christians' political engagement in service to their neighbors is one mode of their prayer. Moreover, it is a strange thing to give priority to "action" over against "prayer." This seems perilously close to giving priority to our acts over against God's acts, with the result of making yesterday's tragedy a problem to be solved rather than a loss to be suffered, lamented, grieved over.

10. In my judgment, what we saw yesterday on the part of Christians was a spiritual and therefore a political failure of patience. Prayer is the shape of Christians' patience when we do not know what to do, what we can or should do, what there is to do, or when there simply is nothing to do; instead of posturing, we throw ourselves on the mercy and judgment and grace of the One who is able to act with justice and wisdom, and will do so. Instead of patience, what we saw yesterday was the reflex of Christians (and Americans generally) who were reminded that they are not in control, and wanted to reassert that control. Friends, we are not in control. There are things we can do going forward, and we ought to do them. But this is not fixable. We are not in control.

11. Coinciding with the contrast of action to prayer is the prioritization of politics, specifically of national congressional politics. I am mystified by this. Not because it is bad -- there are surely enormous gains to be made in U.S. gun laws, and it would be an extraordinary achievement to lower American mortality rates due to gun use to a comparable level with other industrialized societies. But again, there is this strange, intractable faith in the U.S. political process. I do not see how this faith is different in substance from more conservative Christians' faith in the U.S. There is a by-God genuine conviction that, if only gun-lovers would agree to more reasonable laws, tragedies like yesterday's would simply cease to happen. Evils and horrors are thus politically resolvable. We just have to have the will -- and what better motivation than the slaughter of children to gin up some political will?

12. Those who have politicized yesterday's events do not -- I assume and trust -- come from such a crass and unloving place. But their speech is no less problematic for that, and for the reasons outlined, it would have been better to remain silent. There will be time for such things as they are (rightly) concerned about. There will be time for action. But we must learn the patience to grieve, to be still, to leave unexplained that which cannot be explained. For to explain evil is to normalize it; but yesterday was not normal, nor was it about something other than itself. Our responses should reflect that.

1 comment:

  1. hi Brad--thanks for a thoughtful post. I've been thinking this over all day and have a response of sorts over at "rude truth." Thanks for your words!