Let’s get one thing straight up front–it’s time for the flag to come down. It’s divisive, it’s hurtful, and whatever you or I or anyone might have meant by keeping or displaying it just doesn’t matter now that the Dylann Roofs of this world have chosen it as their banner.
BUT . . .
Let’s not kid ourselves, people. Can’t y’all see what’s going on here? Why is all the news suddenly about the flag? Why are we letting ourselves be distracted so easily?
The flag didn’t make Dylann Roof a racist; he embraced the flag because he was ALREADY a racist. And he didn’t whack those people over the head with a flag. He shot them. With a gun that was easily available to him, instantly, without any kind of waiting period, despite pending drug charges. A gun that was small enough to easily conceal as he entered the church. A lethal weapon that he bought with the express purpose of killing black people.
Racism motivated Dylann Roof. But all his hatefulness would have been impotent were it not backed up with a Glock .45.
And as a country, how are we going to respond to this tragedy, this butchery in God’s house? How are we going to make things better? We are going to get rid of all the Confederate flags, by golly! That will guarantee this kind of thing will never happen again!
Y’all, in the face of such horror, this is a feel-good gesture at best. And I hope that it DOES make African-American people feel good: make them feel heard, make them feel respected, make them feel that more change is possible.
But what I fear is really going to happen is a bunch of nothing. The flags will come down, we will all congratulate ourselves, and we will go back to our usual way of doing things.
So what if Wal-Mart stops selling Confederate battle flags? If they announced they were going to stop selling guns, THAT would be a step in the right direction.
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Terrible things evoke many responses: tears; prayers; the urge to hide, to sleep, not to read or look or hear any more, or even to obsessively read and watch and learn everything about what happened; and, for writers, to write. You wonder if maybe you shouldn’t. You wonder if people will think you are capitalizing on a tragedy in order to get page views. You wonder if anyone will care what you have to say, and why it matters anyway, what difference you can possibility make. But in the end, you write because you have to, just like so many people on Facebook (almost EVERYONE) were drawn to post something, ANYTHING, yesterday to express their shock and horror and empathy.
We want to talk about it, we want to write about it, we want to share about it, because we crave community at a time like this. And we crave answers. We want to make some kind of sense of something that doesn’t make any kind of sense, and won’t, no matter how hard we try to make it.
So we talk about gun control. People say that if we do that we are politicizing what happened. But there shouldn’t BE anything political about doing something about gun violence in our society. People say guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and that’s partly true, but two crazy men attacked school children yesterday, one in America with guns and one in China with a knife. The kids in America are dead. The kids in China will live. Guns extend the reach and capacity for violence of those bent on doing harm to others.
The problem is that no laws that have been or will be proposed will go far enough. I would ban all handguns and all semi-automatic weapons. That’s never going to happen. And that means they are going to be around where crazy people will get hold of them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to pass what laws we can. It’s not politicizing the deaths of these little children to try to do that now; it is RESPECTING them.
Then we talk about more help for those with mental illness. I know from experience how hard it can be to find affordable assistance in this area, and also how time consuming and difficult it can be to get the right diagnosis and the right medication. Again, would better mental health care have helped in this situation? It’s too soon to tell without knowing more of this guy’s story. Was he mentally ill? Well, he pretty much had to be, didn’t he?
Which brings us to the problem of evil. We aren’t going to solve this one today. Or ever, not before we enter eternity. My oldest child asked me, “Are people who do things like that mentally ill, or are they evil?” I said (and I believe) that ANYONE who intentionally sets out to kill innocent people is by definition mentally ill. I asked her which way she would prefer it to be. She said, “I guess evil, so I could hate them. But that would be too easy, so it probably isn’t the answer, is it?”
The gunman’s actions were evil. Was HE evil? Is mental illness itself an evil? Does being severely mentally ill open people up to infestation of evil? I’ve heard people describe certain criminals as monsters, not human beings. But they are human beings, and at some point they were innocent babies. And we don’t want to think about that because we don’t want to acknowledge our own potential for evil, or think about what it would be like if one or our own kids somehow turned out horribly, terribly wrong. We want to stress the “otherness” of a person who could do something like that, because human beings don’t treat each other like that. Right?
Has the world turned evil, and have we done something to make it that way? God created the world, and all that He made was good. Yet can we deny that there is some sort of sickness in the core of our society? But then, hasn’t it always been there? Haven’t men been killing each other since the Fall, and it’s just that they now have both the ability to be more efficient and effective at doing it, and the media to publicize it for them?
And what about God anyway? Many, many people who I am sure mean well have been posting Facebook memes about how of course things like this are going to happen since we kicked God out of our public schools. Let me tell you what, no one kicked God out of anywhere. He was THERE yesterday at that school. He was in that principal who went bravely out into the hallway to confront the gunman and in the teachers who hid their kids and in the bathroom with the children hiding and their teacher telling them she loved them. There was prayer in that school and there was prayer outside of it. I read once that prayers are retroactive, outside time the way God is, so we can still pray that those children didn’t suffer and that they knew they would be going to God. Whether the posters mean to imply it or not, those memes suggest that God punished us for outlawing school prayer by letting first graders die and that is just BULLSHIT.
So we can say a lot of things, and ask a lot of questions, and do whatever we can think of to try to stop something like this from EVER happening again, and we should (I predict universal metal detectors next). But we all need to acknowledge the truth: that ultimately there is only so much we can do.
Right after I heard about this yesterday I was scheduled to be the “mystery reader” in the my baby girl’s second grade classroom. I had the surreal experience of being buzzed in, signing in and putting on my visitor badge (all the time thinking how ineffective such measures would be in the face of someone truly determined to kill). I walked down the halls and into the classroom and gave my daughter a big hug, saw all the smiling faces, spent half an hour reading Christmas stories to 20 kids who had every expectation of being safe in their school, just like the first graders of Sandy Hook did.
But there is no truly place safe anywhere; that’s part of the human condition. You could decide to homeschool your kids and they could die in a car wreck, or a home invasion, or a fire, or in their sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning, or of cancer. If you have kids, if you love anyone, you are opening yourself up to the possibility of loss and pain. (And if you don’t, you are suffering a different kind of loss and pain.)
We can’t live in fear forever, so we will go on. And in a few days, unless you are one of the people whose children were murdered, the numbness will wear off, like it did after Aurora, after 9-11, after Columbine, and so many more. We will all go back to thinking about Christmas and worrying about our personal problems which right now seem so petty, so unimportant.
And if we can continue to hold the dead and the grieving up in prayer, and be a little kinder and more loving to those around us, it’s okay. We have to live in this world, flawed though it is and though we are, at least for now.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.