Just when you get to thinking that nothing could knock Caitlin Jenner from her perch atop the media headline world, along comes Rachel Dolezal. Then, as her story gains momentum, we are confronted by the inexplicable tragedy at the Emmanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C.
Two of the issues represented in the headlines are fairly new to public scrutiny. Although people have been transgendered for decades, it takes a celebrity to make it the flavor of the day within the fabric of our cultural awareness. “Transracial” is a concept which for most is brand new. Sociologists have come forth to tell us that it, too, has been with us, but Rachel Dolezal brings a new twist to the issue, and this issue may or may not stay within the headlines for a while. Our tendency as a culture is to move quickly on to the next tragedy, social issue, political miscue or celebrity appearance. Those who still live in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, or struggle in the realities of AIDS, or continue to grieve for losses sustained in Oklahoma City and The World Trade Center can become left in the rear view mirror as they compete for attention with the hoarders, naked daters, dysfunctional “celebrities” and a hoard of other lives flashed on the TV screens, not to mention the newest of the never ending series of weather-related incidents.
As the people come and go before our consciousness; as the events and headlines of one day give way to those of the next, we are forced to learn to deal with the rapid pace of change in our lives: always a new issue, new people, new tragedies.
A major point of significance in the tragedy of Emmanuel Church is that it is not a new tragedy. It is another episode in the continued tragedy of hatred that has been woven into the American culture for generations. That which is misunderstood and feared brings out the worst in those who have been conditioned to hate as a response to their fear. Senseless aggression is often the natural adjunct to lives that seek a “them” on which to hang their own dysfunctions and inabilities and insecurities. We like to believe that these perpetrators of death are somehow singularly unstable – have psychological conditions that separate them from others in society. But the question needs to be asked, “Are they any less stabile than the rest of a society that has tolerated these attitudes for generations, and in many areas of the country, lifts them up as a glorified part of history?”
These are the types of questions that, for the Christian, can become daunting. We want to believe that “His truth is marching on” within the fabric of our national life. We seek to gain hope in words of the prophets, such as those given by Dr. King: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Instead we find that the realities of the day rail against our needs for hope and assurance that we are progressing in our humanity. We have seen the evidence that undergirds the reality that we cannot legislate attitudes or morality. Our laws do not guarantee agreement. Our penalties offer no deterrent.
So the church of Jesus, finds itself at what has become an all too familiar crossroad. We can once again wring our hands and utter platitudes as to the awfulness of another violent incident, or we can reassess the commands of the Savior to be peacemakers and engage in conscious effort to promote the values we claim to be ours. None of us will live to see major social upheaval that results in racial equality or justice. Evil within our land is strongly entrenched. Hatreds run deep and wide along cultural borders. But we must not let this reality keep us from the call of the Lord to be workers in the garden of the Kingdom. Amongst the weeds we are called to bear fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, (see Galatians 5:22-23). Hope is rekindled as we witness, and bear witness to the truth that is marching on in our own lives and relationships. This can no longer be a matter of “Live and let live”. The church must learn to follow the example of the prophets and the savior and apostles we claim to be our guides.
The hatred which festered within a young man had to begin somewhere. It had to be taught and nurtured by someone. What we have now is the power to say “Not in my family/community/”, and consciously endeavor to nurture attitudes of compassion and understanding within our children, our schools, our sports leagues, etc. Talk with your children, with other parents, with each other. Speak prophetic words of peace. Be a mouthpiece of the Lord. Let’s not wait until the next incident hits close to home.