Thursday, June 18, 2015

On Our Knees*


It’s one of Robert’s Rules, and one of the saddest, that Facts Pursue Narratives - Narratives Flee From Facts. Perhaps it has always been this way, but we see the Rule writ especially large in an era of 24-hour, multi-channel blather, where every agenda has its ardent proponents, all of whom are far more quick and ready to push their party line than the reporters in the field are quick and able to dig up and disseminate actual information. So literally before the bodies in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had begun to cool, you could find commentators, politicians and shills of every stripe using those murdered believers as a fulcrum to raise this or that particular agenda just that bit higher.

The coming hours and days will doubtless produce more facts, and they’ll doubtless be slipped into and hammered onto and wedged under the narratives we all have come to expect -- however fast those narratives flee from facts that don't suit. But instead of speculating on what those facts may prove to be, I want to talk about what we knew before that first shot was fired yesterday, what is true in the harsh light of morning, and what will be true no matter what facts we learn in days to come.

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Before the first shot we knew that Emanuel AME was some variety of persistent miracle. To begin, the church was founded in 1816. Let that date sit with you a moment, because that’s 47 years before a presidential order that finally said that black human beings like those who founded that church could no longer be owned by other human beings. In the two tempestuous centuries since its founding, Emanuel AME has survived upheaval, violence, persecution, prejudice and even –  in South Carolina? –  an earthquake. A man named Denmark Vesey, was – just six years after helping to found the church – tried in secret by a kangaroo court and hanged for his role in a planned revolt of human beings who wished no longer to be owned by other human beings.

Thus we knew Wednesday that the believers of Emanuel AME had survived great horrors before and had prospered and grown and loved their church to the glory of God even so. After the last echo of the last shot has passed, I think we know that they will do the same. We know that with the prayers and love and shared tears of believers and people of good will, Emanuel AME will persevere as it has persevered. We know that if this killer thought to strike down this church –  let alone the Church – he has already failed, as even worse men have failed, as even the Gates of Hell must fail.

I knew Wednesday, and I know today, and nothing to come will make me doubt that God does not abandon His people. I knew Wednesday, and I know today, that only He can lift and comfort those who mourn. I knew Wednesday, and I know today, that people of Emanuel AME are my brothers and sisters in Christ and that He hears my prayers for them.

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But there's something else I knew Wednesday, and still know today.

Before the first shot, I knew that the black folks I talk to were feeling more insecure than at any time since we all became adults. And let’s be clear, the black folks I talk to are mostly people of means and position – even of power. They own and run businesses and law firms; they direct the doings of governments; they carry badges and stethoscopes and resumes filled with degrees. But I knew Wednesday that despite all these friends have accomplished; despite all the influence, recognition and prosperity they have earned; despite – not for nothing – the presence of a black man in the White House, they are troubled and angry and, yes, afraid, like I have not seen before. I know that today those doubts and fears can only be worse.

What I did not know Wednesday and do not know today is how definitively to fix that. But I refuse to be paralyzed by that, to let the absence of the perfect be the death of the good.  I did and do know that, at the very least, we have to talk to each other. We have to talk in frankest possible terms, about the most difficult things, in fearlessness and love. We have to be robust. We have to be slow to take offense and quick to forgive the inadvertent slight. We have to examine ourselves and let our hearts of hearts be examined. 

Two hundred years after those brave believers founded Emanuel AME, human beings are dying in America because of the color of their skin. I don't know if the nine at Emanuel AME were among them –  that seems likely, but we don't know yet. [# Update below] (Perhaps they died because they were Christians. Thousands do nowadays, despite the echoing media silence about that.) But even if, by some chance, these nine didn't die because of their color, too many of our countrymen, of our fellow human beings, do. And –  God forgive us –  200 years from now, unless we now take on that fact with brutal honesty and powerful love, that will still be so.

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And, despite the thundering din of the Narratives fleeing the facts as fast as they can, there's something else we knew on Wednesday, that hasn't changed this morning –   however efficiently America’s great cynical hoplophobic industrial complex churns out its lies, slickly tailored to capitalize on the deaths of people about whom it cares not one jot.

Before the first shot, we knew – if we were honest with ourselves – that there exists no piece of gun legislation we can craft that would matter to or deter a man who is otherwise willing to take the lives of nine or dozen a other human beings. Before the first shot, we knew that when men so inclined decide to match action to inclination, they almost always seek a place where they know their intended victims will be unarmed.** I knew Wednesday – as did many of my co-coreligionists – that if the flock is going to be protected on a Sunday morning or a Wednesday evening, then some of the shepherds, and some sheepdogs, have to stand ready to put down the wolves. 

* Note that you get on your knees only to pray – or possibly for gardening. Roberts Rules for Armed Robbery and Hostage Taking are explicit:
  • Never let them put you on your knees.
  • Never let them put you in another room.
  • Never let them put you in a car.

Long and bitter experience has proven that each of these is a prelude to murder. At that point, whatever the odds, fight like one already dead.

** Among other things, the shootings in Aurora, Fort Hood and Sandy Hook all had this in common.

# UPDATED: Given the reported words of the killer -- whose name will gain no fame here -- and given what has been learned about him in the past 24 hours, there now seems to be no doubt that he was acting out of racial hatred.