by Amy Carr
“We do not love ourselves. We have become cavalier with each other’s lives and we, as a nation, have not yet decided that we have reached the point where we will now practice willful and strategic eradication of the complex character that makes us an unloving society.”
Amid so many commentaries in the face of recent shootings around the US (not to mention bombings and displacements of people worldwide), I was particularly snagged by these words of Emilie Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and a well-known womanist (African American feminist) ethicist. You can read the fuller reflection by Emilie Townes here.
Talking with some young Benedictine oblates over a game of Dominion last night (no irony intended there, I hope!), I was reminded of the two themes that I hear most often about the whole host of recent shootings, be they driven by racism, homophobia, or an unfocused retaliation against those who represent oppressors of one’s race or religion.
The first theme is that most of us would never commit an atrocity. Most of us are not so driven by fear, hatred, self-loathing, or ideological purity that we would intentionally or reactively commit murder. We separate ourselves from the killers, instinctively.
The second theme — one I am glad to hear voiced by both political conservatives and liberals that I know — is that we need to get in touch with the ways that acting out on our fears reflects our ingrained prejudices. If Philando Castile had been white and had admitted during a traffic stop that he was (legally) armed, how much more likely would he still be alive today?
This second theme is where our personal work begins, and must continue. But Emilie Townes pushes on to the harder kind of work — to communal reflection and to community organizing. Black Lives Matters is a current channel for the organizing that began in the last century by the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and many black church-based efforts to end racial segregation.
One black ex-cop writes here of how 70% of cops are influenced by the culture of policing in their own immediate environment — especially if any in power are among the 15% he estimates are drawn to abusing their authority. If this is right, the efforts to organize for social change are harder to reach by legal or policy changes alone. Working in dangerous situations (real — as the police do — or perceived — as when whites fear losing dominance), we form group loyalties for survival.
Even in our most mundane jobs, we find it hard to speak out against a co-worker or supervisor who abuses his or her authority, for fear of losing our own livelihood. I can think of many stories in this regard, in fields as wide ranging as hospital admissions and archaeology, but I suspect you know your own.
We “have not yet decided that we have reached the point where we will now practice willful and strategic eradication of the complex character that makes us an unloving society.”
This sentence shines out to me like a line in a psalm that tells me, “do lectio here today.” So, I shall do lectio with this line for a while. I welcome any insights of others along the way. How do we learn, together, to engage in “strategic eradication” of the dynamics that make it possible for our fear and anger to translate into so many needless deaths?
Continual conversion is necessary, and those of us who are oblates swear by it. But conversion must extend beyond the personal, beyond friendship circles, into the kind of shared work that may come only with our willingness to enter one of the spaces many of us most fear to tread: committee meetings (the heart of civil society). More of us may need to learn the patience involved in taking part in long meetings where visions are articulated and strategies are stammered into being.
More of us may need to practice speaking and working with those whose values or personalities bother us, even threaten us. Those of us who have been activists at any level know that every social movement is born, and survives, only amid risk and messiness, and often partial success at best, at least in our own lifetimes.
Emilie Townes reminds us that personal moral integrity is not enough — not enough to protect any of us. May we find a way of bearing witness in prayer and in speech, to all that needs to be mourned, while also discerning how to participate in the hard work of systemic social change.