This summer, dozens of people from the LGBTQ community, mostly people of color, were murdered in Florida. A year before that, black churchgoers were shot down in South Carolina. Killing rage, in sacred spaces.
Sacred: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Charleston. June 17, 2015.
Sacred: Pulse Night Club. Orlando. June 12, 2016.
Because when a church casts you out for who you love and cannot be a sanctuary, a nightclub can be. Vulnerable communities have historically been pushed out to the margins: underrepresented, ignored, underserved, attacked. And there, on the margins, beauty is made in spite of oppressors. In black churches, in gay nightclubs. Sacred marginality, holy cocoon – in dancing together, in meeting together, in being free and fully embodied, fully self.
As President Obama described: “The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub – it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.” This, again, was violence and hatred in a sacred space.
Pain like that, experienced this summer in Florida, committed in places supposed to be safe, is unbearable. It bowls us over. It causes pause. In the most radical, justice-oriented church service I’ve ever attended, we passed the peace not by saying “Peace be with you,” but rather “May the spirit disturb you.”
And this is my wish. To be disturbed.
We must be disturbed. Now is a time for us to become, as philosopher of race Dr. George Yancy calls it, “un-sutured.”
Yancy explains: “…being un-sutured involves a continuous process of renewal and commitment.” He suggests that this process is an extremely visceral and bodily one, and involves critical self-reflection and confession that we are inextricably linked with the systems of oppression that have informed our lives.
For us, this looks like sustained discomfort, not to be sewn or sutured up or closed off. It looks like asking hard questions, exploring our own role in the problem, and potentially being undone by what we discover in the answers.
Queer theorist and justice scholar Dr. Judith Butler writes in her book, Giving an Account of Oneself: “To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance – to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient “I” as a kind of possession.”
Onward, to Listen and Be Moved
How can we move forward?
When it comes to restorative justice, liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez describe a process for addressing oppressive systems: it starts with listening.
True close listening means both seeking out the neighbor inside and outside of our living room walls and diagnosing our own role in injustice and racism. We must be reading and watching, educating ourselves and not depending on marginalized groups to train us, but looking for ways to take responsibility and train ourselves.
Though systems of oppression and social injustice are nonsensical, we must believe that they exist and profoundly affect the lives of millions. And they affect us. They hurt us. We must be receptive to the unthinkable, open to the inconvenient. We must bear witness to the voices and cries of lament from victims and their families, and our own internal cries that this is not right. Injustice is illogical and unhealthy for all of us.
Action Beyond the Rational
Here we are tempted to form a strategy, to lay out a step-by-step process for the game plan. But strategic plans can be a form of sanitizing a process that must be felt deeply. Injustice is nonsensical and visceral, and we must feel moved to respond.
We sob for those who died in Orlando and in Charleston. We sing to remember them. We dance to honor them. We cry out in confusion and disbelief that they are gone.
Black Catholic theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale describes that a practical, technical approach is no match for injustice, which he says is “impervious to rational appeals and cognitive strategies…Logic alone seldom compels action in the face of indifference….We cannot save ourselves solely through rational analysis, study, and planning.”
Massingale notes that oppressive systems like racism, homophobia, Islamophobia instill “selective sympathy and indifference” that “numbs us to the reality of injustice and makes us calloused and hardened to it manifold harms.” The truth is that we have to feel this. We have to be bowled over and shocked and knocked down because oppression does numb us.
I for one will not be numb. I will read of the victims and their families. I will listen to their cries. I will be angry and confused. I will ask if writing these very words will do any good. I will mourn.
In her book Undoing Gender, Dr. Judith Butler explores mourning and lament in the queer community. She writes:
“I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I’m certain, though, that it does not mean that one has forgotten the person, or that something else comes along to take his or her place. I don’t think it works that way. I think instead that one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. So there is losing, and there is the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned.”
“How Can I Keep from Singing?”: Lament that Disarms Complacency
After the mass shooting in Charleston, President Obama gave his eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, black preacher and senator gunned down at church. In his speech, our President paused, took a deep breath next to his fellow black leaders on stage, and started to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…”
Newspapers around the world reported not on the logic of his message nor the feasibility of change, but on his voice, gathering a moving choir of witnesses. This June around the country and the globe, during Pride Month, the LGBTQ community and allies gathered in queer community hubs: in clubs, in parks, in the streets, at Stonewall – shouting for those senselessly lost. Raising angel wings, singing the same Amazing Grace to drown out voices of hate. And they still are. We still are: Singing. Dancing. Flags flying. Quoting Harvey Milk or Judith Butler, prophets with sacred messages to provide balm or fuel or both.
In his description of lament, Fr. Massingale describes the resolution of the song “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in the following way:
“This spiritual, then, exemplifies a core characteristic of the lament genre: it expresses the reality and pain of evil and suffering, and yet is more than mere mourning or catharsis. The act of lamenting overcomes psychic numbness and stunned silence in the face of evil. Its wails, cries, and pleas tear asunder the veil of complacency and the shroud of immobilizing fear. Lament facilitates the emergence of something new, whether a changed consciousness or a renewed engagement with outer events. It is indeed a paradox of protest and praise that leads to new life.”
Lamenting, unlearning, becoming undone, remaining un-sutured, then moving to act – it is hard work. It is our work. And we are called to do it. Now.
May you be disturbed.
Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer is a writer and the assistant director at St. Norbert College’s Cassandra Voss Center (CVC), which focuses on transformation through initiatives related to race, class, gender and identity. Published with Teaching Tolerance, Ms. Magazine, American Camp Association & others, Anna’s roots are in experiential education, social justice program management, outdoor ministry, and higher education. Follow her work at https://annaczarnikneimeyer.