Sunday, May 03, 2015
As many years have passed since I stood vigil at 3:00 a.m. May 4, 1980, on the spot where Jeffrey Miller was murdered by National Guardsmen 10 years previous, as had passed in 1980 since the end of World War II. For my 20-year-old self, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, D-Day were ancient history, but for my 55-year-old self the days at Kent State were just before yesterday.
It makes sense, of course. We remember the history that we live with far more clarity and urgency than the history our parents lived, and anything older than that is lost to dusty textbooks and web sites we’ll never visit. Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Jr., Watergate – the history that shaped my childhood and formed the lens through which I view the world mean no more to my young adult children than D-Day did to me.
Of course, what I experienced at Kent firsthand was the memorialization of the history of an event that had taken place a decade earlier – May 4, 1970. Thus, what I learned was not so much the history, but the history of history. That is to say, what I experienced at Kent during my time there, was the struggle over how we choose to remember.
The first time I set foot on the campus, in the late winter of 1978, much of the site of the 1970 shootings was behind chain-link fencing. The school had decided in the mid-1970s, against significant opposition and active protest, to build a gym and student-activities center that would cover much of an expanse of grass that had been the site of protesters encountering the National Guard in the moments before the guardsmen opened fire, killing four students and wounding 13 others.
I had a lot of fun playing basketball on the courts and swimming in the pool during my student days, yet I never walked past the building without thinking about what had happened there to kids who had been my own age. I don’t think I was particularly unusual among the student body around 1980, and given that many of our professors had been on the faculty in 1970, the shootings were a living memory for the campus community.
It is literally impossible today to see how the confrontation unfolded because there’s a sprawling gym complex there, and given that it’s ancient history to the 20-year-olds who pass it on their way to class, I’d be willing to bet that few of them ever give much thought to what happened there way before their time.
On the other hand, the university seems to do a much better job of sharing its own story now than it did when I was a student. Throughout my time on campus, the prevailing attitude from the university administration was best summed up as, “we’re trying to move on,” which always sounded like, “we’d just as soon forget the whole thing, and we’d certainly prefer that everyone else forget it, too.”
Yet beginning almost immediately after the shootings, KSU students led the struggle to remember the shootings. The May 4 Task Force, a student group founded in 1975 by shooting survivors, has spent four decades engaging succeeding generations of students and working to ensure that the truth about the shootings is uncovered as fully as possible and remembered as accurately as possible.
If you click on the KSU web site today, you’ll find a home page photograph of an official state historical marker that stands adjacent to the parking lot where the slain students were standing – or crouching behind parked cars or walking past on the way to class – when the machine guns opened fire on them. The marker is part of a far more significant public memorial effort than most of us imagined possible in the late 70s and early 80s.
After all, President Nixon had reduced the need for remembering when he declared, on the day of the shootings, that “when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” In other words, “move along folks there’s nothing to see here because these kids brought this on themselves.”
For me, the lesson of Kent was always strikingly simple and obvious: if you strike at the empire hard enough the empire strikes back, and their guns are always loaded.
I acknowledge freely that my takeaway is a minority view, and there are probably other lessons to learn from the history about the mistakes governments can make and the activist role that students can take in pushing to correct those errors.
The lesson that lies behind all of that, though, is sure this: the history of history is itself a struggle worth engaging. So as May 4 rolls around once more, I am thinking tonight of the young man or woman who will be standing alone at 3:00 a.m. with a lantern in a space marked off on the asphalt where 45 years ago a college student was murdered by a government run amuck.
Whatever the so-called lessons of May 4 may be, the lives of Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder should be remembered, and what was done to them on a spring day in Ohio should never be forgotten.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Like so many others, I’m trying to sort out and understand the ongoing events in Baltimore. That’s our neighboring presbytery, and many friends and colleagues work in the areas torn apart by the strife and struggle.
I wish I had some profound wisdom to offer that would make a difference, but my thoughts are just about as profound and organized as a Facebook feed. Indeed, from that confused feed I pull down these random thoughts and observations:
A colleague in California who observes:
When Hungarians took to the streets in 1956, with fire and violence, it was called a "revolution" and hailed in Western news sources. When African Americans take to the streets, with fire and violence, it's called a "riot."
A local colleague who notes:
Have been reflecting on how many people I know who have spent their daily lives for years working in different ways to affirm that Baltimore's#BlackLivesMatter, and how much those people inspired me growing up to become an activist.
A colleague in Baltimore wrote:
The African-American activist and public intellectual, Cornel West, says that “justice is what love looks like in public.” For me last week, putting love into action looked like joining in a nonviolent march for justice for Freddie Gray. We were black and white, young and old, Christians, Jews, and Muslims – all marching together.
Another colleague in Baltimore posted:
Violence is what happens when grief has nowhere else to go and black Baltimore is tired of grieving its young men.
My own status today reads:
Trying to understand violence is not the same thing as justifying it.
I was born in 1959, in Jim Crow Alabama. My parents moved the family from Tuscaloosa in the midst of the long and sometimes violent effort to desegregate the University of Alabama in part to get away from the violence. I remember the long hot summers of the mid-1960s and the fires in the streets following King’s assassination in 1968. I didn’t understand, of course, because I was a child. I remember the fires in the streets following the Rodney King verdict in 1992. I’m not sure I understood much then, either, and I don’t pretend to any great understanding at this point.
I do think that pointing at the violence of looters and asking “why?” is asking the wrong question of the wrong people. For one thing, there’s a great deal of social science and even brain research into mob behavior that explains some of what we see: the anonymity and collective responsibility of crowds – “everybody was doing it” – are well-understood aspects of crowd behavior.
As reported by MIT News last year, the journal Nueroimage published an article in which researchers noted that "A group of people will often engage in actions that are contrary to the private moral standards of each individual in that group, sweeping otherwise decent individuals into 'mobs' that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality." This is especially apparent in emotionally charged situations.
The research showed changes in brain activity that help explain what social-scientists call “deindividuation” experienced in mob behavior.
In other words, if you ask people who participate in looting why they did it they’ll probably point to the same sorts of personal responses in the midst of the experience that eventually rest on some combination of the observations of social scientists: everybody was doing it; I got swept up in the crowd.
In a society that so richly values the right of the people to assemble, these observations are not a lot of help. After all, it does great violence to our most cherished values to say, “don’t assemble,” even though we know – scientifically as well as intuitively – that assembled crowds may not behave in ways that we like or approve or even in ways that the individuals who comprise the assembled crowd approve.
I write this at the very moment when a lot of other friends and colleagues are, in fact, assembling (and also posting about it on Facebook) in front of the United States Supreme Court as the court hears arguments on the same-sex marriage case before it. I didn’t go down to the court this time (largely because I had a really “on” weekend, and I desperately needed some introvert time today) but I’ve been part of the mob scene on the occasions of other marriage equality hearings and decisions, as well as countless other marches and demonstrations.
A few commentators have noted the contrast between the peaceful gathering in front of the court today and the instances of violence just a few miles up the road in Baltimore.
Such observations are strikingly ahistorical. After all, the modern GLBT rights movement began with the Stonewall riots in 1969.
The difference today is that GLBT people have a voice and the political, economic, and cultural power to amplify that voice all the way to the Supreme Court. Thanks be to God, the voices of those long silenced are now being heard in the halls of power.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., observed in 1968 about disturbances in American cities over the previous several summers, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” King said,
I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.
In Baltimore in 2015 the conditions are as clear and obvious as the flames:
- As reported last fall by the Baltimore Sun, “Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won [a total of $5.7 million in] court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.”
- According to the ACLU, from 2010 to 2014, 31 people died following encounters with the Baltimore police.
This violence at the hands of those charged with keeping the peace continues to be an ongoing fact of life in a community that has also suffered greatly from economic conditions over which they have no control caused by economic policies and practices in which they have no voice. These are the “contingent, intolerable conditions” that must be the acknowledged context for any conversation about what is happening this week in the streets of Baltimore.
What does the church have to offer to any of this? Following King, we can and we must witness to the power of nonviolence. However, the witness to nonviolence loses all its moral authority when it becomes a too easily employed scolding judgment on the desperate actions of victims of such systems and structures. As King so clearly understood, that witness must come in practices of solidarity with the oppressed and in acts of disruption targeted carefully at systems and structures of injustice. In other words, the witness to nonviolence cannot be confined to lofty observations from the safety of pulpits (or blogs or Facebook), it must be incarnate in the street.
For the God of the oppressed is already in the streets.
Wednesday, April 08, 2015
I pulled a mug out of the cabinet today to fill with some soup for lunch on this chill, grey, April afternoon. The mug has our oldest child’s name on it. We bought it when he was in kindergarten in Kentucky. He’s in his second year of graduate school now in California.
We experience and mark the passing of time through changes small and large, and struggle to give sense and meaning to our journeys through the mysteries of time. I picked up that mug, and thought back to the cute and curious little boy who has grown into a fine young man. There is so much to love and celebrate in this, but there is also undeniable loss.
When I think back to our time in Kentucky, when our boys were so young, I recall one particular indelible moment of watching parents drop off their kids on move-in day at the University of Kentucky. I remember watching them and thinking, “we’ll be there before we know it.”
So we were, and now both boys are well into their higher educations, and our youngest is pondering the college choices she’ll be making soon.
She’ll be running in a track meet this afternoon, and, barring a late-afternoon rain, we’ll pull on some warm clothes to go cheer her on.
Track is fascinating sport: elemental in its focus on basic human movement over distance, as circular as the orbit of the planets, and demarcated uniformly in its careful divisions of time.
We all travel in circles as we run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Most of the time we don’t even notice the markings. The curves and stretches look pretty much the same unless someone calls out to get our attention: “hey, two laps to go; keep it up!” Or, in the run of ordinary time, “Hey, I’m going to kindergarten today! Hey, I’m going to college! Hey, I’m getting married!”
These markers along the way make meaning of the race we run.
This morning I checked the e-mail and discovered news of the untimely death of a friend in Florida, who left this mortal coil last night following a six-month struggle with cancer. He was roughly my age; a remarkable man who taught and inspired many along the way, as he ran well the race he was given. I was lucky enough to engage in some peacemaking work with him, and hanging in my office at church I have a ribbon of buttons from a Christian Peace Witness for Iraq event we helped plan together a half dozen years ago. Knowing of his illness, lately I have thought of him often when my eyes fall upon the buttons.
“Hey, I’m dying,” is not the call we wish to hear, but it will ring out for each of us more surely than the proverbial bell that reminds runners they’re on the final lap.
So much of the time we run these races with blinders, seeing only the patch of track upon which our next footfall will land. There’s nothing wrong with attending to the next step – indeed, it’s crucial that we do so lest we overlook the cracks in the surface of things. But when we can lift our eyes, even if just for a moment, to take in the fuller picture, we might catch glimpses of eternity in our midst in things as simple as a soup mug or a ribbon of peace-movement buttons.
Rest in peace, Tim Simpson. (Go ahead and click that link and learn a bit about Tim.)
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
This is what I was going to say at NCP tonight, but the question was called as I stood in line at the mic.
Fifteen years ago I was asked to resign from a pastoral position after I preached a sermon suggesting that the rights of same-gender couples were worthy of our compassion, and their holy unions worthy of God’s blessings through the church. So I stand in awe and wonder at the transformed landscape of church and culture.
More than that, though, I stand humbled and honored by the pastoral relationships I have today with the same-gender couples whose Christian marriages I have celebrated over the years. We stand together on the rock of God’s love that shines forth in and through their lives as a witness to the new thing that God is doing in the church and in the world.
I had lunch today with a long-time CPC member – a recently retired federal government worker who is pretty far along the Asperger’s/autism scale. John’s mother was an alcoholic who escaped her pain through suicide when John was a teenager. His father was a distant man. John was saved – his word – when his mother’s sister brought John to Arlington to live with her and her life partner. Together they created a loving family of choice.
I asked John to share a few words during worship on a Sunday in the Easter season about his own experience of resurrection. I know his story will focus on love and family and will include the incredibly deep and supportive friendship he has with a couple of men I was privileged to marry last spring – on the 25th anniversary of their first date.
Who would have imagined – who could have imagined – 65 years ago when John was born in rural central Virginia that such families would form, that such friendships could be possible. God’s imagination is so much richer than ours, and so less confined to straight lines and square boxes.
It’s not a straight line from where I stood 15 years ago to where we stand today to what’s next. Sometimes the road is rough and rocky. But we worship a God who is inherently relational – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer – and it is through our relationships as sisters and brothers in Christ that we will walk this new path together in joy, in hope, and in love.
Let us walk together, sisters and brothers, by adding our endorsement to what God is doing in and through our denomination.
So, the question was called by a conservative colleague when the only two people on his side of the issue had spoken. He said something to the effect that everyone pretty much knew how they’d vote when they got here. I suspect he was right about that. I didn’t much mind not speaking, but something rubs me the wrong way about the discussion begin cut off so quickly. I guess it’s that in all the years of being on the losing end of these votes I don’t recall conservatives being so eager to call the question so soon. I can’t help thinking that it may have something to do with the dwindling number of folks willing to stand up and articulate their point of view.