19 June 2015

Not Enough and Too Many Degrees of Separation

from The Shade Room (Facebook page)
Wednesday night bible study: that's the part that gets me.  Parts of this story have become all too familiar: black people being killed for all kinds of stupid reasons saturated with racism, white men shooting strangers.  Not comfortable, not okay, not normal--just, it's a thing that happens, that shouldn't, that does.

But Wednesday night bible study?  There was always a lot of church during the summer weeks I spent with my grandparents in rural Indiana. White church. And even if I was often spared the midweek observance, Wednesday night bible study was a fixture on the extended family landscape and daily narratives, an anchor for family stories, a point at which friendships were solidified, plans made, gossip shared. Wednesday night bible study meant that my mother's Episcopalian (she converted in grad school) and then Presbyterian weeks had a gap in them that she filled with choir practice or committee involvement.

Much of what is good in me and in my (now Jewish) religious life comes out of those Indiana summers where being a good person was bound up in church involvement, in a community that affirmed that goodness. As an adult I see the more complex reality of these religious roots: the casual racism and anti-semitism that passes as a social gaffe, of the insularity that makes it hard to see the full humanity of people whose virtues have a secular frame, the fear that seeks out comfortable absolutes. Even where I can say with confidence, "...but my family isn't like that!" I am only a degree or two of separation away from white bible-thumping racism.

Wednesday night bible study--and the whole community of observance that it stood for--was where these contradictions could be reconciled, where people like my grandmother (who always welcomed strangers and encouraged her children to learn as much as they could) found sustenance.  It may have something to do with why I continue to have such faith in the power of liberal arts education, that early conviction: bring people together with the old words written by those wiser than themselves, encourage them to be their best selves while they strive to understand the truth, and the Kingdom may, may just, start to creep into our field of vision.

It almost happened that Wednesday night, and then it didn't. It was never going to. No one goes looking to shoot up a white Wednesday night bible study.  And it's no longer possible to write off this particular monster as--just that--a freak of nature.  There have been too many stories congruent to this one. Whatever he is, white America made him and this particular kind of violence he chose to inflict. That point where my spiritual muscle memory connects with this story is exactly the point where white America bared the ugly racist core of its ugly racist soul. And whatever activism I may undertake, however many casual racist jokes I may smack down, I just need to shut up and sit down with the pain of knowing that.

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