“Know what we see, rather than to see what we know”. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
This has been a difficult week for us. I write this on the one year anniversary of the massacre at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. And now, less than a year from that massacre directed at people of faith, and African-Americans, we are reliving it yet again. This time the target was the LGBTQ community, and mostly Latino/Latina/Latinx, as it was a special night for them at the “Pulse” on that date. The letter from Faith Action Network said it well,
In a space intended to celebrate the lives, identities, and experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning people—especially in the Latino/Latina/Latinx community—homophobia and hatred spilled over into horrific violence. For LGBTQ people who have too often been excluded and invalidated in religious sanctuaries across the country, gay bars and nightclubs have been places of sanctuary, safety, affirmation, and belonging. That sanctuary was violated on Sunday morning. As an organization and people of faith, we grieve alongside those who were wounded in Orlando, those whose loved ones were murdered, and the LGBTQ community as a whole.
In my initial response I spoke to the issue of assault weapons, and their place on our streets. I believe we should restrict such guns and I am not ashamed to say so. Monday may be the day that once again our Congress attempts to respond to this absurdity. I hope you will write to your representatives and share your thoughts. But today I write because I also believe the guns, and such deadly use of them, is merely a symptom of a much larger issue.
Since I wrote, we now know that the shooter had cased Pulse at least one time before. We know that he had a special disdain for the LGBTQ community and specifically targeted them and this club. I will not soon forget CNNs Anderson Cooper going through the names of the dead for the first time, showing their pictures, and telling a bit about them. He could not fight back the tears and barely made it through the list.
The next night, at least two pastors from our country spoke of the “judgement” against homosexuals and that this happened because of their sin, one even commenting that it was too bad the shooter did not “get them all.” This is not only bad theology but bad humanity. And I am just going to say it, it is not Christian either. On top of this we have a presidential candidate that not only fans the flames of bigotry, but espouses it himself, while narcissistically claiming, “I am the least racist person you have ever met.” He says things such as “if I could, I would punch him in the face” regarding those who would protest such statements, essentially condoning violence. It may be “straight talk” but it is also bigoted and violent talk, and we should wake up to it.
These are hate crimes, and that hate is our responsibility. And we are not being as careful and thoughtful with it as we should be.
I started with that quote from Rabbi Heschel,
“know what we see rather than to see what we know” because we are woefully unwilling or unable to know what we see. We have a society growing ever more violent and guns are being used more and more to solve problems and to negate issues. But these aren’t problems or issues, these are people. I am hauntingly reminded of WEB Dubois’ classic work The Soul of Black Folk where he asks, “how does it feel to be a problem?”
These acts are horrific, but it is the hate behind them which is the real problem. As a Church and as a people we have to “know” this. And we have to see ourselves as part of the problem, not just spectators to the hate, but part of it.
How are we part of it? We are part of it by seeing what we know, instead of knowing what we see. For instance, even in the descriptions of this as the “deadliest mass shooting in our history” we negate First Nations massacres, the killing of African-American slaves (Greenwood massacre, Tulsa OK, 1921, Colfax massacre, Colfax, Louisiana 1873), and other racial massacres. Why? Because we are unwilling to unpack the word and meaning of “our” history. Whose history? It is easier to see what we know.
And already this event is being used to take our eyes off ourselves and put it on an entire religion. This is, once again, raising the issue of banning Muslims from coming to this country, but that would not have stopped this shooter. He was an American, born and raised. We seem to forget the fact that the bomber in Oklahoma City, and the shooters at Sandy Hook and Mother Emmanuel, and Aurora, and Columbine, were white males, from “Christian” homes, American’s, born and raised.
The common denominator is not religion, or skin color, or sexuality, or even ideology. It is hate.
Young beautiful people died in the Pulse club. Some of them were immigrants, many of them Latino/Latina, most of them LGTBQ. They were targeted for just these things. I pray this is not who we have become, and if we are not there already, won’t become. But I fear we are headed there if, all of us, do not stand up to the hate, check it in ourselves, and find ways to expose it, and turn it too. To do that, we will truly need to know what we see, truly know it, even when that hurts, even when that is discomforting, even when it’s painful. We need to love one another enough, to challenge each other on the ways we are complicit, to recognize and and call one another on our sins of omission. We have to know these things, and not just see what we know.
These were “our” children, our brothers and our sisters. They always are. Our faith teaches that.
Heschel has another quote in the same book,
Few are guilty, but all are responsible.
A few days after the Orlando Massacre I visited, for the first time, the 911 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. There are so many moving things there but perhaps the most for me was this giant wall, with a pastel blue square representing every life lost on that site, on that day. The blue is to depict the beautiful blue sky of that morning. All of these surround the quote from Virgil, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”