If nowhere else, you have at least read it here. Well, now you are going to read it again.
I have not written anything about the terror inflicted by Dylann Roof via the slaughter of nine innocent Bible study participants at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, on 17 June. I found that my capacity for rational thought was paralyzed. For the most part, it still is. But that is perhaps as it should be. Perhaps there are crimes so vile that they render rationality itself indecent. Like certain sounds that the ear cannot hear, there may be certain experiences that only the id, only the reptile brain, only the limbic system, only the endocrine glands can process. I am old enough to remember an episode of All in the Family, back in the late ‘60s, when Archie Bunker (the late Carroll O’Connor) and his son-in-law Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner) were having one of their eternal political arguments. At the end, Archie made some non sequitur remark that, even by Archie’s standards, was simply over-the-top bigoted and irrational, so much so that Mike, who had been rational and civil up to that point, simply stared glassy-eyed at Archie for a moment and finally just primal-screamed in his face: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! That is the point I reached in the several days following the murders, except that my scream was silent.
For me – and speaking only and exclusively for myself – the horror and outrage are potentiated by the fact that this terrorist act occurred in a church. Would the outrage have been diminished if it had been a case of a Timothy McVeigh blowing up a government office building? Of an Aum Shinrikyo emulator releasing poison gas in a city’s subway system? Of a Bagwan Sri Rajneesh poisoning a salad bar in The Dalles, OR? My cerebral cortex says “No … both are outrageous, but one is no more outrageous than the other”. My glands say “Yes … terrorism against places of worship is intrinsically more heinous”. In this case, the glands win. The glands also win in cases of pedophilic priests and the Church’s episcopal leadership that enabled and covered up the crimes … that acted – shall we speak plainly? -- as de facto child-sex pimps. The glands won in Birmingham, AL, when white supremacists blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young African-American girls: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. But the case of Emanuel AME Church is wormwood-and-gall (Jer. 23:15) to an exceptional degree because the very name of the church – “Emanuel” – is Hebrew for God with us.
Full disclosure now: I am an ex-Christian. I am also a functional atheist. I emphasize “functional” to distinguish being a functional atheist from an ontological atheist. I am a functional atheist in the sense that, while I believe God may exist, whatever God may exist is pristinely disconnected and dissociated from anything that happens in human affairs. (People like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and the late Christopher Hitchens are ontological atheists, believing that God does not exist in any sense, no-way, no-how. Ontology, from the Greek diphthong on meaning “is”, is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature of existence tout court and per se.) That is on an abstract level. On a more personal level, my individual history with God has been such that any kind of relationship with whatever God may exist is always, and has always been, fraught with depression, frustration, serial disappointment, and stress of what I can only call lyrical intensity. Does God really exist? Depending on what those last two words mean, I have no idea. All I know for slam-dunk certain is that my history with God strongly indicates that God is to me what the abusive husband was to his wife in the harrowing Stephen King novel Rose Madder. Or the God of David Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God. So ... bottom line: I have never had much luck with gods. They have never cared for me, nor I for them, despite a 55-plus-year gut-busting effort on my part to forge relationship. Whatever love I may have once had for God was always – in fact, “always already” – unrequited.
So whence my outrage over the Charleston, SC, atrocity? If God is supremely disconnected from human life, human affairs, and human concerns, why should we be surprised that people – Christians, Bible-study participants, no less – were slaughtered – and that this slaughter occurred in a church whose very name proclaims that “God [is] with us”? Why the surprise? Most of all, why the outrage? In such a God-less … God-free? … universe, are not such obscenities to be expected as a matter of course, like the march of the seasons and the sun rising in the east? From a strictly rational standpoint, all these questions – and many of a similar nature – are well-taken. But as I said above, the glands will have their due. The glands' judgments and moral differentiations cannot be defended rationally, of course. But then, the glands owe the cerebral cortex and rationality neither allegiance, subordination, nor explanation. (Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know” – Blaise Pascal, Pensees) And here, too, the glands win.
My rational mind recognizes that in a Catholic Church more concerned with protecting the institution than protecting children, and with an episcopal culture likewise more concerned with the former than with the latter … yes … of course, children are going to be sacrificed on the altar of perverted sacerdotal lust. Yes … of course … in a political and social culture rooted in four centuries of racism whereby human beings were bought and sold like pork-belly futures, where people were willing to rend the Nation and assassinate its President in the name of subjugating a race whose members were regarded as glorified apes, black children could, of course, be killed like cattle in an abattoir. Of course. But my glands – my reptile brain, my limbic system – were all formed under the tutelage of a Christianity that, like its parent religion, insists that, instead of being detached from history, God’s fingerprints are all over it. That I no longer find this view tenable – in fact, that I find it oppressive – does not, for all that, alter that visceral programming. So I end up with my glands expecting and demanding that God act – on behalf of others, not me -- even though my cerebral cortex knows better. I end up disappointed at God’s failure to do what – I know ahead of time – God can(will?)not do. I never became proficient enough at building theological and philosophical Ptolemaic epicycles of sufficient subtlety to allow me to save appearances by salvaging belief in an "omni-benevolent" God -- I suspect precisely because I knew that is what I was doing. (Excuses only excuse if you think they are not excuses.) At any rate, my fatal flaw: I always expected a God who could do anything to do something. My bad!
Well … quite frankly, that’s my problem. But not just mine. That is the problem of all of us – not just me – who no longer find belief in a God active in human history even worthy of being taken seriously, much less cogent, least of all compelling. Disappointment, however understandable given our prior theological / Sunday School indoctrination, is, in the end, felonious nostalgia, a mere narcissistic self-indulgence in the face of such reckless evil … and a consequent failure to take our own responsibility seriously. Others may find belief in such a God – the God of “God with us” – compelling. Who knows? Maybe they are right. Seriously. Moreover, not only may they be right, there are many moments when I envy them their belief in a benignly supervenient Providence. Why? I dunno ... maybe because they believe they have Someone in the stands at least rooting for them, a belief I do not have, though over the years I got pretty good at faking it. In any case, I can form no one’s conscience but my own. But I can form my own. And – for me and speaking only for myself – the events in Charleston at “Mother Emanuel” did for me what the Prophet Nathan’s parable did for King David. As a means of alluding to David’s adulterous theft of Bath-sheba, wife of David's faithful soldier Uriah the Hittite, Nathan told David a parable about a rich man who, determined to practice the trickle-up economics of c. 1000 BCE, stole a poor man’s only sheep to slaughter and make a feast for a wealthy visitor. Nathan asked David what should be done with such a man. David replied that the man was worthy of death. Nathan pointed at David and said in Hebrew Hata ha’ish: “Thou art the man”.
David was responsible. David was the man. So am I. I am the man. Not God. Me.
James R. Cowles