Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Arkansas Shooting and God Talk

I don’t know what happened yesterday in Little Rock. Of course, I know the bare bones of the story: two men are now dead, after a scenario of senseless violence that is attracting worldwide attention because one of the two was a leader of the local Democratic party.

But the whys and wherefores are as murky to me as to anyone else, and it would be presumptuous (not to mention, opportunistic) of me to try to comment on motives for a crime that no one appears yet to know—or may ever know. From some local coverage of the story, which focuses on the fact that the alleged shooter, Timothy Johnson, lived alone and had never been married, I begin to have that sinking-stomach feeling that the media may spin this story as one of those predictable, worn-out fables about lonely “single” men going around the bend and ending up on a shooting spree.

(A fable because simply repeating these facts never explains why it is that some lonely single men go on shooting sprays. A worn-out fable, because it toys with gay-baiting without ever stating the subtext explicitly, and tales that toy with the truth without seeking to engage it are always worn out even before they begin. And a worn-out fable because it doesn’t ever seek to explain why it is that men, far more than women—and men of a certain political cast of mind—tend to take guns and shoot others in mindless killing sprees.)

Still, I can understand why, when the news broke, some people immediately began to ask about the Democratic aspect of the story: why was the state Democratic party chair targeted? Some media and blog accounts I’ve read suggest Arkansas is a Republican state, and appear to imagine us as a wild and wooly frontier on which conservatives pick off liberals at will, while law officials wink at the sport.

From Mark Twain through H.L. Mencken to the mainstream media coverage of the Clinton era, what people are willing to imagine about Arkansas baffles many of us who live here. Having seen first-hand and up-close the byzantine political life of Louisiana, and the buttoned-down, semi-fascist, “family-friendly” political life of the Queen City of the New South, Charlotte, North Carolina, I’m here to tell you that Arkansas politics doesn’t hold a candle to that of some other Southern states, when it comes to eye-gouging and dirty tricks.

That’s not saying much, of course. We have a long road to walk before becoming more educated, civilized, and truly democratic. But we’re hardly unique in that respect. Half of the citizens of this nation, after all, voted for the intellectually and morally challenged current occupant of the White House.

I think for anyone seeking to get to the bottom of what happened in my city yesterday, the political question does have to be pursued carefully. It can’t be entirely accidental that the target was a Democratic party official, can it? And (again, this is pure speculation based on no evidence as to the gunman's real motives), it does perhaps deserve notice that Johnson lived in the part of the state that is most solidly Republican—in Searcy, in fact, a church-dominated town that has, in recent years, run a bookstore out of business because it sold sexually explicit (read: gay) lovemaking manuals, among many other books.

And in the part of the state that is far more white than black, in the half of the state in which some communities expelled their African-American populations in the Jim Crow era, in the half of the state in which racism may well be more intractable and taken for granted than in the half that was once plantation country . . . . For what it’s worth, the same area of the state that historically leans Republican and is overwhelmingly white is the half of the state dominated by dry counties, in which one cannot legally buy liquor.

People commenting on yesterday’s shooting immediately wondered about connections between it and the equally mysterious shooting some weeks ago in Knoxville. There, it took days for the mainstream media to take note of facts that got immediate exposure on citizen-maintained blogs: e.g., the fact that the gunman entered the church shouting slurs about liberals; the fact that the church had recently put up a sign welcoming gays, etc. When we sense that the mainstream media do not dig for the story behind the story, that they provide us with sanitized versions of stories designed to disguise the real motives of shooters who take their cue from hate groups and right-wing talk-radio gurus, we naturally feel compelled to dig. For truth, since no one can make wise political decisions on the basis of misinformation and lies . . . .

(As an aside—and, again, as a corrective to the myth-makers who have never visited our state, but are confident their depiction of it as inhabited by inbred troglodytes is accurate—another tidbit re: the Knoxville shootings that never got any play in the national mainstream media was that the church member who interposed himself between the gunman and the folks in the church, Greg McKendry, was an Arkansan. McKendry gave his life to save others in the church from being shot. The local free paper, Arkansas Times, reported this piece of information—see

We’ll see what develops, as the Timothy Johnson story unfolds. Meanwhile, I’m sure that, with many others today, I’m pondering the big issues, issues like what to make of inexplicable tragedy—a question that constantly niggles at the hearts and minds of anyone who professes faith in some kind of divine purpose or scheme of things.

All the more so when a tragedy happens close at hand: Steve and I had gone out to lunch, and had the misfortune of having another car back into us as we drove home, just as the shooting took place. Having no idea what was going on just a few miles south and east of us, we waited and waited for the police to come and write a report on the fender-bender, wondering why this was taking so long, only to discover when we got home that the capitol area had been on a kind of lock-down at the very time when we were fuming about the lack of police solicitude for accident-stuck drivers.

A lot of the blog talk I’ve overheard since the shootings is God-talk. I have to confess that this talk leaves me cold. What leaves me cold, specifically, is the implication that God somehow pulls the strings of events like this—that the same God who one day protects an airplane full of folks from crashing the following day permits another airplane full of people to crash.

My thinking about where God is when tragedies like the Gwatney shooting occur may depart from orthodoxy. I no longer know what the “orthodox” teaching about God’s role at times of tragedy is; I have to admit, I no longer care a lot, either, about checking out the orthodoxy manual before I engage my brain. The exemplars of orthodoxy have, for some time now, underwhelmed me, as they make their case for orthodoxy. When people claim to own truth, it is hard not to place their own lives beside the truth they own, as exemplars of the truth they profess. And then the gap between what is lived and what is professed is large, who can help asking about the virtue of what is professed?

Steve has had a big influence on my thinking about events such as the Holocaust. Because his family roots run from America entirely back to Germany, he feels the historic burden of the German people following the Holocaust. His grandparents all spoke German as their first language, and he was one of the last children baptized in the German-speaking Catholic parish of his community before it was consolidated with the French parish.

Whenever I am tempted too quickly and too easily to see God’s hand, either for woe or weal, in the horrible things that happen routinely to people (including ourselves), Steve is quick to ask me where God was as his cousins murdered 8 million Jews, as well as countless Gypsies, gay people, the mentally and physically challenged, Slavs, etc. Steve is more hesitant to bring G-d into the picture, when atrocities happen.

Because he struggles with this issue—reads constantly about it, tries to make sense of historic evil—I struggle, too. With him, I think I have gradually come to the conclusion that the only sane way to view G-d’s connection to tragedy is to see G-d as one who suffers through tragedy with us—as one who is as baffled by inexplicable atrocities as we are baffled.

However, because I need to know that there’s meaning to it all, purpose in my own very broken life (as well as the possibility of triumphing over the obstacles that human ugliness have placed in my life), I’d like to think—I challenge myself to keep believing—that G-d’s involvement in the suffering of the world is redemptive involvement. Somehow, the purpose G-d is weaving in history is a purpose that is woven through God’s own presence in the web of history, including the warp and woof of history’s groaning.

I have come to see G-d less as the puppet master on high pulling the strings, than the loving presence at the heart of it all, wooing the world beyond tragedy, suffering, pain, towards transformation. How can I do otherwise, when the image I see on the face of the puppet master is always the image of the men who rule us, who have painted their face there to reinforce their claim to mastery of the entire cosmos?

It is they who make it so difficult for many of us to believe in G-d at all, since the G-d they have made in their image is as unattractive as they themselves are—neither redemptive nor loving, but cruel, capricious, and controlling. When we can plainly see that they write the rules to serve their own ends, and that they can break the rules again and again, causing horrible torment to those “beneath” them, how can we drag G-d—their God—into the picture?

No, I can no longer see G-d there at all, in the midst of the rulers of the world. If G-d’s face is anywhere in the world, I tend to think it’s to be seen in the African baby crying as it dies of marasmus, in the teen girl raped by soldiers who have just taken control of her village, in the gay man bashed within an inch of his life in a dark alleyway.

And that G-d, the G-d whose face shines darkly amidst the least among us, is a G-d who suffers, who cries, who begs for justice along with those in whom her face shines forth. That G-d implicates me, since justice does not fall down from heaven. It is claimed at painful cost by those who believe in the depths of their souls that nothing else has such an ultimate claim on us, and who find that, in the struggle, that we are not alone: when we band together to make the world a better place, a place in which more people will have access to the basic goods of the world, we encounter in the struggle together an energy that transcends us—an energy that many of us name as divine.

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