I wrote these words when it came time to return to the University of Chicago Divinity School to think more deeply about religion and violence. The year was 2002 and the last time I had pulled the box of candles off the shelf in my office in Memorial Church was the evening of September 11, 2001.
During my final year at Stanford, our newly appointed police chief died suddenly and without warning. Chief Marvin Moore was the first African American to hold the position. I found the officers devastated when I went to visit the department and offered whatever help I could. It had been their good fortune that they never lost a serving officer in or out of the line of duty for as long as anyone could remember.
One of the reasons I have not said more about last week’s carnage is that, at the moment, my most charitable response is restraint. You see, a few weeks ago, when I finally got the physical strength to visit my ailing father in the nursing home in Cleveland, I was stopped by a police officer for no apparent reason–other than perhaps a Soundex algorithm gone awry. (Google it.) I pulled up into a gas station so that he would not have to stand in traffic and rolled down the window. He yelled, at the top of his lungs, “ARE YOU DRUNK? SHOW ME YOUR LICENSE AND PROOF OF INSURANCE. WHERE ARE YOU GOING?”
I learned of the dreadful massacre at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina while lying on a sleeping bag on the floor of my empty apartment. This is the very church of Denmark Vesey (1767-1822), a former slave who bought his freedom. He attempted to organize what might have become one of the largest slave revolts of the U.S. antebellum era. Those who recruited black soldiers to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War invoked the name of Denmark Vesey.
I cannot help but feel compassion for slain officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, and Shaneka Thompson, wounded ex-girlfriend of the murderer—that infamous murderer whose name I will not even glorify by mentioning—and their family members. I have just as much compassion for them as I feel for all those who have been the victims of domestic violence, community violence, police brutality, and state violence. I also pray for the Episcopal Bishops of New York, Long Island and environs, and for New York Mayor de Blasio, as they will undoubtedly have to reckon with a church and a city that likely is as divided about the matter as the proper course of action for moving forward.
A few weeks ago, I was inspired to take up the practice of praying the Rosary. Part of me still cringes at the thought of it and feels a bit dirty, especially during the Salve regina and while reflecting on the last two glorious mysteries. But I can tell that it’s bearing fruit, so I’ll keep at it. “Wisdom is justified by all her children.” I used to have some rather common Protestant misconceptions about the practice. I thought that it was a rather legalistic way of ingratiating oneself to Jesus through his mother. To be fair, I have heard it said by some that Mary is somehow closer to us and more compassionate toward us than Jesus because she was just fully human, not also fully divine. That makes it sound like Marian devotion is necessary to supply some defect in the Incarnation, a heretical belief in all three branches of Christianity.