Saturday, December 15, 2012

politicizing and the political

Brad East at Resident Theology has pushed back a bit on the kind of response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy sketched out below, in my last post. You can find Brad's thoughtful post here. Click over and read it, before continuing.

There is a lot that we agree on, which surprises me not at all. But I want to offer some pushback of my own on a couple-three points (for those of you unfamiliar, that's a Southern thing, couple-three.)

Brad describes the main transgression of opening up public dialogue around the contested issue of gun control as "politicizing." However, unlike many, he offers a definition of what he means by the word, and a reason he believes it's bad. Brad writes, "to politicize something is to make it a means to another end." And to take something as raw and horrifying and recent and still-bleeding as this tragedy is, and use it instrumentally to gain some sort of end, is wrong.

I doubt anyone would disagree with that.

Where I diverge, however, is the assumption that calls for gun control are politicizing. They're political, to be sure. But they're not politicized in the way defined above. Responding to the gunning down of innocents with calls for getting rid of guns seems to me to be pretty damn germane, not some kind of prestidigitarian politicizing tricksiness. I'm not concerned about an "issue." I'm not using the deaths of children to further an "agenda." Nor am I crowing, "see? I told you so, we need better gun control." This is my "why, Lord?"--but it is not an abstract theological question, because it is "why have we not acted to prevent this possibility? why have we let this happen, again?"

I have a 6-year-old little girl, that I send to school Monday through Friday. I have a 6-year-old little girl that I want desperately to have some reasonable belief and confidence in the safety of, when I do that. I have a 6-year-old little girl that I want to enter her 1st grade classroom with joy and anticipation, and not anxiety and fear because if it happened to someone else, maybe it will happen again, to her. This isn't passing over the deaths of 20 6- and 7-year-olds and their teachers in pursuit of political points. This is, in fact, about them. This is about the others who might follow. This is about repentance.

Second, I do firmly believe that there is practical action we can take, as a nation and within our communities, to address aspects of a problem that would have been horrifying in the singular but which has become a recurrent pattern. This does not make the mistake of rendering "evil explainable." I don't anticipate that I will ever understand the deeper metaphysical question of why anything like this would ever happen. But if we load all the guilty agency onto one 20-year-old gunman, and ignore the ways in which we have allowed ourselves to be complicit in the conditions that make this event possible--that's rendering evil "explainable" in the worst way, because it forecloses on any action that might make it impossible in the future. We can, at the very least, work toward the modest goal of making it harder for people to kill so, shall we say, efficiently.

Finally, and this is I think a very interesting point, Brad criticizes the facile and ubiquitous opposition of politics and prayer. I find this to be very helpful, and in fact, my unease with a simple opposition is what drove the concluding sentences of my previous post, ending with, "we need politics motivated by our prayers." But to suggest that the only appropriate responses to this tragedy are silence or prayer, and ruling out political (not politicized!) speech is to reinscribe the opposition.

What we need, I think, is all sorts of speech: prayer, outrage, anger, speechlessness. All at once. We need the political and the theological and the personal. And we need, each of us, to take from the confusing babble the piece we need at that moment. Not everyone mourns the same way. Not everyone needs the same thing. Me, I need to wail with Rachel, and refusing to be comforted, get up and go to the gates and make my voice heard: do not let this happen again.


KenR said...

Pretty much sums up my reaction to his blog post. Thanks.

Brad said...

Hey Jen,

Many thanks for your response, which is both thoughtful and measured (and much more concise than mine!). I don't have time for a full reply right now, but I wanted to clarify something real quick.

Much of the force of my post had to do with *timing*, and specifically the unhesitating swiftness with which people took to Facebook, blogs, TV, radio, etc., with their opinions on what would have prevented this, what should be done now, why people who disagree are stupid, the interpretation of the second amendment, etc.

My point is not that these conversations should not be had, nor that such action should not be taken. Nor is it even that an event like this shouldn't serve as an impetus for such (needed) conversations and action.

My point is that it seems rash, insensitive, unnecessary, and abstracting to turn to those things *before the crisis is even over*. My lines about children's blood not being dry yet and children's bodies yet to be transported out of an elementary school aren't just rhetoric. Can there never be reverent (or terrified, or angry) silence? Is it always time for speech -- and not only speech (say, to one's spouse or friend or child), but public debate on Facebook and blogs?

A friend read my post and glossed it as a commentary on Job's friends: they only became guilty when they spoke. That could be taken too far (i.e., we should never speak), but at the very least, the image is helpful: seven full days of sitting shiva, in utter silence, because the enormity of the tragedy overwhelms the immediacy of what we want to say, much less what we want to get *done* as a result.

So, apart from other issues (which I hope to get to later), let me ask a sincere question: Is there an appropriate lag time, as it were, when something like Friday's murders happens, before we take to FB/blogs/Twitter/TV/radio and start talking about preventative measures, political policy, writing to representatives, etc.? I think there is. If you agree, then there's not a lot of distance between us: let's imagine what would be a respectful time to give the events to breathe, grieve, be what they are, be about whom they're about, etc.; and then when it would be appropriate to start talking about the other stuff.

If you disagree, then that's the biggest issue here, and there's tons of distance. So if you do disagree, please say more about why so I can try to understand better where you're coming from.

JTB said...

Hi Brad!

Perhaps the issue is less about timing than about presumed audience? (Floating an idea as it's forming in response to your comment...) I would absolutely agree that it would be idiotically inappropriate for someone to start talking about gun control laws with anyone personally and directly affected by this. There, yes, the only possible responsible theological and pastoral response is the silence of suffering-with-those-who-suffer (says the woman who avows publicly she has no pastoral bones in her body). If there is a shift to political speech that is something for those people to initiate, or not, and in their own time.

But I think speech from someone outside that immediate context is different. I'm not sure that silence is mandated from the rest of us in the same way; we are speaking to each other, not the survivors and the grieving. Nor are we (if we're doing it responsibly) speaking for them or on their behalf--but for ourselves and in direct response to this thing that has happened.

The Job's friends gloss is interesting; I might want to suggest that the ending of Job seems to point, not to silence, but to the contrasting content of their speech versus Job's, who of course is said to have "spoken rightly." However, the comparison breaks down there anyhow because Job was the sufferer, not a fellow member of the community talking to others about how Job's plight might be avoided by, I don't know, stricter building codes or something...

Jeremy Paden said...


I agree a respectful silence, one that mourns with those that mourn, is important. We must be with and be present in the tragedy. In such moments prayer is the truest response. (There are, of course, many forms of prayer...)

At what point, though, does it become licit to begin to name and put into language these atrocities? Two days, three? One week? Two months? (The question is only slightly rhetorical. Again, respect must be shown to the families. And also the silence of mourning allows for a thinking through the issues, to know how to respond.)

At some point naming must happen. We must use language to try to understand the crime. We cannot simply let it remain in the realm of the unspeakable, or the exception, or even evil. To do so is to ensure that such crimes continue.

And, though this shooting is horrible, tragic, seemingly incomprehensible, it is the 12th such mass shooting in the US this year. (At what point do these isolated, individual atrocities move from exceptions to something like a normal, though deeply broken state of affairs. This is not a crime in isolation.

We cannot not talk about it. It is political and must be named and debated and discussed. It must be named with theological language, legal language, psychological/medical language. The reasons for this must be examined and studied. (I agree with Jen that audience is important. That as a nation we have to discuss these matters. That as friends and colleagues and neighbors of those who have lost loved ones, we have to sit in silence and mourn. These are not mutually exclusively actions.)

To turn to law and to turn to medicine and to history and to the social and political sciences is not to turn away from God and turn to government for solutions, nor is it a turning to psychiatry or psychology or any other discipline for solutions instead of God. To turn to these is to try to name them and do what we can about them. Anything else lets evil remain unspeakable.

(As you can tell my main concern is with the language that tries to place these events outside the human and the historical and the everyday. To do so, I think begins a slide into a silence that covers up rather than a silence that comforts.)

KenR said...

There are multiple gun-inflicted violent deaths EVERY day in this country, many involving young people, that largely go unnoticed because they occur in the inner cities among people who somehow don't count. My own unapolegtic speech about guns on Friday was as much in reaction to that fact as it was to the events in Sandy Hook (not to mention the recent rash of other such mass killings). If there is tragedy EVERY day, and if silence is the only just response in the present, then we would never start talking. Ever.

Your argument about timing, Ben, could only possibly make sense to me if we were, in fact, only responding to this one isolated event. The explosion that I witnessed on Facebook on Friday was only catalyzed by Friday's tragedy, the actual causes and ingredients of that rection have been brewing for some time. That doesn't mean that there weren't unseemly things said and that in particular cases people might have been better off keeping their online mouth shut, but that wasn't your argument as far as I can tell.

I had some other concerns about what you originally wrote, mostly regarding what I considered to be false binaries driving your analysis, but here I only wanted to respond to your comments on "timing" since you claim (above) that was your primary point.

KenR said...

Sorry, Brad. I inadvertently referred to you as Ben.

Brad said...

Thanks all for the thoughtful and challenging responses to my post. Unfortunately, I've been responsible for 10-hour days with a newborn, and am about to embark on a cross-country trip for Christmas -- and so haven't had, and won't soon have, the time to respond to these responses. I might try to return to them, or just email one-on-one with Jen; either way, I appreciate the close reading and engagement. Blessings on these next couple weeks.

Jeremy Paden said...


safe travels. Enjoy family. Hold that child close.


JTB said...

Brad--safe travels and congrats, had no idea you were a new parent! Enjoy the lovely surreality of constant sleep deprivation! and thanks for the prompt to think more deeply about an important matter.