Playing the Flame Game

It has now been two weeks since the violence at Charlottesville.

I have spent that time trying to compose my thoughts; trying to put words to the chaotic torrent of emotions pumping through my veins in time with my heartbeat.

I am numbed by the hatred, anger, and racism so prevalent in our nation. My grief is so heavy, it feels as though I’ve swallowed a boulder. Leaden. Dense.

“If you’re not feeling the weight of these times in your belly, that’s more likely indifference/detachment than the peace of Christ.”
– Jonathan Martin

My current emotional state is reminiscent of the day I found out Nancy died.

The troopers came into our house, pinching her license between their fingers. “Is this your daughter?” they asked my parents. When my parents nodded yes, they continued speaking from a place miles away. I strained to listen, but it was only through a great effort that I heard what they said next, as it felt as though I’d been suddenly thrust under deep water.

“She got into a car accident today and she didn’t make it. I’m so sorry.”

My bones turned to rubber and folded underneath me. I collapsed into the current of the water and it began pulling at me, slowly at first than faster and faster. As it spiraled madly around me, I flailed, trying to break the surface, trying to inhale the lungful of air I so desperately needed. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. The boulder that had taken residence somewhere in my gut weighed me down further, pulling me deeper by the minute. I eventually managed to grab a conveniently placed doorframe and pull myself to the surface of the torrent, only to discover that I was still unable to breathe because the boulder knocked the wind out of me. Wild-eyed and gasping, I wept. Emotions beyond the realm of words poured out from a place deep inside me that had been irreparably broken.

There are five stages of grief.

The first is denial. This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening, we tell ourselves. Some of my white brothers and sisters are still stuck in this stage of grief. This is a defense mechanism, our mind’s way of rationalizing otherwise overwhelming emotions. It helps offset the immediate shock of the loss. It acts as an anesthetic through the first wave of pain. It grants us to survival to the second stage.

The second stage is anger. As the denial begins to wane, the pain reemerges, as intense and raw as we left it. We are still unprepared. However, since we can no longer deny the reality of the situation, we deflect it away from us in outbursts of anger.

I am currently camped in the angry stage of grief. I don’t think that I’ve ever sat down and written a blog post while I was this angry before. I try to spare those who read my posts the full intensity of the fire that runs hot and wild through my veins.

But unfortunately, not being angry is a luxury I can no longer afford. This anger is important.

Attitudes that I thought we as a nation had condemned, and belief systems that I thought we had dismantled have resurfaced with a horrifically ravenous fanaticism. Conversations that I never thought would be necessary on this side of history have become the norm. Groups of people have been repeatedly devalued or ignored by other groups of people scrambling to ensure that they remain in power. It’s sickening.

I need to sit with this anger against white supremacy, tight and hard in my chest. I need to feed this fire against injustice, hot and fierce and dangerous. I need to guard this flame against racism, carefully cultivating it into something productive, allowing it to give me direction and mold me as it runs its course. This fire is valuable. It is a fire that has burned its name on my bones and seared its name on my flesh. It is an anger that will not easily be doused from my memories – nor is it one that should be.

Yes, friends, I am angry. I am angry, because I am grieving.

“If we hand our sons and daughters a faith exposed as racist, misogynistic, unconcerned about creation and the poor, they aren’t wrong to leave it.”
– Jonathan Martin

My heart is broken for my brothers and sisters of color, for the marginalized and the oppressed. My heart is broken by both the silence of some of my white brothers and sisters, and the excuses that some of the others are offering on behalf of groups that are not worth defending. My heart is broken by the flippancy with which the President is treating these issues in an increasingly divided nation. My heart is broken by the labels which we’re using as weapons to further divide us and choke empathy. Simply put, my heart is broken.

“The purpose of life is not just to be happy.
The purpose of life, my love, is to feel.
You must understand that your pain,
is essential.”
– Christopher Poindexter

Matthew 5:4 says that those who mourn are blessed, because they will be comforted. In the Greek, the word for mourn here is pentheó, which can also be translated lament or manifested grief – i.e. a grief so severe that it cannot be hidden; a grief that takes possession of a person. It can also be translated to grieve over death – and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Thus, this Beatitude could just as easily read: blessed are those who lament their sin, for they will be comforted. I used to think the implications of this verse were merely personal, but I’ve since realized that to lament your own sin is to lament all sin, because as you acknowledge your sin, you realize that the same root bears the same fruit. This is why in Isaiah 53, Jesus was prophesied to be “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.” He knew the ramifications for sin more intimately than anybody. He perfectly knew perfection; thus He grieved over imperfection.

It is imperative we face our own darkness before we can fight against the evil so prevalent in our world – lest we become like those we are fighting against. History attests to this. America was involved in World War II against Germany and the Nazis, while simultaneously placing Japanese Americans in internment camps. Without the humility to look in the mirror, we become hypocrites. None of us are beyond the reach of our own fallen nature, in spite of the best of intentions. “The authority of compassion,” Henri J. Nouwen writes, “is the possibility for each of us to forgive our brothers and sisters, because forgiveness is only real for those who have discovered the weakness of their friends and the sins of their enemies in their own hearts, and are willing to call each human being their sister or brother.”

“Grant, Lord, that I may know myself,
that I may know Thee.”
– Augustine

Humility is a cornerstone of Christianity. To know God is to be humbled by Him. As you are humbled by Him, you are able to better love others, because the gospel is the great equalizer. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. There is no Jew or Greek, there is just people. Jesus said Himself that the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. These are not two unrelated commandments, but rather the second commandment hinges on the first. If you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, the natural outpouring of that is to love your neighbor. 1 John 4:20 states that “whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” We are all created in God’s image, thus no person or group of people is better than another. This scarcity mindset – that “there will not be enough for me if they benefit too” – is eradicated by the gospel. There is enough equality for all.

I don’t truly remember the days following Nancy’s death. I was in a fog; everything is blurred at the edges. But this I do know – in that time of deep grief, I was not alone. I was not left to drown in an endless pool of blackness. People held me, cried with me, and laughed with me. People reminded me to eat. People squeezed my hand and rubbed my knee, assuring me that they were going to journey through this with me; that they were there if I needed anything. In particularly, my childhood best friend Aurora did not leave my side for days. She slept with me every night, ensuring that if I woke up I wasn’t alone with my thoughts and darkness. Aurora sat with me, listened to me, loved me. No one told me that my grief was out of place or that I was overreacting.

During this season of immense political and racial turmoil, we would all do well to take a lesson from Aurora. We should be the faces of compassion to our black brothers and sisters – listening more than we speak and validating, not undermining, their grief. We don’t have to understand everything perfectly to love well. Aurora gave flesh and bones to love during my season of deepest grief; let us do the same.

My prayer is that our anger will be repeatedly kindled against the immense injustice experienced by our neighbors, so that we will cease playing the blame game, and begin playing the flame game.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Ephesians 6:12