Societies in transition
For the last few Sundays I have been struck by the look of rapt attention on people’s faces as they listen to the saga of transition and change taking place in ancient Israel reported in the first book of Samuel. Encapsulated in the stories of the call of Samuel and the anointing of Saul and then David as the first Kings over Israel, we see a major societal shift taking place. Joshua and the succession of Judges who followed him had perpetuated the social and religious structure established by Moses and Aaron. In 1st Samuel, we see these giving way. Underneath the content of the storyline, we perceive a shift in religious authority from the hereditary priesthood represented by Eli and his corrupt sons to the divinely called prophet Samuel. Politically, the rule of the Judges is also giving way to the demands of the people to have a king who will like the kings of the surrounding nations lead them into war. It’s like Game of Thrones has come to church. The stories in first Samuel have hope, intrigue, treachery, jealousy, lust, and murder. They also evoke in us something nostalgic. God is all-powerful, and so are his anointed ones, both prophet, and king.
From story to reality
It’s great to have a bird’s eye view of someone else’s societal transitions. It’s quite another to live through our own. We are currently living through the chaos resulting from the disintegration of the pillars of our past. We face with equal measures of hope and fear, a future frighteningly slow in emerging while the security of the past slips away with increasing velocity.
It’s one thing to awaken to the news of yet another suicide bombing killing and maiming worshipers in a Shia Mosque in Syria or Iraq. It’s another thing to hear of yet another Christian Church bombed in Egypt or Pakistan. We hear daily of the plight of Christians, Yazidi’s and Shia Muslims in ISIL held territory. Now, once again we awake to news of yet another mass shooting in America, this time not at a political meeting in a supermarket car park, not in a school nor a cinema. The killings this week took place in a church, and a black church to be specific. It’s not religion, but race, that forms the focus for this expression of hatred.
Painful reality doubling down
It’s tempting to join the avalanche of political, social, and religious speculation on this tragedy. As usual the label of mental illness is being ascribed to Dylaan Roof, the gun-wielding perpetrator of this crime. Why? Is this not our collusion in another form of major social stigmatizing? When we apply psychiatric labels to explain the inexplicable, when we rush to see Roof as mentally ill, what does this say to our husbands and wives, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, and our neighbors who daily struggle with mental illness? Persons whose experience goes someway to being explained by a psychiatric diagnosis of mental illness do not engage in premeditated mass shootings. Struggling with a bi-polar affective disorder, schizophrenia, or others form of psychosis does not induce someone to go out and with premeditation commit multiple slayings.
The source of the impulses for such blatant disregard for the lives of others lies in the disturbances not of the mind but the heart. We might see Roof as psychopathic, but the term is a misnomer. In this instance what chills us about Roof’s behavior has nothing to do with the psyche and everything to do with the heart. Through his action we see in Roof’s heart the absence of a capacity for love – love in the form of a capacity for empathy. The disturbances that distort moral character and induce people to perpetrate psychopathic acts are rooted in a disruption in normal personality – character development.
My guess is that Dylaan Roof struggles with the failure of ego formation that underpins healthy character formation. His monstrous action communicates an insecure man who craves the form of recognition that comes with mass notoriety. The revulsion of most and the admiration of a few are all the same to him. The only explanation of his actions is that he is a man whose character distortion renders him vulnerable to the extreme impulses of hatred because, in the absence of love, hate substitutes a sense of meaning and purpose.
How does this come about? In early infant development, we all negotiate the tension created by feeling both love and hate. Hate for the infant comes in the form of frustration of omnipotent needs. Hunger for an infant produces not only a sense of love for the breast that will feed it, but also a desire to devour the breast whose absence frustrates the need to be fed. The delay between feeling hungry and being fed becomes filled with rage.
The important developmental milestone is reached when the infant has developed enough mental capacity to connect its loving and hating impulses. This is the stage at which guilt emerges. Guilt is the healthiest of psycho-developmental milestones because it represents the capacity of the infant to realize that its raging desire to devour the breast endangers the very breast it needs to preserve through love.
When we realize that our hatred damages the very thing we love, we move into a capacity for relationship base on an experience of the triumph of loving over hating.
The Second Amendment bestows the right to keep and bear arms. Currently, the Supreme Court majority holds to a doctrine that words mean what on the face of them they say. But words always occur in context, and context shapes meaning. This raises the thorny question as to the mind of the framers of the Second Amendment?
The context for the framers of the Second Amendment was that of having recently fought a bloody war in defense of their rights as Englishmen against the encroachment of royal power. The Second Amendment draws inspiration from the British Bill of Rights of 1689, which had a mere 100 years before enshrined the ancient Common Law right for Englishman to bear arms. The framers of the Second Amendment, steeped in the Common Law would have probably shared the view of the great English jurist Sir William Blackstone who described the right to bear arms as auxiliary, supporting the natural right to self-defense, resistance to oppression, and a civic duty to act in concert for the defense of the state.
The right to bear arms while having a self-defense element, especially on the frontier, had as its main aim the equipping and maintenance of citizen militias to resist government oppression whether domestic or foreign. The right to bear arms with its emphasis on protection of the common good by equipping the citizenry to act in concert – co-operative action- in defense of their liberties is not the same thing as a right of an individual, in a society distorted by the notion of competing individualisms, to own a gun as a precaution against a prevailing and largely imaginary fear of one’s neighbor.
What has the action of Dylaan Roof to do with the Second Amendment? On the face of it, very little. The Second Amendment does not give him the right to do what he did, nor does it defend his actions. The absence of a general right to bear arms would probably have not deterred this extremist from obtaining a weapon. In a culture where the truth of something is determined by tracing a sequence of cause and effect, the general right to bear arms did not cause the deaths in Emmanuel AME Church. Truth however is more than the end result of a traceable sequence of cause and effect. It’s not the possession of guns that is at issue, it’s our attitude to the possession of guns and what this says about the kind of society we seem to be rapidly regressing to.
America in transition
America is no longer a society that approaches the future with a sense of hope and the assumption that things are only going to get better and better. For many the future is a place of fear and anxiety. We have every reason to assume that the future is a place that is likely to be worse than the past when viewed from the perspective of how people feel. Our society is changing and whether merely a perception or not, many feel that it is not changing for the better, either domestically or internationally.
We are in the midst of a huge societal transition not seen since the industrial revolution at the turn of the 18 and 19th Centuries. It’s not only the structures supporting the fabric of civil society that seem to be in transition. We are in the midst of a communications revolution that is bringing about a profound change in the way people communicate and think about common space. A world where communication required one to one contact has been replaced by a world of the virtual. The world of virtual relationality is having a profound effect on psychological, social, and moral development of the young. We live in a world where greater capacity for interconnection leads more and more to our individual isolation from one another. Human being have a need for intimacy. The experience of intimacy or its lack shapes us in particular directions. The consequences of this we are only beginning to become afraid of.
As we move forward to greater virtual connectivity and interdependency, ancient fear based enmities erupt from the collective unconscious where we thought they had been permanently banished. In a supranational world, the fears of difference that characterized our tribal histories, nationalism, racism, and age old ethic and identity phobias, become vehicles for constellating fear into hate. Everyday, everywhere the news from both nation and world affirm this sorry fact.
Ours is a society going through the agonized uncertainties of transition. Race, gender, and sexual identity are the three elements around which hatred constellates. These constellations, for those with severe disturbances of character, become vehicles for identification with something greater than their limited sense of self. Our contemporary litany is God deliver us not from war, pestilence, or famine, but from those whose disordered characters endanger others. What we would traditionally refer to as the presence of evil finds space in the hearts of those who have no experience of love being stronger than hate. An inability to experience the power of love to preserve the very same objects they also hate renders such people a danger to others.
Is love really stronger than hate?
Suffering is inevitable. Complete avoidance of suffering or calamity is not possible. St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians is pouring out his heart in the Epistle for Pentecost 4.
but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
If we measure the quality of life by the absence of suffering then we have missed the point. Often it’s through suffering that the vitality of living shines. Whatever happens we must not lose heart, becoming embalmed in a cocoon of fear. We have a choice. We can live in fear or live in hope. As I face my own fears for the future, as I struggle to process the pain of inexplicable tragedy, I am reminded the choice is mine – to live from fear or to live in hope. Put this way, I am reminded by my fears that I have no other choice than to live from hope. The consequences of not doing so are too terrible to contemplate.
We saw this approach to living in action on Friday when through telelink to the arraignment of Dylaan Roof, the relatives of the slain wanted him to know that they forgave him. At first sight, this strikes many of us as a little contrived. How can they feel this way, we ask? Maybe, this is not how they feel after all they are human. However, it seems to be what they believe, for after being human they are Christian.
They expect Dylaan Roof to be held accountable for full gravity of his action. Their forgiveness is not for him, it’s for themselves. The loved ones of the slain, are putting down their marker as they shoot their arrows of hope towards the future. In them, love is stronger than hate.