I’ve been putting this off for over eight months now. As a writer, I oscillate between the monumental importance of words on the one hand and their utter powerlessness on the other. After all, what words are there for an infinite God? What do we mean when we discuss his love, grace, and justice when those words have grown stale from centuries suffocating in the theological sun? Does adequate language exist for our pain? For lament? For mystery and wonder?
Freddie Gray died last week. So did Rekia Boyd. When I started writing this post 3 weeks ago, that line read, “Eric Harris died last week.” And before that, “Walter Scott died last week.” When will this end? What can really be said for these men and women? For Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Tanesha Anderson, Aura Rosser, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and countless others whose stories the media do not find profitable? Is there a lament expansive enough to carry the history in their bullet wounds? Black death has to be more than emblematic, more than an abstraction that we treat as nothing more than a commentary on a racist society. Are we courageous enough for such a sacred act as lament? Are we even capable of it?
And then, wait, should I even lament when it becomes just another idea to be criticized on the internet? What if I accidentally say “All lives matter” instead of “Black lives matter”? Does it delegitimize the sadness or anger I feel? Should I apologize for apologizing incorrectly? I get it – I’m the social justice police too because language matters. God, it matters. And when you voice concerns that deal with very serious power dynamics, you inevitably open yourself up to that kind of criticism. But the reason language comes under so much criticism when we speak of justice matters is because language is incapable of engaging with tragedy this profound. Especially in 140 characters. Especially on social media. Especially when we are asking an invisible God to intervene in cosmic ways.
Diana (not her real name) comes into the office once again, this time crying and complaining about one of her peers. This is a normal occurrence at my job, but I am beyond irritated and this is the third time she has done this in one day. “I know you’re upset, Diana, but we have a lot of work to do and I need you to leave the office now.” She tells us that we hate her and storms out of the office. In her daily progress note I write: “Staff attempted to redirect the client by suggesting she use self-soothing skills on her own in lieu of fostering codependent relationships with staff and peers. The client was not receptive to staff suggestion and became irritable and provocative.” I do not mention Diana’s history of being domestically and sexually abused and raped. I do not mention her pending restraining order against her abuser or that these may be the reasons she feels unsafe in our program. I do not mention that Borderline Personality Disorder, a blanket diagnosis we use to describe a set of symptoms that annoy staff, is often the complex top layer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I do not mention that my clinical position does not allow me to embrace her. I do not mention how the SF mental health system overloads us with so much bureaucratic bullshit that we can’t do any real counseling work with clients.
But I do this all the time. I do it to T, whose pregnant wife was attacked, gave birth to a stillborn daughter, and subsequently committed suicide. I do it to M, whose boyfriend came by our program and pulled her down the sidewalk by her hair. I do it to E, who was gang raped the week before we met him. I package their stories in cold clinical language as if their lives were failed science experiments and I select their treatment needs from a drop down menu of various traumas (a drop down menu!!). What’s the issue today? Drug abuse, suicidal ideation, auditory hallucinations, PTSD? I’ll take suicidal ideation with a large Coke, thanks!
Who is this God who cares for the oppressed and marginalized? Surely he must value Black Life. Surely he must rage over Black Death. Surely he cares for my clients more than the City does. Does he care for L, another abuse survivor who suffered from auditory hallucinations, literal voices in her head telling her that she’s worthless? I prayed with L right before she left for her therapy appointment, “God, please be with L today. Banish the voices that haunt her every day. Comfort her and protect her when she walks through what will feel like the valley of the shadow of death.” She hugged me and relapsed later that day.
Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear? Isaiah 59:1
What do I know of trauma? Of pain or hopelessness? What right do I have to tell clients, friends, the world, that the arc of humanity bends towards justice? What do I know of justice if I do not hunger and thirst for it daily? And what communion do I have with the One Who Suffered, who took our myriad traumas upon himself, who didn’t isolate our pain in drop down menus or sin inventories (Porn? Homosexuality? Greed?) but took the whole damned thing upon himself in solidarity and intimacy without question, condition, or stipulation? And how can anyone claim that language can capture any of this complexity? It is incapable of engaging with tragedy this profound. It is incapable of dealing with hope this near.
Diana, T, M, E, L, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, Eric Harris, and Walter Scott will enter the Kingdom of God before I do. The Kingdom belongs to such as these, and if we have effectively excluded these kinds of people from our lives, then we have no part in this Kingdom.
It’s so much easier to write, to talk, to think about lofty ideas like justice, restoration, and purpose. It’s so much more exciting for me to love a homeless person than my own family. The macro is always sexier than the micro, the idea of saving the world way cooler than doing the damn dishes but I want to be good at doing the dishes. I want to learn how to love the person right in front of me. I want to live myself into a new reality, not talk myself out of an old one.
Language matters. It is sacred. Which is why I can’t stand church anymore. Which is why I’ve been so frustrated with myself. My life has yet to catch up to my words. I am better at writing than living and I think this blog is an example of everything that is wrong with my generation.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John1:14
Jesus, Eternal Word, Living Language, Walking Theology, Emmanuel, have mercy on us…
Because I’m tired. Tired of talking and writing. Tired of being a bad friend, a selfish person, of not being there for my family. I’m tired of always having to explain myself. I’m tired of church, tired of church songs, tired of praying with stale words. I’m tired of my silence, my guilt, my self-hatred. I’m ready for Life, for life abundant, for life near suffering, for life listening, for joy.
I am constantly found guilty of the sin of words. Vulgarity is not my downfall, though I am vulgar. My sin is having words that are far more beautiful than my life. How graceful are those whose lives outshine their words. Perhaps my life will catch up to my mouth someday. Perhaps my body will catch up to my heart, my hands to my eyes, my feet to my soul. Gordon Atkinson