After Charleston

The rabbis of our tradition have designated Psalm 94 as the Psalm of the day of Wednesday.  Whereas most of the other Psalms for daily recitation exalt God as sovereign, as ruler and creator of the universe, the Psalm for Wednesday begins with an entirely different aspect of the Divine, “God of retribution, Lord, God of retribution, appear!”  Here the Psalmist does not call upon a God who is merely powerful, but a God who sees the wickedness of the world and acts accordingly.  “Rise up, judge of the Earth,” the Psalm continues, “give the arrogant their just desserts!”  These are angry words, verses written (one assumes) in something closer to outrage at injustice than to sublime contemplation of God’s goodness.  Indeed, the next verse confirms the impression, and are among the most pained words in the Bible, “How long shall the wicked, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult?”  Yesterday, a Wednesday by coincidence, we were given occasion, once again, to call out these words, or their sentiment, to God.

By now, the tragic cycle of mass-shooting violence is well-known to us.  There will be more to find out, more to know, about what happened in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Now that the killer has been captured, there will innumerable attempts to dissect, as minutely as possibly, his motives and methods.  The chilling report of his sitting among his soon-to-be victims for nearly an hour before he murdered them is the first, but surely not the last, piece of this puzzle.  And we will learn more about the victims as well; we will hear their stories, meet those bereaved by their loss.  But the cycle always seems to hold:  there is the shock, the agony, the painful memorial services, the searching examinations of causes and effects, and then, after a time, the receding of the bloody events into back pages, un-clicked links, and then, finally, into mere statistics of violence death.

We know, by now, that nowhere is safe from this sort of randomly wrought death: movie theaters, schools and houses of worship offer no sanctuary.  Indeed, hostility aimed at Black churches has a long and tortured history in this country, from burnings to bombings.  The horrendous events in Charleston, South Carolina thus bring together two deadly strands of the American experience in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: mass killing by firearm and violence committed against the sacred spaces of African-Americans.  These twin evils have stalked this nation for decades, and they stalk us still.

And so we ask, along with the author of Psalm 94, “How long?”  How long will we continue to abide, in our midst, largely unfettered access to the tools of death and destruction?  How long will the scourge of racism stain the fabric of our society?  How long will the wicked flourish among us?  And though neither the Psalm, nor history, nor our current political environment hold any answers to those questions, perhaps we can take some heart in the ringing call the Psalmist makes, contemplating the broken and bleeding world he confronts. “Who will take my part against evil men?  Who will stand up for me against wrongdoers?”  The answer must be us, for if not us, then who?

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