When the BBC news started playing audio of Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, I knew he wasn’t going to be talking about basketball. The NBA playoffs are not prime time news in Britain. Kerr was talking about gun violence—specifically, attacks that had just taken place in a Buffalo grocery store, a church in California, and a school in Texas. He was expressing the frustration that many people, in America and in its friends and allies abroad, feel about the seeming inability to do anything about what have become numbingly familiar massacres.
Kerr blamed the intransigence of Congress, specifically Republicans in the Senate. The BBC reported that gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children in the United States--and then had to follow up with confirmation, because people were calling into the station incredulous. How could this be true, of a country not technically having a war on its soil?
I wanted to write that it isn’t as simple as Steve Kerr says. How gun violence is only one example of how the U.S. has become almost ungovernable, at least at the national level. But I didn’t write, because what I was feeling was worse than the frustration, anger, and bewilderment that Kerr and others were expressing. I was feeling numb, cynical, like this situation is never going to change. I felt like giving up.
What feels worst is that it is my generation of Americans that has allowed this catastrophe to unfold. When we were growing up, there were no active shooter drills in schools. Mass shootings happened, but they were still exceptional, outrages. Yet we had the same Constitution and the same Second Amendment that had been around for 200 years—and we had an assault weapons ban. It is on our collective watch that this maximalist interpretation has been allowed to take over, and it is our generation's children who are being robbed of their psychological health, if not their lives.
Meanwhile, I kept getting e-mails from Greenwood Rising, the excellent new museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma that commemorates Tulsa’s historic black neighborhood. I’m on their mailing list because we paid an excellent visit to Greenwood Rising last year, on our Route 66 road trip. Readers of this blog will recall that 2021 was the centenary of a horrific massacre of black Tulsans, one of the worst mass killings in the history of a country that has seen so many. The e-mails were letting me know about Greenwood’s observance of the 101stanniversary.
And then, in the middle of that observance, Tulsa itself was the site of another mass shooting, this one in a hospital. T. remarked that there are so many of these (a mass shooting is defined as four or more victims) that they are reported in categories now. “Another school shooting.” “A church shooting.” Like they are a thing. (As I was writing this, and looked up “church shooting” to verify the one on the 16th of May in California, another one came up just hours before, in Ames, Iowa.)
My feelings were not changing from numbness and cynicism. I already knew what everyone was going to say, from a basketball coach to British reporters to my various friends online. Some blame “the Constitution” as if it were an actor in all this. Some attack those to the left of them for proposing solutions that won’t work. Some attack those to the right of them for not caring about dead children. Importantly, it’s all words and no actions.
What good can more words do?
I didn’t read many words that moved me, that broke through my desire just to turn away and pretend none of it was happening. But I did read some, a comment by a friend of a friend, someone who, from the words he used, I guess has an evangelical background. He summed up the left and right bickering and the resulting inaction, and then asked: Who is happy at this state of affairs, that Americans are so hopelessly divided and angry at each other that no action can be taken to stop horrors we all know are horrific? Who could be happy about this? Jesus or Satan?
Now, many people do not talk this way. If I were to say to you, “I see the hand of the Enemy in all this,” we might quickly get hung up on is there a literal, personal Satan walking around causing misery, and that is not really where I want to go. Instead, I go back to my feelings, and the many (strong!) feelings swirling around, and ask a different question. Is the best way handle this to tune in to and express my feelings about it, or to wait until I’m experiencing the “right” feelings? Are feelings, perhaps, just sometimes, overrated?
Which brings me to a completely different set of events that's been going on in Britain and the Commonwealth this weekend: the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
If some of you don’t know what to make of my bringing up Satan, others will surely feel the same about the Queen. She, or her role (which I would argue are not the same thing) seem odd or anachronistic. In fact, I am going to argue that in spite of a wide range of political opinions about the monarchy, there is something about the Queen that is countercultural, even radical. There may be something to learn from someone who has been around so long, and seen so much. Someone who is an anachronism or, to put it another way, a link to a different time.
Put simply, the Queen in her official role is a stoic. There is probably nothing more unfashionable in the 21st century than stoicism. Think about the extent of emotions that people are constantly expected to express, from crime victims with microphones being shoved into their faces to seemingly everyone on social media. We may sympathize with the feelings or we may be angered by how wrong they are, but either way, we expect to emote all over the place. Nothing should ever be kept inside, whether it helps anybody else or not. And our own emotions are not enough; we are then supposed to ridicule the emotions of others, the ones that are wrong. Barack Obama’s tears were mocked from the political right. “Thoughts and prayers” are mocked from the left.
For various reasons my adult politics have tended more to the left than the right, certainly by U.S. standards; and yet I’ve frequently been irritated (and irritating) on that part of the spectrum. For my brothers and sisters too often seem to be unhappy whatever is happening. They’re unhappy when their opponents are in power, certainly, but they hardly seem happier when their representatives are.
By the simplest definition, conservatives want to conserve things and progressives want progress, so perhaps it makes sense that conservatives would be happier with the world as it is. According to a Republicans have claimed greater happiness than Democrats every year since the began asking in 1972. But this isn’t true only in the U.S. There are British and Commonwealth voters who want nothing to do with the Queen, but they even more strongly dislike elected politicians. There seems to be no one they do like.
I sympathize with the votes of these unhappy people, but I wonder if they want to be happy. Those happy Republicans, I imagine the Democrats saying, are happy because of their privilege, because everything is stacked in their favor. There is so much wrong with the country; how can we be happy about it? Meanwhile the British and Commonwealth lefties can’t be happy celebrating a holiday weekend with their neighbors because it’s all about the Queen, and the Queen stands for privilege, and how can we be happy about that?
The funny thing about the Queen—and here’s the difference between her and her role—is that it is all about her, and yet it’s not about her at all. The Crown, like the Constitution in America, is something bigger than and separate from any one individual. It is what members of the military, officers of the peace, and civilians swear their allegiance to. Something bigger than you or me or even Elizabeth II, who has known fourteen presidents, whose first prime minister was Winston Churchill.
It is so hard, these days, to grapple with the concept that whether we like someone, how we feel about something, is not the most important thing and perhaps even gets in the way. The explosion of the internet, the divisiveness of Brexit or Trump, has brought tsunami after tsunami of feelings that are really quite awful, that I was not brought up ever to express. Being on the right (or is it the left?) side now means dancing on the grave of a prime minister, or wishing for the death of a president. I was not raised that way. When I was a child, even the word hate was not allowed in our house. If it appeared in a story that was being read aloud to us, it would be replaced by “dislike.” Some feelings were unacceptable, or certainly their expression out loud was.
Was that really so bad? Because the America I grew up in also didn’t have “school shootings.” Columbine hadn’t happened yet. There is nothing inevitable about the battle lines that are now drawn, about the warlike country Americans are living in. (Despite all these mass shootings, most of that gruesome statistic—gunfire being the leading cause of death in children—occurs away from the headlines, in neighborhoods that are violent for so many of their residents and not just children.)
For gun-rights advocates, gun ownership is an essential part of their sense of freedom—how they feel. “But they shouldn’t feel that way!” We can deplore those feelings, or we can recognize that it is for that reason that 90% of Americans, including most gun owners, do support some measures like universal background checks and “red flag” laws. Because they see no reason that such laws would prevent them, personally, from owning guns. If we realize this, despite how we may feel, we can work on doing something instead of the complete failure of the federal legislature to enact measures most citizens want.
With a nod to the apolitical Queen, I challenge us to think of something we can do besides “defeat the opposing party.” Because let’s be honest: that hasn’t fixed things. I know, I know: if you don’t hate the people you disagree with, at the very least you cannot work with them.
How do you think the Queen felt when, as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, she shook the hand of a former commander in the Irish Republican Army, which had murdered her own cousin? No doubt she felt some emotion she did not express; but it wasn’t about her. She was serving something more important than any person, and more important than one country. Even the Queen could not, by herself, bring peace to Northern Ireland; but what she could, she did.
In a position alien to Americans, the monarch is head of both state and church, “Defender of the Faith.” By all accounts, the Queen’s Christian faith is sincerely important to her, but for the role that she plays her personal feelings are, again, not so relevant. As part of the public role of Christianity in this country, we have people like the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about forgiveness--yet another ridiculed foreign concept, along with its necessary companion, penitence. Such an old-fashioned word. Today people want accountability, which somehow excludes both forgiveness and penitence. If an artist, for example, has done something wrong or said something wrong—something on the side of hate!—we are never to enjoy their contributions again. People are unforgivable, and the way we punish them is to punish ourselves.
This is awkward for Christianity, which teaches that all have sinned, as well as for Judaism. In the Hebrew Bible it is plain that everyone’s accomplishments are in spite of the ways they fell short, and there is no suggestion that they are not accountable. Moses and David faced real and severe consequences for the things they did wrong—and those are the most revered and “right” figures in the entire tradition. Were King David’s sins “forgivable”?
My own reading in the Hebrew Bible has recently brought me back to the Books of Kings. Occasionally they describe a king who, like David, "did what was right in the eyes of the Lord," or a wise ruler like the queen of Sheba. Most of the kings, though are reported to have done what was evil. And what made them most evil of all? In their day the people "made their sons and daughters to pass through the fire." Child sacrifice. What made the gods of the nations idols was not just that they were other gods; idolatry leads to the deaths of innocent children.
What is wisdom, what is duty, in a nation or a world where such violence is possible? None of us, even a head of state, has the power to change things alone. Perhaps change is best accomplished not at the level of a throne or a nation, but on streets and in communities. For the Jubilee, we knocked on our neighbors’ doors and chatted on the street. I know that there are other neighborhoods where this is not possible, where people are being killed on the street. If we have the privilege of that not happening in our neighborhood, then maybe we have the responsibility of doing something for those not so fortunate.
How old-fashioned that sounds, too! But getting hung up on whether that’s the correct way to feel or not will just be paralyzing. I admire anybody—volunteers, donors, officers of the Queen’s peace—who are doing something to reach out to communities and make a positive change in some measure. Hosting a refugee. Passing a state or local law. Whatever action means for you. What we can do, we should.
“It may not seem like much," Madeleine L'Engle wrote in her work on the Beatitudes; "it is not much; but it is what is given at the present moment....When we are given the grace to be peacemakers even in these little, unimpressive ways, then we are children of God."
I still may not feel any better. But it’s not about me.