Dreaming New Dreams
Last night I dreamt that Patrick Stewart strolled by me, wearing an intensely colored plaid pair of pants and a snazzy golf beret. He took one look at me walking along the same sidewalk, and realized that I positively screamed Lutheran Theologian.
As he’d always fancied himself an amateur Lutheran theologian (who knew?) Sir Stewart invited me to his home for coffee and to show him what I had in my satchel.
For the record, that isn’t (alas) a euphemism, because as is almost always the case, my bag of books happened to be flung over my left shoulder. So I opened it up and proudly showed off my Elizabeth Johnson and Walter Brueggemann: Lutheran systematic theologian Kristin Johnston Largen was in there too! For some reason, Sir Stewart was particularly drawn to my tattered Jürgen Moltmann volume, but he loved looking at them all.
As an aside, whatever I ate last night I want to eat every. single. night. forevermore.
I’m left curious about two things: a) why that will never happen in my real, awake life; and b) why that dream.
Dreams, so they say, reflect the subconscious: they pick up smudges of the day’s thoughts and worries and happenings, and then smear them together in a fuzzy impressionist painting of the mind’s and heart’s concerns.
There’s been a lot about which to be concerned these days.
For over two weeks now, the nightmare at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston has been claiming my conscious thoughts and my conscience. (I’ve been tempted to put an adjective in front of the word ‘nightmare,’ but each word seems either obvious or, given the magnitude of what happened, impotent: tragic, painful, unimaginable.)
Perhaps I should have blogged right away. I had fingers to keyboard many a time, to be sure. But I wanted to wait: to read, to listen, to watch others. I wanted to honor the voices and the emotions of those who were closest to the pain.
And, to be honest, I’m a bit anxious about writing here. I could put a charitable construction on it and call it “humble,” given my position as a white woman with privileges both known and (far many more) unknown to me.
There is truth to that.
But I’m also simply uneasy about it. Although I’ve written a few blogs touching on issues of race, I’m not exactly known for being a prolific writer and speaker on racial prejudice.
Which brings me back to the dream.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that in this stack of books I pulled out of my subconscious sack–really amazing theologians, theologians who are honorable and write with integrity and wisdom and knowledge–there wasn’t a single black theologian.
Truth is, I pull them off of those same shelves not nearly often enough. They are not my go-to sources.
I want to be taught: whom should I be reading? What should I know? Please tell me.
Those whom I spread out on the coffee table, though, these are theologians who do care about justice, who do speak prophetic words, who do see that theology intersects (or, rather, should intersect) with our daily lives, with systems that enable the powerful, with those who suffer inflicted pain–and those who inflict it.
They (and I) believe that theology isn’t only theoretical musing. The study of God isn’t just for intellectual kicks. Rather, our belief in God roots everything that we do and say and believe. It’s both seed and soil.
That impulse compels us to enter into acts of confession and repentance for racist acts, for racist sins of co- and o- mission, for obliviousness and lazy apathy.
It compels us to study what in our society–and in our theology and ecclesiology, the life of the Church–enables racism and racial violence.
It compels us to welcome the loss of power and comfort, to expose oneself to new forms of worship, of community life, of social mores.
It does not, however, compel us to wear the pants in my dream that Patrick Stewart had pulled out of his closet and onto his legs.
Those pants. Those ridiculously obnoxious brightly colored plaid pants that my subconscious pulled on Sir Patrick Stewart.
What was that?
Since the shooting, I’ve also been actively mulling that Charleston isn’t reducible to racism.
Is it evidence of racism? Is not Charleston racism incarnate?
Sweet Jesus, forgive us. Yes.
Charleston made clear (again) the stealthy, pervasive racism in our culture and church.
But the trauma at Emanuel manifested so many other forces at work, forces that also cry out for God’s redemption.
Mental illness. Nobody who commits a crime like Dylann Roof did is mentally well and whole. How and why does our society ignore the sufferings of the mentally ill, mistaking mental illness for behavior that needs to be only mercilessly judged, rather than mercifully healed?
Gun culture. Just today CNN came out with a story about mass killings being ‘contagious.’ The lead researcher of the study calls the culture of violence in the US a “public health crisis.” Given the lack of killings, mass or otherwise, in cultures with no guns, or more restrictions on them, Charleston raises (again) the question of whether freedom to own guns translates into a risk US citizens have found to be acceptable: the freedom to kill…and be killed.
Isolation and instability. Dylann Roof was a loner, appears to have grown up in an abusive home, and spent extensive time with violent video games. Although it is true that most people who fit this profile do not commit mass murder, these signs do point to increased risk factors–and, beyond that, people who may simply need trustworthy companionship.
What happened in Charleston, you see, reflects a pattern, but it isn’t a simple pattern. It can’t be distilled to one solitary issue weaving itself through the horror…though there is little doubt that racism is here the ugly, predominant strand. What happened at Emanuel AME is a plaited swatch of societal, familial, and personal threads, threads that need to be tugged on, that must unravel.
Some time ago, we bought a van. It’s a silver Honda Odyssey, and we take it all over the country. We’d really wanted a sleek black one, but we would have had to wait for two weeks.
Not only is it true that patience is not my virtue, it is also true that we needed the van pretty much on that day.
So we bought the silver one, and tried to figure out as a family how we could put a positive spin on silver.
And then it dawned on us. We were driving in our very own Enterprise, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one [or at least we hadn’t] has gone before…”
So before our long trips, we wait for Karl, sitting in the back seat, to make like Patrick Stewart, to take his right hand, open it up ever so slightly, and move it up and forward while saying (with his blessed grin) “Engage.”
Charleston, this painful point in our nation’s history, is ridiculously, impossibly awful.
It must be lamented.
It also must be transformed into a turning point for our culture.
Those wounds will not leave us, but they need not define us.
It’s Good Friday, a palpable, real Good Friday.
But we are Easter people, called to confess, called to repent, called to heal, called to be community in a new way, called to….well, engage.
At OMG, I feel called to offer one small engagement: I’ll begin reading and blog about Black theologians and theology, trying to learn more and steward here what I’m taught.
And personally, I’d like to dream new dreams.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
August 28, 1963