Saturday, June 27, 2015

Grief and Freedom

What a Friday for the history books.  In short order, the United States Supreme Court endorsed gay marriage in all fifty states, writing in the majority opinion:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Even as this decision was being celebrated all over America, President Obama was giving the eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, one of nine people gunned down in cold blood by white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof during a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday evening, June 17th.  According to witnesses, Roof joined the group in study until he suddenly began firing his .45 caliber handgun, killing his victims with multiple shots and a diatribe of racial language.  Allegedly, Roof planned to use his final bullet for himself but miscalculated and realized too late that his gun was empty.  He left the church precipitating a statewide search which ended across the border in North Carolina when he was stopped by law enforcement while driving his black Hyundai Elantra with its distinctive Confederate flag license plate decoration.

Roof purchased his gun legally with money given to him for his birthday last April.  Of course, this set off the usual talking heads on media outlets about the need for gun control or the need to preserve the Second Amendment and the right to own a gun in America.  Is it ironic, ridiculous, or just plain stupid that in this case we have the right to free religious expression embodied in the First Amendment versus the right to own a gun, which could be used to kill people during that religious expression?  According to the shooter’s own statements, he killed the Bible study group because they were black in a historic African-American church, which adds another layer to the travesty that has become American life.  Racism, murder, religious persecution, gun control, and raging ignorance, all rolled into one case.

President Obama gave possibly the best speech of his presidency at the service.  His rage and sorrow bled through his words and in one, heart-rending moment, he broke into song—“Amazing Grace”—and the congregation quickly joined in.  It was a soaring moment in a day of celebration and grief across America.  The service had barely finished when calls went out across the south to remove the Confederate flag from statehouses and government buildings.  Major retailers like Walmart and Sears vowed to remove Confederate flag merchandise from their shelves.  Politicians across party lines stepped up—arguably a little too late—to urge the flag only be displayed in museums of American history.  The people who disagreed claimed the flag represented southern history and heroism as the men who died for the colors did so out of patriotism for a country being torn apart by the issue of slavery.  I would say to those people, those men may have died for patriotic feelings, but keeping a human being in chains and brutalizing him is not a just moral cause.  They died for an aberration in history.  Do we allow the Nazis flag to fly over government buildings in Germany because it was a part of their history?

So here we are on the day after.  Marriage must be a right guaranteed to all people.  We are not talking about religious views, but civil sanctions, and in the shadow of a country founded on the principle that all [people] are created equal, all people have the right to enter into a marriage regardless of sexual orientation, race, or any other categorization.

People—in mosques, churches, temples, and chapels—must be allowed to practice their faith and study their sacred texts without fear of being gunned down in the sanctuary.  Overt symbols of racist, bigoted views, symbols commemorating murder and brutality and enslavement, they must be preserved in museums so we do not forget their divisive and bloody history but beyond that, they should be burned in the furnace of their own ignorance.

And finally, we need to truly take on this issue of guns in America.  They are not necessary, even for sport, and in the end, we must measure the health of our country over the desires of gun enthusiasts.  The days of hunting are over.  Arming ourselves against those who want to harm and victimize us has not proven to lower crime.  Get the guns off the streets and things will change.  And recent events have shown us that arming people on both sides of the law can lead to needless deaths.  If the cops did not have to fear that every person they encounter was armed, we could reduce the number of accidental shootings.  As we have seen in other countries like the U.K., gun control means that law enforcement needs less firepower to do their jobs.  The average street officer in London does not carry a gun.  I remember several years ago watching a street cop in central London handle a drunk man in a situation that could have easily escalated into violence.  The officers handled the situation with poise and control.  The man was subdued, the ambulance was summoned, and everyone lived to see another day.

It was, indeed, a historic Friday, embodying profound grief and merciful joy.  Hopefully, the events will spark discussion, debate, acceptance, and most importantly, unity, across the country.  There will be great struggles ahead, but we must continue to find ways to make America better educated, less violent, and more enlightened as we prepare for our 239th birthday.

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