As our country reels in horror at the brutal massacre of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one particularly important detail has emerged: the young man who killed those nine people entered the world of white supremacism after the object of his romantic interest rejected him and dated a black man.
According to his cousin, the experience dramatically changed the young man, led to his obsession with racist hatred, and motivated him to commit the atrocity. In some ways, the event resembles the 2014 Santa Barbara massacre, in which a young white man with strong racist tendencies massacred young women because he felt angry that women generally did not respond favorably to his romantic advances. Other mass murderers have also exhibited violent misogyny. Moreover, our country has begun to notice that most mass shootings are carried out by white males, and to point out that white masculinity may lead young men into feeling like failures if they do not achieve all the trappings of their supposedly superior race and gender identity.
My questions are: how did we, as a society, fail these young men? And how have we, as a church, failed society? And, most important, how can we help heal these diseases that are killing us?
Racism and sexism are symptoms of the same disease: both racism and sexism arise from the need by one group to feel superior to another group. People feel afraid that if they are not superior, they might lose something important – some important part of their identity, self-worth, social currency, or status. And we’re all sickened by this disease – every time a Christian needs to feel superior to an atheist, or a liberal mocks a conservative, we exhibit the symptoms of a disease I call “egaliphobia” – the terror that we might not actually be better than anyone else, just because of our social categories… the terror that we might all be equal.
I believe our society has set us up for this phobia: for millennia now, we have constructed a system that rewards power imbalances. Such a system is doomed to fail. We have designed a socio-economic structure in which people must compete for pieces of a limited pie. Politically, economically, and socially, the size of someone’s pie wedge determines h/er power, security, prosperity, and status. We have bought into a myth, in which some groups can actually succeed at the expense of others. This myth destroys the humanity of both oppressed and oppressor, as both are crushed under the weight of the violence needed to sustain a system founded on an inherently violent lie.
The truth is – we rise and fall together. Only a communitarian, egalitarian approach, in which we honor our interconnected interdependency with the web of all people, all life, and all Earth, will heal us from this fatal disease that causes Rape Culture, hate crimes, police brutality, and every manner of oppression.
How has the Church failed society? Historical and current examples of churches supporting racism and sexism abound. But to get at the root of the problem, we must engage Johan Galtung’s theory of “cultural violence.” In both racism and sexism, the oppressed group experiences a combination of cultural violence (such as language and symbols), structural violence (such as discrimination), and direct violence (such as rape, assault, and murder). Galtung notes, cultural violence legitimizes structural and direct violence.
As the Church, we have preached cultural violence over the millennia. We have used language and symbols that convey violent messages, such as our predominantly male language about humans and God/ess. Use of predominantly male language sends the message that men are more like God/ess than women. That message implies that women are not fully in the divine image, are thus not fully human, and thus do not deserve to be treated as humans. All of the other many forms of cultural violence (archaic marriage rules, patrilineal naming), structural violence (exclusion from priesthood) and direct violence (witch burning) flow logically from that fundamental, underlying assumption that forms part of the very foundation of the entire Christian tradition and permeates every level of its theology and practice: women are not human.
By excluding one category of humanity from the divine image, our tradition has set itself up to reward power imbalances. Once we decided that one group benefits at the expense of another, all subsequent exclusions naturally followed. Over time, God/ess became thought of as more white than black, more old than young, more civilized than wild. In each case, the cultural violence of limiting God/ess led to oppression of various groups, including the oppression of people who worship God/ess with different symbol systems, such as Jews or Muslims.
How can our Church redeem itself and offer a message of healing redemption to the world? For starters, we must engage in activism to dismantle all forms of cultural, structural, and direct racist and sexist violence in society. But in order to see that path more clearly, we must remove the log from our eyes. Our first step is to recognize that we have forsaken the Living God/ess for an idol. Just as many religious communities have done throughout history, we have turned our back on God/ess and worshiped a false image of our own construction. We must confess that we have knelt at the altar of power imbalances and prayed that we would climb above someone else.
We must help each other release our egaliphobia, our fear that we might not be on the “winning team” in any given social category. We must learn to trust that God/ess is bigger, stronger, higher, wider, and deeper than our worst fears of unworthiness… and we can learn that Truth only by living and teaching thusly with each other in our faith communities. We need to find and redeem every single example of cultural violence in our tradition, so we can create a truly life-giving theology, liturgy, and mission in the world. We must embrace the Truth that we are all One: one with God/ess and with each other, and we all need each other to survive and to thrive.
Sophia-Christ was crucified that night in Charleston, betrayed by one who could not recognize the Holiness in that community. Sophia-Christ rose again when black communities continued to gather in faith and power. Sophia-Christ is in the world when people of faith live the Truth that Good is stronger than evil, and Life is stronger than death… May we release our fears, join hands in trust, and embody the Living God/ess!
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir is an adjunct professor in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance with a specialization in Cross-Cultural Conflict at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She was a fellow at the Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and at the Earhart Foundation. Grenfell-Muir has conducted field research in situations of ongoing conflict in Syria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Her dissertation explores the methodology, constraints, and effectiveness of clergy peacebuilders in Northern Ireland. She has been an invited speaker in community settings and at MIT, Boston University, Tufts, and Boston College on topics of gender violence, economic injustice, and religious or ethnic conflicts and has also moderated panels on genetic engineering, cloning, and other bioethics issues.