I have had the honor of sitting vigil with dying people. And I have prayed through the coming of the death rattle. It can be painful to witness, especially for those witnessing death for the first time. Sometimes the person can hang on, seemingly fighting the inevitable final step of their transition into death.
In those times, I have encouraged families to share affirming words with their loved one, to tell them that it’s ok for them to go, that they are going to miss them, but that they will be ok.
I have listened as wives tell husbands thank you for all the years, for all the love, for the life they have lived together. I have been there with parents forcing themselves to say the excruciating goodbye to a child passing too soon, so the child won’t have to suffer anymore—telling them it is ok to rest, it’s ok to stop fighting. And I have listened as adult children find the courage to release the parent who has so deeply formed them. “I love you, dad. You have taken good care of me. Thank you for loving me. It’s ok for you to go now.”
It is a sacred passage. These are Holy moments.
So when I hear people say that we are witnessing in our time is the death rattle of patriarchy and white supremacy, that image takes me to those sacred spaces of release. And I have to confess I just don’t think that’s where we are, at least not yet.
When the death rattle comes, the person dying may have some fight left in them, but they aren’t going to get up and punch you in the face. Every ounce of what they have left goes into breathing in spite of the fluid filling their lungs. Their extremities are no longer receiving much blood flow. The small amount of oxygen they are taking in leaves their skin pallid. Their eyes, if open at all, are beginning to be vacant. They are fading away.
Having the wherewithal to shoot eleven people while they are worshipping in their Pittsburgh synagogue is not a death rattle. Having the power to suggest legislation to erase the legal existence of people who are transgender is not a last gasp. Throwing a temper tantrum in front of the whole world about your sexual aggression and excessive alcohol use and still getting confirmed to the Supreme Court is not patriarchy fading away. Going hunting for black people in a black church, finding the doors locked, and then finding two black people to kill at a Kroger instead is not the action of atrophied extremities. 953 hate groups operating in this country is not something suffocating from a body shutting down—when we look in the eyes of these groups, they are not vacant. They are laser focused. They see a world that mandates their violent ways—they are fighting for their lives, yes, but they are not fading away.
So, the death rattle imagery is not working for me. If it was truly the death rattle for white supremacy and patriarchy, we could release them from their labors. “Please go. We need you to stop hurting people now.” But those words don’t fit the situation. The aggression, the violence, the brutality, the brazenness, the hostility, and the hatred—they are too strong for this to be the death rattle. It is more like a wounded animal, cornered and out of options. The adrenaline is flowing, and the mind has switched into survival mode. In this hyper vigilant state, the animal is acting out of their pain and in spite of their pain. All systems are focused on defend and protect.
Wounded animals who are cornered are dangerous. Everyone is foe. Even someone there to help relieve their misery is the enemy. Everything about them says, “don’t touch me or I will do everything in my power to destroy you.” Wounded animals will bite, they will scratch, and they will get up even with broken limbs and go for the jugular.
Patriarchy and white supremacy are lashing out in a pain-induced rage, fighting for their lives, and ready to destroy those they believe have wounded them and backed them into a corner. Even if we can muster up some compassion for these aggressive, angry, violent carriers of patriarchy and white supremacy, they are not able to constructively receive such human connection at this point.
When an animal is wounded and you want to help stop the pain they are feeling and/or the pain that they are causing, you have to find someway to sedate it or contain it or put it out of its misery from a safe distance. What are the corollary actions for us as a culture in this phase of the death of patriarchy and white supremacy? How do we neutralize them when they still have the power to wound and to kill? How do we give them the space they need to die when they are so aggressively fighting their demise?
These are not rhetorical questions? I’m actually open to suggestions.
I’ve seen death rattles. We’re not there. We’re dealing with something much more powerful, much more destructive. If we truly want to “be” the change we yearn for in the world, we must not mistaken our current posture for vigil sitting. It is going to take all of us awake and aware to keep this wounded, aggressive animal contained while its systems finally start to shut down.
For any of us still around to hear it when the rattle comes, we can then say our parting words of release. “It’s time for you to go. We need you to go so you can stop hurting us. It’s time for you to have the peace you’ve never known in this life. God, have mercy on your soul.”
Marcia Mount Shoop is an author, theologian, and minister. She is the Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC. Her newest book, released from Cascade Books in October 2015, is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson. Marcia is also the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade, 2014). Find out more at www.marciamountshoop.com