Abbie Storch: In light of recent events, we must remember that God the victim stared violence in the face — and overcame it.
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
In Baton Rouge, Dallas, and St. Paul, people are walking around terrified. And they’re crying out for our nation’s burning fever of racism to break.
In Orlando, people are grieving the most violent mass shooting in our nation’s history, and they are raging against the dying of innocent light.
In cities across America, people are demonstrating, demanding justice.
And here I am on Sunday morning, sitting in church, of all places. I feel the heaviness of mourning, but I don’t know how to grieve, with my limited perspective and my total lack of comprehension. Like so many others, I feel immobile in this world where both violence and fear-mongering have become routine.
The liturgy of the table begins, and I join the collective page-turning, opening my hymnal to #487. It is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of “The Call,” by George Herbert.
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life.
Such a Way as gives us breath.
Such a Truth as ends all strife:
Such a Life as killeth death.
A wave of grief hits me all of the sudden, and I think of the breath vanishing from lungs, the sound of gunshots and the bullets entering vital organs: hearts stopped forever. Were they terrified in their last moments, or simply bewildered?
Do I believe what I sing? The old, nagging self-doubt haunts me once again: am I just a hypocritical bystander – waxing musical about justice instead of taking a stand?
Maybe I am. I put the familiar thought to rest, at least until after the service.
Then I go to take communion, and someone tells me it’s Christ’s body and blood, and once again I take it into my own body and blood, so used to this weekly ritual that the mystery is almost lost on me. “The dripping blood our only drink, / The bloody flesh our only food,” T.S. Eliot writes in “East Coker,” rendering the violent image even more vivid. And I am reminded, through this abhorrent picture of death, that God’s own body bled, and God’s heart stopped at the hands of others. God, like Castile and Stirling and all the recent victims of racial violence whose names didn’t become hashtags, like the civilians at Pulse, like those who have died at the hands of ISIS, was one of so many casualties of hostility and hatred. The face of Christ is the face of the victim.
As liberation theologians have noted, God identifies not with the powerful and the elite, but with the oppressed. Jesus himself said as much.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Richard Rodriguez notes that growing up in the church, he was never shielded from violence and death. Instead, death was presented in all its gory and gritty reality. “From boyhood…I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery,” he writes. “Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle.” And yet, because of this, Rodriguez recounts in his autobiography Hunger of Memory that he learned not to fear death, but rather to gaze on the crucifix every week and recognize it as a declaration that death is not the final word.
This is why I return week after week: because church is the place where people come together to remember the victim who told us that love that casts out fear, recognizing it for the demon that it is and sending it hurtling away. Love your enemies, he told those who would listen. Pray for those who persecute you, he said. Bless, bless, and do not curse. And, most of all, he said, Do not be afraid.
If I believe, I believe not in my head, but in my gut, in the part of me that mourns and feels helpless and might be a hypocrite.
If I believe, it is because God the victim tells us to remember the strife, the blood – the death – and promises to kill it.
Abbie Storch is the Luci Shaw Editorial Fellow at Image, a literary journal that publishes fiction, poetry, and essays that grapple with the religious traditions of the West. She is a 2016 graduate of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, where she served as senior editor of the academic journal Adorans and managing editor of Eastern’s student newspaper, The Waltonian. In 2014, she spent a semester at the University of Oxford, where she was awarded the de Jager Prize for her research on early modern devotional poetry. In September, she will begin a master’s in Religion and Literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
Image: The Garden of Death, by Hugo Simberg (1896). Via Wikimedia.