A Time to Criticize and A Time to Shut Up

A Time to Criticize and A Time to Shut Up June 18, 2015

photo Sean Freese (CC BY 2.0)
photo Sean Freese (CC BY 2.0)

It’s likely that by now, most of you who are reading this have heard about the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, in which a 21-year-old white man by the name of Dylann Roof (who apparently likes to wear a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia on it) came to the church during a Bible study, stayed for an hour, and then uttered racist comments – reportedly, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go” – and began shooting. In the wake of his escape, eight people were left dead at the scene and one further among the wounded died after being transported to a local hospital. Among the dead was state senator Clementa Pinckney, who was also the church’s pastor. (Roof has since been captured.)

It should go without saying, but I think I speak for all of my Ex-Communications colleagues when I say that this was an unequivocally horrific incident and our hearts go out to the victims, their families, and the wider community around them. I would add further that this unspeakable act has all of the markings of a hate crime and an act of terrorism against the black community. (Over at Graffiti Wall, Alix Jules makes the case for this, very convincingly in my opinion.)

It has taken almost no time, however, for this tragedy to be turned a number of ways. For instance, the gang at Fox & Friends on Fox News is already trying to downplay the racial angle and play it up as an attack on Christianity. (I hope I don’t have to point out why this is laughably absurd given the information at hand.) And of course, there has been no shortage of people trying to pin all of this on mental illness, as with every white shooter.

Which is why I feel an obligation to say this to my secular, atheist, non-believing friends out there:

This is not the time to pull out religious criticisms.

I’m absolutely in favor of criticizing religion. I think that there are so many corrosive and harmful things that can be found in religious circles, and they must be talked about and denounced, publicly and loudly.

Please don’t do that right now.

I know it’s tempting. When people like Mike Huckabee blame school shootings on “taking God out of schools,” it is natural to turn that exasperation around and point the finger back whenever a shooting happens in a church. Trust me, I love the taste of schadenfreude as much as anyone.

But that schadenfreude isn’t at Huckabee’s expense here. It’s at the expense of a community that already feels pushed to the margins, not just in terms of disenfranchisement but in terms of their own physical safety. Atheists like to tell people that we’re one of the most hated groups in America and that we have no real representation in the political process, but guess what? We’re not generally being killed for it – not for being atheists, at least. Our fellow nonbelievers of color are in this danger, as well as all of the religious people of color out there.

You know how we like to talk about being “good without gods”? Here is an opportunity to put that into practice, to show that in the wake of a horrible tragedy, we are willing to set aside principles in favor of compassion, to put the needs of those who have been so deeply and viscerally affected over our own desire for vindication or intellectual triumph.

Lay down your arms and let those affected grieve in peace. If we cannot show ourselves to be humane under these circumstances, then when can we?

Edit: Jay Smooth says it even better.


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