Yes, my title is provocative, but not gratuitously so.
If you call yourself a Christian, it seems to me, you cannot ignore or sidestep the difficult questions raised by the juxtaposition of Christmas joy–the Great Joy and Hope of God born to us in a little Child–with the ho-hum banality of one more black child shot dead on the streets of our inner cities.
At least this was my thought today, as I read Mark Curnutte’s deeply troubling analysis of the rise of homicide rates among children in Cincinnati.
For the record, their names and causes of death are as follows:
• Terrence James Lee Womack, 16, Evanston, gunshot, Jan. 28
• Justin Brown, 17, North Fairmount, gunshot, Feb 24
• Elliott Megrditchian, 6 months, Sedamsville, slammed into wall, March 10
• Robinson fetus, unborn, East Price Hill, mother strangled, April 20
• Jordan Dawson, 17, Evanston, gunshot, May 1
• D’Maris Glover, 15, Downtown, gunshot, June 19
• Robin Cottingham, 15 months, Millvalle, smothered, Aug. 15
• Tyrelle Key, 2 months, West End, head trauma, Oct. 1
• Dwayne Lamarr Lewis, 14, South Fairmount, gunshot, Oct. 15
• Trevaughn Everett, 14, Avondale, gunshot, Nov. 2
Being the professional journalist that he is, Curnutte does not ask his readers to pray for these victims, not explicitly. And yet surely, implicitly, he urges us to pay attention; perhaps he even secretly hopes we might recover our capacity as human beings to mourn. And that comes pretty close to prayer.
How else to explain the sub-heading, “Each death takes away from society as a whole,” anticipating the lament of 16 year-old T. J. Womack’s father which closes the article: “I lost a son. Our community lost another black man who would have done good things in society.”
To be sure, Curnutte and the Enquirer–to their great credit, and risking, I am sure, pushback from not a few readers–by naming the victims of violence, by showing us their pictures, by giving their loved ones a public space in which share their grief–Curnutte and the Enquirer are asking us to make room in our hearts for them, which means at some level to empathize with them, and perhaps even (dare I say?) to love them.
And love them no less (dare I suggest?) than we remember and celebrate and adore the Christ Child, who also, by the way, can be killed, who eventually was killed, by forces of evil and indifference in his society.
Reading not so deeply between the lines, I sense Curnutte wants to rehearse for his readers the names and stories of the dead not just “for the record,” but, much more daringly, by a kind of journalistic stealth, to awaken in the community a sense of our shared “family history,” denied or forgotten, our shared humanity, our shared loss. Just another day in the hood, right? “Our community lost another black man who would have done good things in society.”
Which brings me back to prayer.
In opening my heart in prayer for these dead children and their families, I open myself to being drawn by grace, by a kind of divine stealth, into community with them, to feeling with them and their sorrow, and even to the possibility of loving them, if only through the prayerful remembrance of their names. To be more precise, prayer, as an act of remembering and mourning, is already an act of love and solidarity, drawing us into a higher Love, which holds us all mercifully in the palm of its hands.
It’s a crucial opening, but is it enough for followers of Christ? What I do with this Love, how I act from it, with the choices I make today and tomorrow, seems to me the key question of conversion and discipleship. And here, in the stillness of prayer, I can feel Christ staring me square in the face, loving me, and asking, what will you do? Will you follow? (see “The Rich Young Man,” Mk. 10:17-31)
“I lost a son. Our community lost another black man who would have done good things in society.” How many more children will die or squander their days in loneliness, desperation, and violence, before we see, respond, and follow?
A good if difficult question for each of us and the whole church to bring into prayer in these dawning days of the New Year. And to pray, most of all, for the courage to act.
Addendum (1/4/13): Just how to act, i.e. how to begin building relationships with people outside my usual circle of family and friends, is a question I ask throughout Hope Sings, and I invite readers to respond to below, especially those who have made such a leap, in small or big ways, themselves. Thanks.