Responses to the horrifying massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina have been all over the place. Daniel Silliman makes an important point in his short post on shock as a form of denial:
One piety, commonly expressed in times of tragedy, is that such violence is beyond comprehension. There is always the danger, however, that it is beyond comprehension only because it's easier not to comprehend.
Shock is sometimes a form of denial.
In this case, the violence comes in a context. It follows a long history. Violence against black churches is not new in America; violence against this specific church isn't new either.
"Many are shocked at not only the grisly nature of the shooting, but also its location,"writes Benjamin Park for The Junto. "Yet this experience is unfortunately, and infuriatingly, far from new: while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts."
As Jamil Smith puts it in The Atlantic, "The black church hasn't been safe since there has been a black church."
Whoever has ears to hear, Jesus said.
Monstrous evil sometimes uncovers insufficiency of language and poverty of thinking. Calling horrific acts--whether this week's terrible shooting or, say, Hitler's Holocaust--demonic or insane often functions as an excuse to leave it at that. In other words, if the devil or madness is to blame, then simply throwing one's hands up is a valid response.
I do believe that evil is at work in the world--and not merely in some kind of impersonal force but in principalities and powers. But like explanations that resort to "human nature," it may be generally true, but it doesn't tell us much about about the particular event, and leaving it at that generally obscures more than it reveals.
It may be the case, moreover, that insanity played a role in this week's shooting. This need not be so, however. We tend to assume that unspeakable evil is necessarily insane--that, in other words, the sane are incapable of such acts. But this, I'm afraid, is not a true description of reality but rather a coping mechanism that puts a safe distance between the truly evil and the rest of us. Right now we do not know nearly enough to discern whether insanity played a role.
But--and this is the key point--even if it did, that would not therefore mean insanity is a complete and exclusive explanation. Studying history attentively should teach us that causation isn't generally singular. Often causes overlap in complex and even contradictory ways.
We do not, as I said, know whether the shooter was insane. But we do know some other things. So perhaps instead of throwing our hands up about things we do not know, we ought to start reckoning with the things we do know.