Soul Sickness and Domestic Terror

I can’t get the words of an old African-American spiritual out of my head:

“There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.”

Those words came to me yesterday morning as I read about the mosque in Joplin, Missouri that had been burned to the ground overnight, apparently because of arson. This is the same mosque that was damaged by an arsonist earlier this summer (on the Fourth of July, no less).

That old spiritual keeps coming back to me as we learn more about the terrorizing of worshiping Sikhs outside of Milwaukee over the weekend, just two weeks after Batman movie-goers were gunned down in a Colorado theater.

It’s time we recognize all of these as just the latest symptoms of a serious societal sickness in the United States. Whether this sickness is treatable or proves to be fatal to the soul of this nation will depend in large measure on our collective willingness to diagnose it and to speak truthfully about its consequences.

Whatever we might learn about the perpetrators of these acts of violence will matter less than whether we can address what truly ails us as a society. Whoever is elected President this November needs to stand up in January during the State of the Union Address and be perfectly frank: “The state of our union is not good.” And here are just two of the reasons he could cite.

Money Buys Truth
What would you do with $6 billion? Corporations and lobbying groups will spend at least that much buying this year’s presidential election. But the real cost is truth-telling.

Politicians won’t speak the truth for fear of losing corporate money and most people don’t even want to hear the truth because it would mean changing the way we live. Most of us don’t want to hear about where our computers are made, how our food is raised, what petrocarbons do to the environment, who foots the bill for legislation, and why white supremacy still shapes nearly every one of our cultural institutions.

A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center recently noted that the 2012 presidential campaign is on track to be the most deception-laden of all. An NPR story from a few months ago suggests that fiercely partisan divisions aren’t going away any time soon. This means in part that what we really need right now likely won’t happen: grown-up conversations about gun violence and racism.

Untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
I remember vividly where I was when the twin towers fell. Even today, I tend to look up with a twinge of anxiety when I hear a low-flying plane in the San Francisco Bay Area. That is surely mild compared to the post-trauma symptoms of New Yorkers.

While I’m a big fan of “retail therapy,” I hardly think that keeping New York’s Fifth Avenue shops open for business after the 9/11 attacks suffices to address the trauma of terror.

The virulent anti-immigration rhetoric over the last ten years bears witness to our collective post-traumatic stress disorder. All “foreigners” are suspect, especially if they don’t speak English, or have dark skin, and even more especially if they wear turbans. (Read this excellent commentary about guns, white men, and madness.)

(Wade Page, the shooter in Wisconsin, sported a 9/11 tattoo and had been tracked for years by the Southern Poverty Law Center for his involvement in white supremacist groups.)

This could be an occasion to address not only post-9/11 trauma but the longer traumatic legacy of African slavery and economic stratification. Something has gone terribly awry when white people among the working poor are unable to make common cause with African-Americans among the working poor – this is the classic “wedge” that politicians have learned to exploit with corporate money.

People are traumatized. People are fearful and anxious. Way too many people can’t put food on their tables. These hard realities are mapped to race, to color, to language, to culture, and, sadly, to turbans. We must find a way to talk about this.

So how might we begin to diagnose even these two symptoms? Christian traditions (among others) have a word for it: sin.

Self-styled liberal Christians shy away from this, but I think it’s time to name it. I don’t mean the rightly caricatured “Santa Claus God” who checks his list to see who’s been naughty or nice. I mean instead how both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament treat “sin” as anything that prevents the full flourishing of life and relationships, which the Creator intended for all.

Back in the 19th century a religious philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, described the human condition as a “sickness unto death.” This sickness results from the self’s turning inward on itself instead of outward, in relation. This, Kierkegaard said, leads to a spiral of despair, and surely today we are on that brink.

Some indigenous peoples in North America referred to the same thing as “soul sickness.” That’s how they made sense of their encounter with Europeans, whose obsession with private property and their inability to share what they had with others perplexed them. The Chippewa had a cure for this soul sickness: organizing your community for the sake of the common good.

Treating the tragedies in Aurora, Oak Creek, and Joplin as isolated incidents of potentially mentally unstable individuals only perpetuates our denial. We need to name our collective illness before we can find healing.

Surely faith communities can help facilitate those conversations, and not merely for naming what ails us. Surely leaders from all of our religious traditions could stand together, put aside doctrinal bickering, and bear witness to solidarity, and thus to a vision of hope, of the possibility of healing, and of a way to live together differently. Surely now is the time.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

3 thoughts on “Soul Sickness and Domestic Terror”

  1. ‘Whether this sickness is treatable or proves to be fatal to the soul of this nation will depend in large measure on our collective willingness to diagnose it and to speak truthfully about its consequences.’
    ‘Surely faith communities can help facilitate those conversations, and not merely for naming what ails us.’

    Jay, this post only confirms my sense that Spirit is leading you into a whole other body of prophetic writing- a sense which came with reading your cri-de-coeur (about fossil-fuel dependency) last night during the explosion and fire in your neighbourhood.

    My own path convinces me that we have to go a lot deeper than simply labeling ‘sin’ (a toxic label itself, which too often simply ends of objectifying or errecting walls). The conversation needs, among other things, to de-construct the assumptions, fear and need behind these challenges to ‘the American dream.’ Case in point, a conversation i’m currently sharing with a Zen practitioner about how it is ‘the greatest nation of earth’ also has the highest carceration rate of any society in the world? protecting what? (priviledge?) against what? (those who pay the price of such excessive/disproportionate priviledge?)

    just as our LGBT tribe has and continues to play a prophetic role shared with our straight sisters, within our Church, my sense is that this post of your recent facebook cri-de-coeur indicate you feeling your way to asking some pretty big questions, and i’d encourage you in this. unfortunately i only read your facebook posts this morning here in Montreal, or i would have responded earlier, but i hope the danger is past and that your Mum, the pup and you are all safe and well.

    1. That’s a powerful word, David. I thank you for it very deeply. Quite frankly (and I know you’ll get this right away even though it’s a bit arcane), I’ve been having some quasi-profound experiences walking my dog over the last couple of weeks in the regional park, among the pines and eucalyptus. A new sense of my bodily posture, for lack of another way to put it. A sense of “self-possession,” a sense of being planted firmly, of awareness, of being conscious. Words falter. But I think it’s the fruit of doing very intentional work in therapy, of daily textual meditations, and focusing as I can on the divine now. Again, words falter. But thank you. Really. Thank you.

      1. Jay, nothing arcane at all about the experience you describe. though it can come as it bit of a surprise to folks who primarily live/work in the abstract or performance- when mind (and mouth) and body all arrive in the same place and authentically live into the sacrament of the present- which of course is the first, and totality of the sacraments. your accounts of your heightened presence in the walks with your pup thrill me, and it all fits into this sense from at least a couple of your recent posts that the Holy Spirit might be leading you to write/work in an even larger forum, prophetically tackling topics that might surprise even you. Enjoy!

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