“And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD (be) God, follow him: but if Baal, (then) follow him. And the people answered him not a word.” — 1 Kings 18:21
On the afternoon of May 24, I finished writing my latest BNG column, titled “‘Here’s Your Reparations!’ Buffalo Massacre — American Realities.” “Here’s your reparations” is the bone-chilling phrase scrawled across one of the firearms used by an 18-year-old white supremacist accused of shooting 13 people, 10 of whom died, at TOPS Grocery in Buffalo, N.Y., on Saturday, May 15. The shooter used the phrase to mock African American claims of reparations as a repentant response to centuries of slavery and their continuing impact on America’s Black population.
Those three words link serious cultural realities confronting 21st century Americans — rampant racism, white supremacy, internet hate speech, replacement theories, guns and more guns. These stark realities and the deadly actions they unleashed create a perfect storm of homegrown terrorism. “Here’s your reparations” became a defiant battle cry in a nation where segments of the white population deny or at least seek to limit public school instruction regarding the enduring legacy of historical and contemporary racism in America.
The Buffalo massacre is probative evidence of the state of the American union in its racially troubled past and present, one of at least 202 mass shootings so far in 2022. As such, it exemplifies the innumerable “death events” that are increasingly normative in American public life, collateral damage for the misinterpretation of Second Amendment “rights.” Such firearm obsessions make regulatory socio-political legislation increasingly problematic if not downright impossible.
Before concluding the original draft, I added: “So, we wait for the next young white supremacist to buy the next AR-15 and start shooting in the next grocery, church, synagogue, mosque, shopping mall or classroom.” Literally moments before I emailed that essay to BNG, news of the Uvalde massacre broke. Ten days after Columbus, an 18-year-old Latino man burst into the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 children and two teachers before he was shot by police.
On his birthday a few days before, the shooter, a resident of Uvalde, purchased two guns for use in the massacre. A Washington Post article suggests he was a loner who had been bullied in school, and that his family life was extremely volatile. The young man shot his own grandmother before attacking the school. She remains in critical condition.
For now, we do not know exactly what prompted the Uvalde shooter to pursue his violent course that took the lives of small children. The purveyor of the Buffalo massacre, however, was more forthcoming, posting his white supremacy views in a 180-page “manifesto” detailing his intention to execute Black people as a sign of his opposition to “replacement theory,” that false belief that “deep state” elements, specifically Democrats and wealthy Jewish coalitions, are working to open America’s borders to immigrants, a new voting bloc composed of the malleable “darker races.”
These massacres, located in different regions of the U.S., one a political “blue state” in the Northeast, the other a political “red state” in the Southwest, are not “wakeup calls” to the nation. They are but two of innumerable murderous incidents that occur incessantly among us, turning a neighborhood grocery and a fourth grade classroom from safe places into killing fields.
“This is no wakeup call; it’s our history.”
Even the barest of lists call to mind ceaseless atrocities. Racially motivated murders include the Wilmington, N.C., massacre (1898); Tulsa, Okla., massacre (1921); the torture and lynching of Emmett Till (1955); the death of “four little girls” in the Sunday school bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (1963); the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (1968); and the murder of George Floyd (2020). School massacres include Columbine High School (CO1999); Virginia Tech University (2007); and Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012).
This is no wakeup call; it’s our history. Mass shootings have eliminated safe space in America.
Hence the following realities:
Reality 1: Online sites foster racism and violence, and young people are especially vulnerable.
Online hate forums guide their subscribers, especially young people, into racism and white supremacy and armed violence. The Buffalo shooter acknowledges that, bored with the pandemic, he joined “politics forum,” an online source of racist views, that led him to acts of white supremacy.
Upon entering the TOPS market that fateful day, he live-streamed his terrorist attack on Twitch for an eternal two minutes before it was removed. The Uvalde shooter posted a series of statements on Facebook: 1) “I’m going to shoot my grandmother.” 2) “I’ve shot my grandmother.” 3) “I’m going to attack an elementary school.”
Reality 2: Neither shooter was a “lone wolf.”
Harvard professor Juliet Kayyem warns that “‘lone wolf’’ language fails us in an era when hate and radicalization now serve as a proxy for the collaborative herd, for the co-conspirators and colluders. (The Buffalo assailant) wasn’t alone. His mission was effective because he was supported by an apparatus that provided the ideology and means for the hunt.” She concludes: “He had his people; they were there for him.”
“His mission was effective because he was supported by an apparatus that provided the ideology and means for the hunt.”
At the very least, the Uvalde shooter had studied the work of other mass murders, as evidenced in use of body armor, not unlike that utilized in the Buffalo murders. Applying the term “lone wolf” rationalizes such violence as the anomalous work of a single crazed individual.
Reality 3: White supremacy endures.
The Buffalo shooter is a self-avowed white supremacist, and that might be the most dangerous reality he represents. His “manifesto” and resulting violent behavior illustrate the abiding impact of white supremacy on yet another American generation. Yet as white supremacy metastasizes, statehouses across the nation seem intent on softening if not silencing the ability of new generations of public school students to know and understand its history from Virginia 1619 to Buffalo 2022.
A Texas Tribune article of March 9, 2022, titled, “North Texas Superintendents Say Uproar Over Critical Race Theory in Schools is a Republican ‘Manufactured Crisis’” contends that the attack on Critical Race Theory, “has become shorthand for some to criticize any discussions about race in the classroom and for Texas Republican leaders to limit how race is taught. The law passed last year doesn’t mention or describe the academic theory.”
This is not the time to restrain educational efforts that might awaken new generations to “another way” of responding to destructive racist dogma.
Reality 4: Guns are America’s Baal.
In May 2022, two 18-year-old males purchased AR-15 style assault weapons, one to use in murdering Black people; the other to use in murdering fourth graders. In both their states, 18-year-olds can purchase assault rifles without securing a license or training. Neither can legally purchase liquor for three more years. Why in God’s name are 18-year-olds, or anyone for that matter, allowed to purchase assault rifles?
“Why in God’s name are 18-year-olds, or anyone for that matter, allowed to purchase assault rifles?”
The Buffalo and Uvalde massacres are yet another indication that guns are America’s Baal, an essential “household god” for the 21st century. For many Americans, the Second Amendment is an inerrant “gospel” that makes that right non-negotiable. In 1 Kings 18:21 the prophet Elijah confronts Israel and, 3,000 years later, America: “How long halt ye between two opinions? … Choose one God or the other god.”
Sadly, the biblical text sums up them and us: “And the people answered him not a word.” Our history suggests that little or nothing will be done, even after all this. Gun deaths will proliferate; few if any new firearm regulations will appear; legislative appeals will be silenced.
Conclusion: Will, can, most churches do anything?
Are churches silent too? Last week I discovered a New York Times report on the recent Emergency World Voices Congress for Writers, a literary collective effort to respond to the violence of our times. Muslim novelist Salman Rushdie offered this response: “We are engaged in a global battle of narratives — of incompatible versions of reality — and we need to learn to fight it.”
Rushdie declared: “A poem will not stop a bullet; a novel cannot defuse a bomb … but we are not helpless. … Rather we can ‘sing the truth and name the lies.’”
“We must work,” he said, “to overturn the false narratives of tyrants, populists and fools by telling better stories than they do — stories within which people might actually want to live.”
As Christians, our best narrative is encompassed in Jesus of Nazareth. It begins like this: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
In those words, and that narrative, can we find courage to sing the truth, name the lies, and stop the killing? For Jesus’ sake, and the sake of Black people and fourth graders, we’d better. And soon.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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