Why?

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardRev. Andrew Clive Millard

Many parents dread that age when their child starts asking “Why?”  Not because they don’t want their child to be curious, but because whatever the answer, it usually leads to another “Why?” until the final answer, out of frustration, is something like “Because I said so!”  (The theological problem that answer represents is a topic for another time…)  Olivia hasn’t reached that phase yet, but she certainly asks plenty of other questions and I know it’s just a matter of time!

While it’s a phase that’s usually outgrown within a few years, the question still sticks with us throughout our lives.  And “why” is distinct from the other question words: “what”, “where”, “when” and “who” often have concrete answers, and in fact the rule of thumb for announcing an event is to include those answers as the most important details.  Even “how”, though more open-ended and subject to interpretation than the others, often has a direct answer.  But “why” seems to aim so much deeper, so much bigger.

We usually ask “Why?” in the wake of something going wrong, whether it’s merely unexpectedly unpleasant or an outright calamity.  Sometimes we mean “How did this happen?” but often we mean “How could this happen?” or “For what purpose did this happen?”  There’s a temptation to analyze all of the possible causes, to find out everything about what happened and who was involved, whether or not that information is actually relevant.  Given that, it also lends itself to abstraction, to consider the problem or the disaster from a distance as it if were a thought experiment rather than actually engaging with its reality.

Two weeks ago, a man killed nine people at “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in what was both a hate crime and an act of terrorism.  Thanks to our culture’s habit of deliberating “Why?” from the safety of our sofas, though, much more air-time has been given to talking about him and his background and his motives than either honoring those he killed — the Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, the Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, the Reverend Daniel Simmons, Myra Thompson — or doing anything substantive when it comes to mental health, gun violence or racism.  (Removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol and other public property is a start.  It’s one step, and an important one given that the flag has always represented a belief in white supremacy, but there are still many more steps that we need to take.)

I’m happy to report, then, that I spent an hour earlier today on a conference call organized by Showing Up for Racial Justice (or SURJ) on the topic of “White Faith Leaders Against Black Church Burnings”.  (SURJ describes itself as “a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice.”)  There were more than four hundred people on the call, representing a variety of faiths.  (It turned out that everyone in the break-out group for Virginia was a Unitarian Universalist, but I attribute that to the power of our social media networks in getting the word out about an event that was only just planned yesterday!)  Rather than agonizing over the “why” of the spate of fires at black churches since the shooting at Mother Emanuel, we learned about the actions that are being taken by white communities of faith to stand in solidarity with AME and other black churches nationwide, the financial resources that are being offered to the churches that have been burned, the education and training that is taking place on building justice ministries, the “rapid response teams” that are forming to help white people show up in support of black communities, and the rallies that are taking place this month both in North Carolina in support of voting rights and in South Carolina in opposition to white supremacist groups.

While a certain amount of information must be gathered to make decisions about what to do, we always need to be wary of succumbing to “analysis paralysis”, where asking “Why?” becomes an end unto itself rather than ever moving onto the question “What will we do?”  Let’s ensure that every conversation we have is genuinely preparation for action, rather than simply a substitute for it.

 

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About acmillard

Andrew serves as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, Virginia.
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