Today is a day of many emotions in the United States. We celebrate the recognition of gay marriage as we mourn the loss of nine innocent murder victims. Being jubilant for one feels disrespectful to the other, and being despondent in the name of grief seems to eradicate the deserved victory of those who have earned their day in the sun. How should we feel about it all? What should we say? What should we do?
Americans are used to crying different tears out of each eye. In this country, weeping with joy is almost always accompanied by lamentation. Equality is a road of violence, bigotry, and exclusion. Movement towards justice rarely comes fast enough and it always seems slowest to the people whom the injustices back into a corner. A good American recognizes that we are each members of multiple communities, each with as much right to exist as the other. Sometimes we look towards the government to help, sometimes we look towards the population as a whole, and sometimes we go to ground, surrounding ourselves with the people whom we are most like, who understand better than anyone else what we need, how we feel, and how to surround and protect us.
Today is a day when all of these experiences overlap. It is a day when gay couples are grateful to the government for recognizing the legitimacy of their love while inviting the rest of America to join in the party. Yes, Justice Roberts was correct in his dissent that it would have been more satisfying if America as a whole voted-in gay marriage, but Americans wouldn’t do it, just like we wouldn’t legislate emancipation or demand integration. The Supreme Court did today what it does best, codify the inevitable and push Americans to realize their moral potential.
But the black community has sought its own and who could blame them? Surrounded by violence and threat, confederate flags and streets named after bigots, they looked towards one another for hope in this desperate time, and one of their own, someone who also happens to be the President of the United States, came to them to voice their grief and their hope.
But we shouldn’t forget that this moment was simulcast around the country and every community listened; Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church invited America to their party too. I do not agree with the President that Dylan Roof was an agent of god when he killed nine innocents. God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh hardens his own. But that’s okay. I don’t have to agree and I can still love my President for saying what he did. He wasn’t speaking to me when he said it. He was eulogizing Clementa C. Pinckney, a Methodist pastor, and speaking to his congregation. He was doing the job he was supposed to, for the people who needed it most, and I was given the honor to listen in, to temporarily hand him my soul, and to celebrate what many feel is best in the Christian tradition: grace, forgiveness, and the hope of a better life to come. I don’t have to adopt their theology to spend some time sharing in Christian hope.
This is what it means to be an American on this day of all days: to recognize that there are other people, and that although their words and beliefs may not be ours, their immediate needs do take priority over the luxuries the rest of us desire. An American knows that we are a big country of many histories and that all citizens present their stories as gifts. As individuals we have the right to accept their narrative or turn away, but as a country, we must welcome the past into our collective consciousness and make it into something new, something better, and something more worthy of our moral identities. This is what’s wrong with celebrating the Confederate Battle Flag. It doesn’t make anything. It doesn’t bring forth a future. It only holds us to a past that denies people their humanity.
So today we celebrate love while we condemn hate. We glorify affection while we stand agape at the loneliness of loss. We welcome the possibilities of the kids who will be born of gay parents while we break apart from the absence of the children whom terrorism has killed. This is also what it means to be an American today: to have many emotions that make us complicated but whole and to be many people sharing in communities that give us one home. We are the American people and we inscribe these words on our seal: E pluribus unum…out of many, one.
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