Words Are Not Enough | A Response to Violence and Hate

May 29, 2020

Words, words, and more words. Once again with another horrific death of an African-American, Mr. George Floyd, at the hands of Law Enforcement, we are confronted with the nearly-ritualized and certainly predictable barrage of words that follows such events in our culture.

  • There are the extemporaneous Facebook posts expressing to one’s private circle of friends and followers one’s visceral reaction to another recently posted graphic and violent video. . .
  • There are the well-meaning, carefully crafted, hand-wringing public statements of religious and academic leaders expressing dismay, protest, sympathy, lament. . .
  • There are the public pronouncements of investigators and government officials promising justice, pleading for caution and patience. . .
  • There are the news show discussions tailored for their respective audiences—some highly politicized and polarized, some purporting to offer careful multi-perspectival analysis of the situation. . .

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in words. I believe that words can change the world. I believe that finding exactly the right words to describe what we see in the world around us is worth the devotion of a lifetime.

But in the face of the death of Mr. George Floyd, words are not enough. (In fact, words, by themselves, are never enough.) But when confronted once again with the deep and painful reality of the racism in our culture, one more round of words is absolutely not enough. We have been through this before. We know what happens. The graphic videos go away. The investigation goes indoors. The academics and religious leaders go back to tending their normal round of concerns. The news shows go on to the next big story. . .That is, until next time.

I was reminded yesterday of my visit to Charleston in 2016 with a delegation of mostly-northern religious leaders from both the African-American and White communities. We were there to commemorate the first anniversary of the racially motivated killing of nine African-Americans while attending a prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel Church. The city had clearly expected large crowds and were prepared to accommodate them. They did not come.  The stadium chosen for the commemorative service was noticeably and embarrassingly empty.  The congregations that turned out were mostly African-American. The communal mourning by both White and African-American churches of just a year ago had seemingly evaporated. The city hardly seemed to notice what was happening in the stadium.  It was my first existential experience of this cultural amnesia that takes over when we encounter once again a wound  in our collective memory that we do not know how to heal.

I do not have answers. But I do know at least three things about this situation. I know that words are not enough. I know that we cannot wait for another headliner story to attend to the situation. I know that we must not continue smothering the pain by more analysis, the endless piling on of considerations of complexity—those skills at which we academics are particularly proficient. These patterns will only result in the continued cycle of fear, violence, more fear and more violence in which everyone suffers.

Yes, we must take care. Yes, we must look until we see clearly what must be done and what we can do. But we must not look away. (We must seek that courage of which Iris Murdoch spoke—that courage which is the capacity to sustain a clear vision.) In our own daily lives, we must submit to the vulnerability of giving up our own comfort, of giving up our fear of making a mistake, of risking our own sense of safety—whatever that safety consists of for each of us in our daily place of calling.

In this moment, may the words inspired by the death of Mr. George Floyd spill over in our churches, in our colleges, and in our communities resulting in the sustained attention and sustained action that it will take to create a world where every child of our Heavenly Father feels safe and fully “at home.”

That is my prayer today.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976


Houghton University