Sweet Honey and Salty Tears
Sweet Honey in the Rock sang a song years ago that contains this line: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.” In the past few days as weeks as stories of death and dying seem to dominate the news more than usual, those words have echoed through my mind. How much value is assigned to the dying in my world? How much value is assigned to the living? Whose life matters most? Why do some lives seem to matter more than others? When a life hangs in delicate balance between life and death, whose business is it to decide who lives, who dies, and when? Who gets to decide?
Last week, a 41 year old woman died after years of love, support, hugs, kisses, and a feeding tube. An 84 year old man died after years of leading one of the most powerful organizations in the world. A few days before that, nine people died in a shooting at yet another school in yet another shocked community in yet another obscure American town. The police chief in Baghdad died at the hands of his own countrymen. Over thirty drug dealing men, women, and children (yes, the children sold drugs too) were shot and killed in a gun battle with police in Rio de Janeiro. Hundreds died after an earthquake in Asia. Thousands died of disease and starvation. Most of those people who died had no one storming the doors of courthouses on their behalf in an effort to prolong their lives. Most of those who died did not have thousands of people outside their windows praying and hoping for a recovery. Most of the hundreds of thousands of people who died during the last two weeks died quiet deaths, unnoticed deaths, unreported deaths, and unrecorded deaths.
On a much more personal note, my sister-in-law and her brothers made the decision to turn off the ventilator that kept their mother alive. There was no fanfare, no media coverage, and no international intrigue. She had been in a coma and demonstrated no signs of brain function for over 24 hours. The agony of that decision is incomprehensible to me, just as it must be to everyone who has ever had to make that decision. When my father died four years ago and we made our way out of the hospital leaving his body behind, I wanted to grab every person I saw in those hospital corridors and tell them that my father had died. I wanted everyone around me to understand that one of the most special, most spiritual, and most loving people that had ever walked the face of the planet had died. When the parents of slain students in Columbine had to make funeral arrangements for their deceased children, they must have wanted to do the same. And the same is true even for the parents of gang members who are shot and killed in their own destructive life cycles. The parents of murderers who are executed on death row weep as much as the parents of their victims. Every death is personal. Every death is tragic.
So why does there seem to be a hierarchy of life value? Does the life of a North Korean soldier count more than the life of his South Korean enemy combatant? What about an American soldier versus an Iraqi rebel? Does the life of a homosexual AIDS victim count less than the life of someone who was infected by a blood transfusion? Does the life of a child count more than the life of an adult? Did my father’s life count less than the life of the Pope? What about the grandmother in Sweetwater, South Africa who had lost all her children and grandchildren to AIDS? Does her sorrow somehow matter less than the wealthy American husband who lost his family in a private jet crash?
I remember very clearly the first time I heard about entire generations of people in various countries who are born, raised, married, become parents, and even grandparents without ever sleeping under a roof. They are homeless all their lives. They never have running water or take a shower. They never know the dignity of privacy to care for their hygienic needs. To this day, that truth causes me to shudder. The accounts of genocide, of decapitations, of lynching, and of utterly barbaric treatment perpetrated by this nation’s forefathers on the natives who were living here when they arrived are often overshadowed by the stories of scalpings and assaults on Europeans and the plundering of their settlements. For some reason, the lives of the Europeans amounted to more than the lives of the “savages” they encountered in their new homeland. In college, I wept openly upon learning about apartheid in South Africa, political repression in South America, and persistent racism in South Carolina. Fellow students who insisted that “those people” wouldn’t know what to do with democracy if they had it, that “those lazy people” couldn’t handle freedom sometimes shocked me more the people we studied. Sadly, the cycles of killing haven’t stopped. Sadly, I don’t expect that they will anytime soon.
But there is a part of me, a teeny, tiny, hugely naïve part of me that hopes and prays that someday soon we will begin to see the equivalent value of life in this nation and in our world. There are thousands of people who willingly stand on picket lines, give themselves over to arrest and imprisonment to protect the lives of unborn children but will spend almost no time speaking against the unjust deaths of civilians who lose their lives as “collateral” in war torn areas of the world. There are many who protest the infiltration of drugs into the suburbs and are shocked over the deaths of clean-cut, good-looking, popular high school students who somehow became drug addicts, but have little pity for the thousands of inner-city young people who die because they couldn’t get asthma or diabetes medication due to lack of access to medical help. The shooting at Columbine High School brought this nation to its knees in sorrow over the loss of so many innocent teenagers in a masterminded bloodbath, but a similar incident on an Indian reservation made headlines for just a couple of days. Who decides that some deaths are more tragic than others? Why do some lives matter than others?
When will the deaths of black men, women and children, of Hispanic, of Asian, of Caucasian, of Vietnamese, of Iraqi, of Italian, of Spanish, of Sudanese, of Rwanda, of Haitian, of Cuban, of Nicaraguan, of Nigerian, of Liberian, of Russian, of Chinese - when will all killings and all deaths matter to all of us? Do true freedom and true democracy exist if all lives do not have true and equal value?
Joy, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your brothers as you mourn the loss of your beloved mother, Ida.