“I Got Nothing”: Narrative Wreckage and Charleston

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 21:  Parishioners embrace as they attend the first church service four days after a mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church June 21, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Chruch elders decided to hold the regularly scheduled Sunday school and worship service as they continue to grieve the shooting death of nine of its members including its pastor earlier this week.  (Photo by David Goldman-Pool/Getty Images)
Photo courtesy of CBS New York. (Photo by David Goldman-Pool/Getty Images)

By Joe LaGuardia

In the wake of last week’s domestic terrorist attack against Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show delivered an extemporaneous monologue.

Stewart said that he was unable to focus on prepping for his show all day, and he did not have any jokes to tell.

“I got nothing,” Stewart repeated, alluding to his speechlessness over the loss of nine lives in one of Charleston’s oldest black churches.

As I combed through social media thereafter, I noticed other people echoing Stewart’s mantra.  One person on Facebook said the event rendered her speechless.  Another person quipped that no words could communicate his grief.

I only posted a news article and a prayer released by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship because I know speechlessness well: In the aftermath of my own father’s death, the result of a mass shooting in a Pennsylvania town hall meeting, I too plummeted into what Elisabeth Gold calls “narrative wreckage.”

“Narrative wreckage” happens when a person’s or a community’s grief is so unbearable and helpless that no speech, utterance, or proclamation fits the situation.  Nothing makes sense, and the logic we apply to life no longer holds water.

The stories that make meaning in the world come to a screeching halt and are dismantled.  As Stewart said, “I got nothing.”

Certainly, initial reactions to tragedy, mostly resulting in yelling across political aisles pertaining to racism, gun control, or other cultural factors, arise but are far from helpful.  In fact, they are so distracting, the long road of reconciliation gets ignored entirely–and our conversation only hobbles from one tragedy to the next with no real solutions in sight.

But if we take our time, words will eventually start to reform in our mouths.  Yes, there will always be words of protest, anger, cliche, acceptance, among others.  For victims of the Charleston shootings, words of forgiveness were the only ones that erupted on the scene.

Some people simply expressed prayers of lament, supplying clergy with the appropriate verbiage used to describe their own feelings the best they knew how.

But lament does not find a comfortable home in a prose world.  It is the language of poetry and prophetic preaching, the theme of biblical books such as Lamentations, Isaiah, and post-traumatic stress-laden Ezekiel.  It is the narrow road less traveled because it doesn’t place blame–it rips us from the very disillusionment in which blame enshrouds us.

Musical verse (sometimes in the form of dirges), metrical units, and oddly paired phrases that do not fit any narrative framework are the only ones available for those prophets who lived in war-torn, exiled Israel under Babylonian, terrorist rule.

Truth is, I–and folks at Trinity–did not do much of anything in the wake of the shootings at Emanuel.  A few leaders from our worship team decided against a formal moment of silence during Sunday service.  I did not attend any  prayer vigils held in our county.

This is not because we don’t care.  Quite the opposite:  Trinity did not lament like other churches because lament has become a part of our community for the past few years.

The loss of my father was not only my loss, but the entire church’s loss.  And we have faced loss of various kinds.

Frankly, we are sick of the violence that has erupted since a semi-automatic wielding terrorist took my father’s life on 5 August 2013.

And we are sick of death wrought by war, cancer, accidents, domestic abuse, stillbirth, and addiction.  We are sick of death despite the geography: be it in beautiful Charleston, across amber waves of grain in our nation, or not five minutes from us at a local liquor store.

We only stand as a silent witness that enough is enough.

Yet, we are humble enough to admit that we don’t have all of the answers.  When we are in pain, we pray honest prayers to God.  When we discuss politics, sometimes we leave the table without any compromises.  When we cry together, our eyes fill with resignation more than they ought.

And although lament is our second language, it is hope that is our native tongue: We know that the Christ story doesn’t end at the cross, but at the victory of an empty tomb.

We know that Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of our resurrection to come.  But until then, its narrative wreckage for us once again.  We still feel the warm blood stains on the cross more than the soft, white linens Jesus left behind on Easter morning.

Like Stewart, our hurt runs deep.  So, sorry folks, for now, “We got nothing.”


Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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