Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Not Even Numbered Among the Dead
When early reports of the shooting in Orlando began to emerge, news outlets identified 50 people killed, and 53 wounded and hospitalized. In subsequent days, however, the headlines reduced the number of dead to 49. To read this as a reprieve for one assumed victim, though, would be to misread what’s going on. Editorial judgments have determined that only the dead who are victims are worthy of counting. The shooter has been deleted from the count. Given the horrific nature of Mr. Mateen’s crime this may be understandable. But the act of numerical de-humanization also comes at a moral and communal cost.
As has become typical in the aftermath of mass shootings, we have quickly moved to demonize the perpetrator of these crimes. Omar Mateen had anger management problems. He was threatening and abusive to his wife. His co-workers feared him. He had become radicalized, but in confusing, muddled ways, not even a very informed or competent terrorist. His parents are strange. His wife may be complicit. He may have been a deeply closeted gay person. He was Muslim and, if not an immigrant, not quite “American” either. And, of course, he is now a mass murderer.
Nothing in the one dimensional portrait of Omar Mateen being prepared for us suggests anything redemptive about him. It may all be true. Or some significant portion of this may be true. But is this all we should or could say about Mr. Mateen? Must respect for victims, or our own need for vengeance, or our communal demand for justice require his dehumanization and, quite literally, his erasure from the roster of the dead?
Christians, for example, must consider what it means to say that Omar Mateen was created in the image of God. Tradition suggests that this image may become warped, distorted, even obscured. But never obliterated, destroyed, erased. Christians must come to grips with the mandate to love our enemy, to bless those who persecute us, and never to repay evil for evil. If the cultural default is to dehumanize those whose actions we abhor, Christian faith calls us to practices that humanize even those who violate our most precious human values.
Nothing about Omar Mateen’s actions is defensible. He has left a trail of dead, wounded, and traumatized victims. His deeds are nothing but horrific. How we speak about him, how we portray him may not matter to him or to the God before whom he now stands under judgment. But it does matter to us.
Excluding Mr. Mateen from the roster of the dead may be a sign of deference to mourning families and frightened survivors. As such it may be understandable. But this exclusion also effectively removes him retroactively from the roster of the living. And this is where it becomes dangerous. For it plays into the very dualistic ideology and social Manichaeism that threatens to fragment and destroy our culture – us and them, white and non-white, good and evil, acceptable and not, straight and queer, American and foreigner, documented and undocumented, winner and loser, person and non-person. These are the roots of social violence and political oppression as Donald Trump has so clearly shown us, and we inadvertently mimic him when we erase Omar Mateen from the ranks of not just the worthy, but also of the dead.
It is not our responsibility to exonerate, explain, or redeem Omar Mateen. But it is our burden to acknowledge his humanity and to insist as people of faith that in his life he bore God’s image, even if in ways that lie far beyond our comprehension. Numbering him among the dead, and thereby humanizing a person others are so eager to dehumanize, is a place to start, an act that ennobles even as it mystifies.
John H. Thomas
June 16, 2016