Editor’s note: Gene Davenport gave the following remarks at the Lambuth University Quadrangle in Jackson, Tenn., on May 7, 1970. He delivered them in response to students’ invitation to speak about violence at Kent State University that claimed four lives. As our nation mourns the tragedy at Fort Hood, we offer Davenport’s remarks not in any way as an analogy, but as a somber reflection on violence and mourning that now carries with it the weight of history.
In some respects, we are here for an odd occasion: we have come to mourn for strangers. I dare say that of us who are gathered here this morning, none could recite the exact name, age or hometown of any of the four students in whose memory we have come together. We have come to mourn for strangers.
And why have we come to mourn?
We did not mourn for those students who were shot down by a sniper on a Texas campus a few years ago.
We did not mourn the victims of My Lai.
We did not mourn the deaths of the victims of Tennessee highway accidents last weekend.
Why, then, have we come to mourn?
Perhaps we have all come for different reasons – anger, frustration, fear, even curiosity. Our reasons for mourning will of necessity remain secrets known only to ourselves – or perhaps to God alone – for who really knows what impulses stir within the breast of each of us, save the One who made us and who knows us better than we know ourselves?
It is fashionable to say that America is becoming more violent.
But ask any black person who has tried to be a person in this land of the free, and you will know differently.
Ask the Indians of North Carolina and New York State and Oklahoma, and you will know differently.
Read your history books – those history books that interpret U.S. history in one of only two ways most historians seem to know – military history.
Read in those books about 1776 and 1812; about the Civil War and the Spanish-American War; about the Trail of Tears and about Crockett and Boone, the Indian fighters; about Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and you will know differently.
We are part of a society conceived, spawned and preserved in force and violence – and that is what this day is all about!
There are angry cries in the land now for the president to appoint a committee to find someone on whom to pin the blame. It will not be called this, but its title ought to be the Scapegoat Committee.
On whom shall we place the blame?
Shall we place it on the guardsmen – those frightened, confused, fellow human beings who were pressed into service on short notice and who were bombarded with rocks and concrete?
Or shall we place it on the anarchists – those power-hungry, thrill-seeking egotists who find their only security in their power to bring institutions to their knees?
Or shall we blame the administrators – those over-30 types who just don’t seem to understand?
Or shall we blame the president of the institution for not anticipating the trouble – for not having the wisdom of Solomon or the foresight of Nostradamus?
Or shall we blame the governor for possibly political motives in sending in the troops?
Where shall blame be placed? Placed it shall be! For the only way most of us can get along is by justifying ourselves; and self-justification can come only by placing blame upon those we least like.
All of us are involved in the guilt. All are participants in the blame. For who among us has not at one time or another been guilty of substituting rhetoric for analysis, rationalization for reconciliation, a concern for legality rather than for justice?
On several occasions during the last two days, I have either heard or seen the remark that the tragedy of the deaths that we are here to mourn is compounded by the fact that at least two of them seem not even to have been demonstrators. That tells us who we are! We believe that throwing rocks out of fear and confusion is a capital offense – or at least that it justifies somewhat a bullet in the chest or the brain!
We struggle not against guardsmen or administrators or students or anarchists. We struggle against powers and principalities – cosmic forces in whose grip we all are clutched.
And so the search for the guilty goes on. We will have our scapegoats!
But for those of us who call ourselves Christians, let us not be concerned with blame. Let us come and mourn.
Certainly, let us mourn for the four students struck down so suddenly in the midst of a spring day.
But let us also mourn for the guardsmen who shot them. Perhaps they will live for the rest of their lives with the haunting knowledge that they exercised, by the squeeze of an index finger, an authority reserved for God alone. If this be so, let us mourn their guilt and self-recrimination.
Perhaps they will say, on the other hand, “The dirty bastards had it coming!” And perhaps they will live out their lives with a sense of satisfaction, believing that when they were needed most, they did not shrink from their duty. If this be so, then let us mourn their bondage to Death and their hardness of heart.
And let us mourn for the parents of the dead and for the parents of the living – whether students or authorities – parents who see the smiling, innocent faces that once were awed by the beauty of a butterfly wing, now hardened and bitter and afraid, victims of a world that relegates awe and innocence to the ash heap of memory.
Let us mourn for those among the nation’s enemy who are victims of this war: children scarred in mind and body; old men and old women uprooted from their homes where their fathers and mothers died; young men and young women whose daily lives are passed in the arts of war – their studio the jungle, their brush the automatic rifle.
In the name of Christ, let us mourn our enemies and pray that, in turn, they too mourn for us.
Let us mourn for the officials of this nation and their families – whether we support them or not, whether we trust them or not – officials who are human beings, not beasts, but human beings who, like all of us, are victims of that beast that tracks the children of humankind throughout our days, and whose footprints are clearly to be seen within our own. Let us mourn them as human beings who did not create the evil of this world any more than did we, but who, like us, are guilty of perpetuating that evil – and who, no more and no less than ourselves, are victims of the necessities that our history, for good or ill, thrusts upon us.
And let us mourn for ourselves – proud, frightened, confused and astonished as we are.
Let us mourn for our own inability to live with the wisdom and compassion that we demand of others.
Let us mourn for our own helplessness in the face of a history we did not choose and whose outcome we shall not ourselves determine.
Let us mourn our lack of trust in a God who may well have hidden himself from our generation.
But finally, let us turn from all this mourning – the mourning for the Ohio Four, the mourning for the guardsmen, the mourning for the parents, the mourning for the enemy, the mourning for the officials, and the mourning for ourselves – and let us turn our eyes to the cross of Christ and mourn for him. For it is all these torments and all this madness of our predicament this day that lie behind his death, his suffering, his torment. And in him we behold the agony and suffering and very death of God himself. Let us then, in our mourning, mourn ultimately for Christ himself, the only truly innocent sufferer, in whose suffering and death lies the resolution of our own – and in whose victory over Death lies our only hope for cleansing, for life and for renewal.
Gene Davenport is professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University and theologian-in-residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tenn.
Gene Davenport (1936-2018) was Professor Emeritus of Religion at Lambuth University and a columnist for The Jackson Sun.