Grief as catalyst for social change

The Rev. Mel Williams
The Rev. Mel Williams

Grief is a powerful motivator for social change. We are now seeing the growing mobilization of grief energy transformed into calls for social change.

Consider the student activism ignited from the Feb. 14, 2018 mass shooting of 17 classmates at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Students from Parkland have spurred rallies across the nation as young people have risen en masse, saying “Enough is enough,” demanding regulation of guns that are killing our young people.

At the nationwide March 24 March for Our Lives, the student voices reached for courage and the microphone to cry out for background checks, a ban on rapid-fire assault weapons, and other reasonable gun regulations. “Protect people, not guns,” they said

The striking thing about this new activism is that it has arisen from grief.

All grief is connected. The agony of 17 students killed at Parkland is connected to the grief over children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Massachusetts, worshippers killed in a church in Texas, the deaths at the Columbine school shooting, and others. Grief piled on top of agonizing grief!

This grief has two dimensions: loss and gain. Loss takes priority as we weep and ache; but gradually we see that there is also a gain, a cleansing that leads to a possible new focus, new direction.

“Only grief permits newness,” says scholar Walter Brueggemann (“Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exiile”). He’s writing about Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” exploring how grief is transformed into energy for change.

I thought about Jeremiah when I watched Emma Gonzalez, one of the grieving Parkland students. She spoke briefly to the crowd and then she stopped and stood still, in silence, tears rolling down her face. For six minutes and 17 seconds she stood in silence, the same amount of time it took for the shooter to kill 17 of her classmates.

When any child of God is killed, God’s heart is the first to break. God’s grief joins with our grief in a piercing lament that forges a pathway to newness, a new beginning.

In our city we hold public vigils at the site of every violent death, sponsored by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Gathered in a large circle, candles in hand, various people speak their pain at the death of their loved one. At nearly every vigil we hear someone say, often through tears, “I want to make sure this does not happen to anybody else. Gun deaths have got to stop!”

One of our leaders, Effie Steele, endured the gun death of her pregnant daughter. After weeks of depression, with support from friends, she began knocking on the doors of state legislators to insist that her daughter’s death was a double homicide, the killing of her unborn grandchild as well as her daughter. After several years of her tireless efforts, the legislature passed a new law, declaring a double homicide in cases where both mother and unborn child are killed.

Grief becomes a catalyst for change. Our grief awakens our agency, a resurgence of commitment to the forces of life.

We see this resurgence in the current student activism. We see it in our public school teachers expressing their pain over the devaluing of public education.

This grief-to-action pattern has been evident in various social struggles in our country. During the civil rights campaign of the 1960’s, the grievers met in churches the night before the march – to sing, pray, and weep if necessary to prepare for the next day’s march.

It was grief – pain, oppression – that led to civil rights legislation. Likewise, most major movements – for women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, disabled citizens’ rights, the rights of those living in poverty – have all emerged from grief.

With the current revival of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, we’re seeing another rising of grief – moral pain – over the escalating poverty among us. It’s a “National Call for Moral Revival,” for dignity, respect, safety, and health for all God’s children.

This Moral Call echoes Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s telegram to President Kennedy during the 1960’s racial unrest. He urged the President to declare “a state of national moral emergency” over the racial crisis.

Our grieving young people are now sending a similar public message about gun violence. Our teachers are crying out their pain. The Poor People’s Campaign is bringing together those burdened with economic hardship. It’s a moral emergency! It’s time to listen to the pain, to hear the cries of our moral leaders. Out of grief, their voice is a sign of hope.

Grief is a catalyst for social change. Only grief permits newness. “Blessed are those who weep.”

Mel Williams is the coordinator of End Poverty Durham and pastor emeritus of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham.