March 17, 2011 / Theology
Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, is …
February 6, 2017
Over six feet tall.
Short, brown hair.
This is a description of me. It is also a description of Timothy McVeigh, who on April 19, 1995, planted a bomb inside a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
McVeigh and I both grew up in the northeast, reading comic books, watching football, and doing well in school. Our pasts are similar; our bodies are similar. So what makes him different from me? Maybe it’s his eyes. My eyes are green; his eyes are a piercing blue. Look at his eyes, and you will see we’re not the same.
I find it unsettling to think that my body and Timothy McVeigh’s body have so much in common. I do not like to dwell on the fact that he and I are the same species. And so I find some solace in the fact that the first biography published about him is titled All-American Monster. If I am a human and he is a monster, I do not have to wrestle with the notion that he and I are made of the same stuff. We may look similar—except for those eyes—but inside he must be a different being altogether, inhuman and terrifying. We may have the same skin, but rest assured, our similarities are only skin deep.
To borrow a term from the rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke, I feel compelled to deny my consubstantiality with McVeigh. For Burke, rhetoric works not so much through persuasion as through identification. Rhetoric has the power to create, sustain, modify, and reject identifications—this is like that, I am like you, they are not like us. According to Burke, the main purpose of language in human life is establishing consubstantiality. He writes, “In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time, he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.”1
We see the work of rhetoric establishing consubstantiality in the wake of tragedy. “We are all Trayvon Martin,” signs read. “Je suis Charlie,” millions tweeted. Black men wear “I am Mike Brown” hoodies while across the world women chant “I am Malala.” People rush to identify themselves with the victims, sometimes out of solidarity, sometimes out of slacktivism, sometimes out of fear, sometimes as a way to remember the fallen—“re-member” literally meaning to re-embody, to make consubstantial with.2
Sometimes this identification is used to demonstrate the similarity between victims and protestors. A young black man wearing an “I am Trayvon” hoodie is a walking reminder of arbitrary violence against blacks and the way such violence is permitted by our justice system. That hoodie communicates the message, “Look at my body—under different circumstances, that could have been me.”
This brings me to the question at the heart of this paper. Should I wear an “I am Timothy McVeigh” shirt? Look at my body—under different circumstances, that could have been me. What should I do when I recognize my consubstantiality—not with a victim but with a murderer?
This is not a question white people are accustomed to asking. The American white majority has a simple but effective strategy to deny consubstantiality with murderers. If a killer has an Arab body, then many of us assume he is a terrorist whose actions are motivated by Islamic fundamentalism. His motives, we immediately conclude, are not just different from our potential motives for violence; they are of an entirely different nature. We disidentify, locating the source of the terrorist’s actions in something totally foreign to us. It is not an exaggeration to say that we characterize the terrorist as a different species from us, a creature driven by forces we cannot feel.
If a killer has a black body, we assume the violence is gang-related. We disidentify by contextualizing the violence as a part of a lifestyle that is utterly separate from our own, a lifestyle of crime. The word criminal, like the word terrorist, designates a different species in the dominant white imagination, and it is as racially coded as the phrase bad neighborhood. Whereas a word like felon designates a person who has committed a crime, the word criminal designates a kind of being wholly other from us law-abiding citizens.3 Black violence is not the work of someone consubstantial with us; it is the work of a criminal. Furthermore, this disidentification is used to justify violence against innocent blacks. Consider how many blacks have been arrested or killed because they “matched a description,” because they were consubstantial with criminals. For police-shooting victim Philando Castile, it was not his eyes but his “wide-set nose” that was enough to separate him from the law-abiding world.4
When a killer has a white body, we assume that he is mentally ill. This, too, is a way of denying consubstantiality. “Sure, our bodies are superficially alike,” we think, “but he’s nothing like me—he’s insane.” This appeal to mental health in the wake of mass shootings is not an attempt to explain anything but rather to explain away our consubstantiality, to dismiss the need for explanation.
There are some instances in which Arab violence is an act of terrorism, black violence is gang-related, and white violence arises from mental illness, but when a new tragedy occurs, these precedents do not fully explain our instinct to diagnose the event in this way before all of the facts are revealed.5 Our instinctive judgments, the way we know what happened before we really know what happened, come from a felt need to deny our own consubstantiality with the perpetrators. This is a felt need to distance and excuse ourselves and to reassure ourselves that they are evil but we are good. Even when mass violence makes us feel less secure in our schools and workplaces, these instinctive judgments help us feel more secure in our identities, more secure in our bodies.
Should Timothy McVeigh make me feel insecure? He persistently evades all attempts to deny consubstantiality. For starters, he had no connections to any terrorist organizations, though some have concocted a wild story about his role as the fall guy for a Philippine terrorist group. Indeed, McVeigh’s own defense lawyer heard McVeigh’s confession and still insisted that there had to be an international conspiracy behind the bombing. McVeigh was not previously a criminal—quite the opposite, in fact. He had worked for years as a security guard and had won five medals for his military service in the Gulf War. He had what his biographers later called a “squeaky-clean record.”6
Nor was Timothy McVeigh mentally ill, though everyone assumed so in the initial media storm that followed the bombings.7 Over a five-week period in prison, he went through twenty-five hours of interviews with a psychiatrist who reported that McVeigh was surprisingly normal, a “nice guy” with “no major mental illness” who was not delusional and fully understood what he had done. McVeigh’s lawyer argued that the bombing “was not a sadistic crime, like the bloody murder sprees of Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy. . . . He is not a demon, though surely his act was demonic.”8 Those who spent time with McVeigh all seem to agree. McVeigh is not a demon; he is a nice guy. He is not one of them; he is one of us.
What needs to be stressed here is that the psychiatrist, lawyer, and biographers are not wrong about McVeigh. They are not in denial about his personality; they are not softening his image or distorting the truth to make it more palatable. If anything, they are making the truth far more unsettling because we desperately want McVeigh to be a demon. He would be so much easier to deal with if his eyes were red, not blue.
McVeigh did not act like a madman; he acted like an American. In his mind, the bombing was a “counter-attack” against a US government that had declared war on its own people in the massacres at Waco and Ruby Ridge. The government had become oppressive, and a demonstration of power needed to be made to check its militancy. He decided to use the American government’s own tactics against it.9 As McVeigh said, “borrowing a page from US foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government. Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the United States hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations.” McVeigh argued that it was hypocritical for the federal government to call him monstrous for killing children as “collateral damage” because that very same government ordered the death of many children in military strikes and domestic operations. “Whether you wish to admit it or not,” McVeigh wrote, “when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the US military, you are approving of acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City.” He saw his actions as parallel to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—they were violent but for the sake of a greater peace and a greater freedom. “The end,” as he said, “outweighs the means.”10
I want to stop for a moment and acknowledge a temptation. I could end this essay here and have McVeigh’s harrowing evaluation of American foreign policy be the final point. But to do so would be to deny consubstantiality with McVeigh. All too often pacifism, or even a broader Christian social justice identification, serves as a way of disidentifying with aggressors. To rest secure in a perspective that characterizes us as peaceful and aggressors as violent is to refuse to follow the God who was crucified between two criminals. In a bodily way, Christ identified with these violent men. Only in this final act of consubstantiality was the incarnation complete. God did not just become of one substance with law-abiding citizens but with criminals, refusing even at the final moment to deny consubstantiality with murderers.
If we refuse to acknowledge what we have in common with others, we shut ourselves off, not only from understanding them but from understanding ourselves. When we deny consubstantiality, we refuse to admit that the other sheds any light on who or what we are. McVeigh compared his actions to those of a victim standing up to a bully. “Once you bloody the bully’s nose,” he said, “and he knows he’s going to get punched again, he’s not coming back around.” That does not sound like the twisted logic of a terrorist, a criminal, or a madman. It sounds unsettlingly reasonable. When asked by a friend about all the people killed in the bombing, McVeigh replied, “Think about the people as if they were storm troopers in Star Wars. They may be individually innocent, but they are guilty because they work for the Evil Empire.”11 I am unnerved by how much sense that makes to me. I am not Timothy McVeigh, but he and I are not so different. The process of reckoning with that fact is the process of coming to understand myself. This self-understanding makes me uncomfortable because it forces me to confront the ways I am not loving my neighbor. It forces me to see continuities between my own actions and those actions I disidentify with, the actions of a “them.”
Acknowledging our consubstantiality with murderers is a challenge for all people, but it is especially difficult for white Americans who, as I mentioned earlier, have an array of subconscious strategies to help them disidentify with those who do evil acts. We automatically situate the source of evil actions in motivations that are utterly foreign to us, and by doing so we insulate ourselves from moral interrogation. We repress the possibility that acts of terrible violence emerge from urges, fears, or commitments that we share. This refusal to acknowledge consubstantiality reinforces a collective self-deception. Unable to understand ourselves or our neighbors, we find it difficult to truly love either.
Consubstantiality is often wrongly interpreted as guilt. I am not guilty of McVeigh’s crime. I am not guilty of the evil of chattel slavery or the sins of Jim Crow racism or of the murders of innocent black men by police officers. And as I understand them, contemporary civil rights writers and activists do not want me to feel guilty for those evils. Rather, their challenge to white Americans is to recognize that we are of one substance with perpetrators of great evil, both in the past and the present. White guilt is a red herring. What is needed instead is to face the fact that people with bodies like mine have committed injustices and to let that fact call into question my own actions and motivations. The task of white theology in America is forming people capable of resisting the temptation to deny consubstantiality with victims and victimizers.
Timothy McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001. He died with his eyes open, staring at those who were watching his execution.12 The crucified Jesus beckons me to look into those blue eyes and see my own reflection. Jesus calls me, calls us all, to resist the pharisaical urge to say “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men” and to say instead, “Have mercy on us.”13
Russell Johnson is a PhD candidate in philosophy and religion at the University of Chicago. He studies fear, disagreement, and why we talk past one another. His hobbies include volleyball and the culture war.