The horrific murders during the Wednesday evening Bible study of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, have rarely left my mind over the past few days. I have talked about it with colleagues who live in the city, prayed for the victims and their families during a conference on the legacy of African-American Rosenwald Schools, read dozens of articles and commentaries, and had long conversations over the family dinner table — all to try to make sense out of the senseless.
To take another step in that process, I’m adding to my “Observations from home” series with this collection of unrelated observations and thoughts which all revolve around the many issues raised by this racist rampage.
Bible Study — Those of us who grew up in the 20th century South in the evangelical tradition understand the nature of a weekday gathering to study scripture. The regulars are the spiritual seekers and mentors who take their faith very seriously. When I heard that the shootings had taken place at the weekday Bible study, I didn’t have to wait for the news reports to tell me that these people would be nurturing, loving leaders who lived out their faith in their daily lives. And the reports soon confirmed that these were nine remarkable people – beginning with the 41-year-old pastor and State Senator but also including a poet, a librarian, a girls’ track coach, the church sexton, and more.
As I write this, the Emanuel AME Church website has not been updated to reflect the carnage that took place in this sacred place last Wednesday at the hands of a 21-year-old white supremacist. So it is especially heart-rendering to read the description of Wednesday evening Bible study found there:
“Is something missing from your life? Are you doing all you can to have a closer relationship with God? If you have a desire to learn more about God, then join us on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. in the lower level of the church. We look forward to seeing you!“
I Forgive You — There will be many responses — and non-responses — to this race-based terrorist attack from those who profess a Christian faith. Many of those responses will be very sincere and meaningful, but others will simply attempt to frame the discussion in a way that upholds their worldview. One of the worst stains among many in the South’s racial history is the church’s role in supporting first slavery and then racial inequality.
I could go on a rant here about how the so-called Christian right (which is neither) espouses beliefs that are the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus. But I couldn’t do a better job of demonstrating Jesus’ true response than the family members of the victims did at the bail hearing. Time and again, they simply said, “I forgive you” to the angry young man who found it was appropriate to kill nine innocent people because he – in his own misguided way and spurred by the hatred so often found in our public discourse – felt his world was threatened.
The New York Times covered this remarkable outpouring by reporting:
“One by one, they looked to the screen in a corner of the courtroom on Friday, into the expressionless face of the young man charged with making them motherless, snuffing out the life of a promising son, taking away a loving wife for good, bringing a grandmother’s life to a horrific end. And they answered him with forgiveness.
‘You took something very precious away from me,’ said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, her voice rising in anguish. ‘I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.’”
But the Times, like almost all of the national media, missed the chance to compare this moving and deep faith-based response with the typical stand of today’s politicians and professional pastors who claim the religious mantle as their own, but quickly call for violence as a response to violence — be it domestic or international. To me, this witness by the family members of the victims was the one ray of hope to come from this inexplicable sadness.
Terrorism — I cannot follow all the arguments about how we do — or don’t — describe this act. But there is no doubt that it fits within a 400+ year history of terrorism against African-Americans in the United States. We are quick to respond to perceived terrorist threats from abroad, but as a country we have turned a blind eye to the terrorism at home. 4,000 lynchings from 1877 to 1950; the KKK’s 1870 burning of nearly every black church in Tuskegee, Alabama; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 that left four little girls dead; the recent wave of killings against unarmed African Americans…all are part and parcel of a racial history in the United States that has seen one group of American citizens live in fear and search — usually in vain — for a safe place. And what should be the safest place of all — a House of God — is often the first target. This most recent example was a hate crime. It was racially motivated. And while it may have been perpetrated by a lone individual acting out his own misguided sense of how his country should respond to change, it was part of a centuries-long terrorist campaign.
Guns, Race, Flags…Oh, the South — William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, includes the famous passage where Quentin Compson’s puzzled Canadian roommate at Harvard says to him:
“’Tell about the South. What it’s like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.’”
This is one of those times when you wonder if those who look at the baggage of the South and suggest that perhaps we would be better off without the region may be right. I know I look at the worst impulses of South today and fear for our country and our souls.
Let’s start with the region’s obsession with guns. We’ll have commentators who will say that easy access to guns doesn’t have a thing to do with our violent history. Or worse, we’ll have a board member of the NRA from Texas blame the church’s pastor for voting against a measure in the South Carolina legislature which would have made it legal to carry concealed guns into churches. Why didn’t I think of that? The world will be much safer and better off if we have armed guards at Bible study!
Then there is race, and the extra toxic mixture of racial inequality and the Confederate flag. One of the most willfully misleading strains of thought I heard came from commentators who said that the killer was focusing on Christians, and not African-Americans. Let’s just get out the blinders. This is a region – as noted in The Bitter Southerner – where people…
“…will argue, in all sincerity, that the Confederacy entered the Civil War only to defend the concept of states’ rights and that secession had nothing to do with the desire to keep slavery alive. We still become a national laughing stock because some small town somewhere has not figured out how to hold a high school prom that includes kids of all races. “
I have heard “heritage not hate” about the Confederate flag for years, often from people who are related to me in one way or the other. These are people who are reading airbrushed Southern history, or have had teachers (sometimes their parents) who simply do not know what they are talking about.
God I want to believe that there are a growing number of people in the South who “do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions” yet view “our region’s contradictions and are determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window.” My hope begins with those family members of the victims who said, “I forgive you.” But of course, we need many more people — and especially white Southerners — to take up that mantle.
Is There Hope? — Jon Stewart says no.
“Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not s— compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.”
The Economist has doubts as well.
“The regularity of mass killings breeds familiarity. The rhythms of grief and outrage that accompany them become—for those not directly affected by tragedy—ritualised and then blend into the background noise. That normalisation makes it ever less likely that America’s political system will groan into action to take steps to reduce their frequency or deadliness. Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.”
I don’t know how or when we may work through this as a people, but sooner or later we have to own this past. That, it seems to me, is the first step. As an individual I have to find my personal response, even in the face of hopelessness; my own way to play a role in helping throw our dishonorable traditions out the window.
More to come…