Last week the country was rocked by the actions of a cowardly killer in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof, a domestic terrorist, walked into a Wednesday night Bible study at one of the most historically significant African American churches in the South and, after sitting for an hour with the congregation that welcomed him with open arms, decided to shoot and kill nine innocent victims. In the time since last week’s tragedy, we’ve seen a lot of attention paid to issues of race–from calls to remove the Confederate flag from state grounds to the president’s use of the word “nigger” while describing modern manifestations of racism to frank discussions about forgiveness and faith. Here are a few of my thoughts:
1. One thing that mass shootings are guaranteed to do is generate intense debates about the role of guns in our country. On one side are liberals who believe that stricter regulations are needed to keep guns out of the hands of the people bent on killing innocents. On the other side are the NRA and conservatives who believe that the way to prevent mass shootings is to make owning a gun easier for law-abiding citizens. It’s one of the more predictable things about these types of incidents. What doesn’t get discussed? The fact that guns and violence are ingrained in American culture. The U.S. is only one of three nations–the other two being Mexico and Guatemala–with a national constitution that guarantees the right to own a private firearm. That’s why the debate about whether “sensible gun control” would lead to fewer gun deaths is just empty rhetoric. We love guns as much as we hate national ID cards. Anything other than a full repeal of the 2nd Amendment really amounts to playing at the margins. These types of crimes will continue until a politician has the courage to say that.
2. The level of willful delusion, deflection, and denial about the Confederate flag in this country is astonishing. Even as Republicans, most notably Carolina governor Nikki Haley, were calling for the removal of the flag from state grounds, others were still trying to feebly proclaim the flag is about southern pride and culture. They’re certainly entitled to their opinion and I can see why someone would be defensive about the actions and reputation of their forbears. That said, that flag should be judged not just by those who have appropriated it now (e.g., white nationalist groups) but by the ideas and ideals of the people responsible for creating it. The leaders of the Confederacy were clear about what they believed. They explicitly stated the role slavery played in their decision to secede. Here are the thoughts of Alexander Stevens, Vice President of the Confederate States, on the matter:
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.
Combine that with the fact that the preservation of slavery was codified in the Confederacy’s constitution and cited by cited by many of the states that chose to secede and it is clear that this flag didn’t just become associated with white supremacy and domination because people like Dylann Roof have adopted it. That’s why it is (rightfully) seen as a symbol of oppression by many people, especially black folk.
3. The murders of the Charleston 9 are the clearest physical manifestation of the direct threat white supremacy poses to black people. But I also recognize that evil is ever present in this world. The acts, victims, perpetrators, and motives may change but its existence is constant. Our national focus has traditionally been on racism–understandable given our country’s history–but unspeakable violence has been carried out in the name of tribalism, sectarianism, xenophobia, and any other source of difference in countries all over the world. To think that this type of evil is unique to America or white people is naive. I can’t think of one country where one group doesn’t have, seek, or attempt to maintain a social, political, or economic advantage over another based on difference.
4. Religion has played a central role in the conversations about the murders at Mother Emanuel. We heard everything from the church’s long legacy as a pillar of the black freedom struggle to questions (mostly by Fox News) about whether the attacks were motivated by religion rather than race. But one of the most consistent narratives over the past week has been about the black church and forgiveness. The gist of most of the pieces I’ve read has been that black people shouldn’t forgive white racists because our willingness to forgive has done nothing to keep us safe.
As a Christian and a black man, this is something that resonates very deeply with me. Jesus doesn’t promise his followers a life free from violence, persecution, disease, or other types of harm. His own life makes that very clear. What he did do was offer himself as the vehicle through which humanity could have a personal, unbroken, and eternal relationship with God. What he didn’t do was wipe away the presence of evil (see #3) once and for all.
There is nothing anyone can do to guarantee safety and security in this world. No religion, race, or political ideology can completely safeguard it. In fact, framing the question about racial progress in this way guarantees perpetual disappointment and despair. Think of it this way, the second deadliest mass-shooting by one person in U.S. history took place in a nearly all-white town in Connecticut. Some of the residents there expressed shock that such a crime could happen in a place like that but they shouldn’t have. Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, religion, or nationality.
That fact doesn’t make the pain of this incident any easier to take. The emotions we’re all working through right now are very real. I also know none of us lost as much as the family and friends of the nine people killed in that church. Their grief is neither political nor rhetorical; it is real and deeply personal. I don’t know what the family members who publicly forgave Dylan Roof (and admonished him to repent) meant when they made those proclamations but it could be that they see forgiveness as an important step in their healing process. It certainly doesn’t mean the Roof shouldn’t face the consequences of his actions. And no one should be forced or shamed into giving forgiveness. Ever.
While forgiveness is a central requirement of the Christian faith, it isn’t a cover for abusers and oppressors to continue in their ways. Like I said in a previous post, on a practical level forgiveness is about helping the person who’s been hurt find peace and emotional restoration, not soothing the conscience of the offender. And for Christians there is a special significance because it is impossible to be Christ-like without Christ, and truly imitating Christ is most clearly seen in how we deal with people who mistreat us, in ways large and small. That sound like total rubbish to many people, even some self-professed Christians, but it’s what the scriptures teach.
We have some healing to do as a nation. We can’t fix the things we’re not willing to face. The people whose primary concern is upholding our national reputation or appeasing a political base bent on maintaining the status quo are in for a fight. Now is not the time to lose faith.