There’s a media personality I enjoy listening to who, in discussing the horrific killings in Charleston, South Carolina, said one of the gutsiest remarks I have heard so far. As she exhorted listeners to pray for the church, the victims and their families, she admitted, “I really am having a hard time with this. I really don’t want to talk about this or think about it because it is so horrible.”
She’s White. I’m not. But I applaud her for saying out loud what too many people in this country who are not African American are thinking, feeling and acting upon.
I even tested this in my personal sphere. When I met recently with a small group of buddies—four white and one Latina—and my manner was subdued, one of them asked why I seemed…quieter. I said my air conditioner was out and my heart was broken over the events in Charleston, S.C. Guess which “issue” they wanted to discuss.
So while I am armed with all kinds of advice and concern about how to cope with a broken air conditioner, I am left with a profound sadness about the crippling effects of silences upon the things that should matter to us—how we build and sustain community. Even in fiction, Harry Potter learned that “he who must not be named” had to be called out
as Tom Riddle/Voldemort before he could be vanquished.
Let’s speak, then, of the unspeakable. Let’s call out, by its true name, what this mass murder was about. Let’s talk about racism.
There are two sure things that are NOT true about this tragedy. One is that, although the murders took place in the Emanuel AME Church, it is not symptomatic of a broad attack against Christians and Christianity. Certainly, we can take an existential view and see this tragedy as an element in the cosmic battle between good and evil. It is a construct that is common to many faiths, philosophies and secular laws.
But because these horrors took place in a church, Christians do have a unique opportunity to empathize, without appropriating sacrifices that are not broadly shared. So, for example, I can think about my own sorrows and losses and use those painful experiences to emotionally connect with brothers and sisters in Charleston. Through this empathy and understanding, I may be led to take meaningful actions—such as special prayers, donations, or messages—on behalf of this grieving community.
However, if I wanted to appropriate this experience as my own, I would begin talking about how much I am at risk in my church as they were–without the evidence, history or experience to support this notion. I would falsely build myself up as a potential martyr with such words, rendering the real suffering of real people as merely backdrop to my own erroneous and grandiose notions. To do such a thing is not only silly, but dishonest. Members of this prayer group were targeted because of their skins, not their bibles.
A second thing that is not true about this racist attack is the notion that members of this church, especially its courageous pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, brought this upon themselves by being so active in community and social issues.
Just last May, Pinckney—who also served as a state senator in the South Carolina legislature—made this stirring speech, calling his state to ethical action after the shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white policeman. Ah, if only they had stuck to praying and sermonizing, all might be well.
This may a tempting view, but it is patently untrue. Violence and social action may be correlated but they are not necessarily cause-and-effect. And it is so much a part of the African American Christian experience for one reason only – race. It would be healthier for the church as a whole to recognize that the struggle against, and the support of, racial and cultural prejudices are part of the Christian story, writ large, over time and history.
So, I am no theologian. I am a member of a wonderful church with profound sermons, study sessions, and personal interactions that challenge me constantly in my own understanding and faith. But, a couple of things from recent lessons have struck me in the midst of sorting out my feelings about this tragedy.
One is that the Jesus I read about prayed for others but also called out hypocrisy. Churches like Emanuel AME are trying to locate themselves squarely within this “Christ-like” tradition, not outside of it. Two, his ace disciple, Peter, denied knowing him three times before finding his way to becoming the “rock” of the fledgling church, including reaching outside of his community to others of different faiths, nationalities and what we would call “races.”
The interesting thing about the frightened Peter is that all that time he was saying he didn’t know Jesus, he was hanging out where his leader was taken prisoner, watching and listening to the latest street “news.”
Too many of us, thanks to the hyper-mediated world we live in, are like Peter. We are silent voyeurs in the midst of the tragedies unfolding around us, all the while claiming to know nothing about what’s going on.
So, let’s talk about race in meaningful exchanges and timely conversations. Like the radio host I quoted earlier, and like the biblical Peter, you just may not want to face this issue, or get tangled up in something that is complex, fearful and heart-rending.
Let’s face it—not every church has the history of social justice, nor everyone the spirit of advocacy, as does the Emanuel AME and its true martyr, Clementa Pinckney. I am both haunted and amazed by the thought of Rev. Pinckney worshipping for nearly an hour with a young man who would then turn around and kill him in cold blood
The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart gave as perceptive a riff as anyone I’ve followed about Charleston, race and what it means to all of us as a nation. We know that the news and commentary will continue to unfold about this horrible tragedy in the time ahead.
We can prepare for the onslaught. Let’s not bury our heads in denial, nor get distracted by false discussions about Christian martyrdom. Let’s be immune to any attempts by the killer and his allies to justify his deeds. If we talk about gun violence, mental health, or social activism as part of this puzzle, we have to talk about race, too. Finally, we need to reject hateful, stereotypical statements and counter them. Maybe had enough people who look like Dylann Roof objected to his racist rants, he and his victims might have had a different outcome.
And here’s a thought. Look within your own community and connections. If you ask people what’s on their minds, and they mention this tragedy, listen with an open and courageous heart. The air conditioner can wait.