The Charleston tragedy: How should we respond?

June 19th, 2015

The ugliness of hatred and its historic vestiges have again darkened a sacred space. This is not the first time the black church has felt the wrath of white supremacy. White supremacy has long influenced the life of black congregations and the individuals they serve. During the 1800s, white supremacists would attack black religious organizations to stir fear among black leaders and to squelch efforts of black uplift. Tragedies like Charleston remind us of 16th Street Baptist Church and the bombing that killed four little girls. The work of arsonists who set fire to a string of churches in the south in the mid 1990s. Or three men in Massachusetts imprisoned for burning a predominantly black church in protest to President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign.

The black church was founded in response to anti-black hatred, resistance and terrorism. This is particularly true of the African Methodist Episcopal connection established under the leadership of Richard Allen because, “…as being forcibly denied access to the Methodist church based on their skin.”

Since its formation the black church has been different and multi-dimensional in scope. By default and for its survival the black church had to be different and all-encompassing. Albert J. Raboteau accounts for the origins of these complexities in his discourse on the religious history of African-Americans. Raboteau writes:

The history of African-American religion exemplifies America’s long and dramatic engagement with ethnic pluralism and the central role race in shaping American life. Thousands of Africans from diverse cultures and religious traditions, forcibly transported to America as slaves, retained many African customs even as they converted to Christianity. Before and after the Civil War, African-Americans drew religion to its moral and prophetic calling making it the center not only of African-American culture but a challenging ethic of equality and dignity throughout American society.*

In the wake of recent events and a barrage of theological queries that overwhelmed even me, we can draw strength from the experience and explication of the African Methodist Episcopal church. Our Methodist kin’s motto should encourage and embolden our spirits: God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, Holy Spirit our Comforter, Humankind our Family.

God is with us.

While we may not understand the providential nature of God, it is what it is. God is, even in tragedy, God whom is present. It’s not by accident that, even in this moment, God reminds us of that by fact by the very location where such things happen. There is no right place for wrong action. There’s no right way to do things that are unrighteous. For evil, there are no lines of demarcation in this life. God is Emanuel. God is with us. Even right now, and as I’ve talked with people, they’re most disturbed by the brazen nature of this and other violent acts. The malice and the motivation is obviously racial intolerance. The fact that a 21-year-old could be so bigoted in his beliefs, and diabolical in arriving early, listening to the word of God, and then think he’s doing someone a favor by not killing them so she would tell the community why it happened leaves even the most devout bewildered. Still God is Emanuel.

Christ our Redeemer

What is our response? Our response at all times, in Christ, is focused on redemption. I don’t know how you redeem or reconcile at this point other than expressions of forgiveness, expressions of tribute. At some point we have to take off our sackcloths. Likewise “lady justice” must be unmasked to the reality that what is politically and constitutionally right is not always righteous. We need to live up to the spirit of law, not the letter of the law. Our practices have to be consistent with our faith because no one knows the day or the hour.

Holy Spirit, comfort us

Our hearts are pierced by the pressing interrogative of Rabbi Harold Kushner, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” These are critical times for the church. Amid uncertainty, lives are being questioned whether they matter. Anti-otherness, indecency and violence are challenging our communal existence. Yet, the calls to remain steadfast in faithfulness are before us. Healing is both a painful and protracted process. But help, comfort and better days are promised.

Humankind our family

War, retaliation and retribution are not the answer. The only thing that will conquer hate is our deciding to love. Such is the imperative of discipleship to love. Love that is unconditional. Situations may result in catastrophe. Circumstances may seemingly justify condemnation, but that’s not what Christians are allowed to do. We are not allowed to counter-punch. We are required to love in the face of pain, prejudice and persecution, doing so unconditionally.

This is a tragedy not just to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in Charleston. It is a tragedy felt across faith traditions. An evil enacted against the human family. The African Methodist Episcopal church is a strand of the Wesleyan tradition, and we need to understand how its trauma inextricably impacts us, then infinitely enlist to respond to it.

*Albert J. Raboteau. Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans (New York: Oxford Press, 2001), ix.

F. Willis Johnson is the senior minister of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri.

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