Mother Emanuel — What can we say?

June 21st, 2015

A brutal interruption

Thursday should have been Pope Francis’ day in the headlines with the release of his encyclical on the environment. But the pope was interrupted by the brutal reality of death in the oldest black church in the South, affectionately known in Charleston as “Mother Emanuel.”

Our daughter, whose husband’s roots in the Low Country go back to the 1700’s, said that it felt like 9/11 in Charleston. Everyone was in shock, not really wanting to watch the painful news coverage but unable to tear themselves away.

What can we say?

Days like these always remind me of Shakespeare’s closing words in his most painful tragedy, “King Lear,”

The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Everyone says what they ought to say — words of sadness, pain, shock, sympathy. Everyone says we should pray for Charleston. Perhaps if we spent more time praying before these tragedies happen, they would not happen with such stunning regularity.

But if we speak what we feel, words of sympathy and prayer are not enough. My friend, Donna Claycomb Sokol, is the pastor at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist in the heart of Washington. She wrote:

My emotions keep switching between being heartbroken and angry. Who in the hell purchases a gun for their child who is prone to wear clothing with apartheid South Africa flags attached? How is it that the President offered one of the most prophetic words I’ve heard spoken today when he pointed out how we keep allowing massacres to happen? When will the madness stop? If anything could ever cause me to run for Congress it would be to play a role in enacting tougher gun laws in this nation. I HATE GUNS! And please, dear church, please name racism as a sin – a horrible sickness of our heart as individuals and as a nation…How long, God? How long?

Donna spoke two words we need to say whether we want to or not: “guns” and “racism.”

It is about guns

President Obama spoke what he felt when he said, “I don’t need to be constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise. I’ve had to make statements like this too many times.” He named the truth that “innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”

Acknowledging the political realities in Washington that make reasonable gun control seem like an unreachable goal, he went on to offer this challenge: “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries…with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”

That’s not a popular thing to say when Congress is something like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the NRA. NRA board member, Charles Cotton, had the shocking audacity to blame the massacre on pastor and S.C. Senator Clementa Pinckney because he supported tougher gun regulations and opposed a bill that would have allowed people to carry concealed guns in churches. Cotton said, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead.”

The Fox News contortionists trotted out E.W. Jackson, a black pastor and failed political candidate, who said that pastors have an obligation to carry guns in order to protect their congregations. You can count me out on that one!

How long, O Lord, will we continue to endure a gun-addicted culture which refuses to acknowledge the need for reasonable gun control? When will followers of Jesus take Jesus seriously in his call to the way of non-violence?

It is about racism

Again, the Fox News propagandists and some of the political candidates tried to define this tragedy as an attack on Christians and on religious liberty, but it just won’t wash.

There’s a reason the shooter chose to kill black people in one of the most historically significant black churches in America, and it wasn’t because they were reading the Bible or praying. Who knows? He might have even chosen the date because of the importance of Juneteenth as the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in America. What we know is that he is a young man who has been infected with the cancer of white supremacy which is still very much alive among us.

The president again spoke the truth. “This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked. And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.” The sad though often unspoken truth is that the subtle cancer of racism continues to infect our lives, relationships, politics and even our religion.

But the President also offered a word of hope when he said, “I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”

He quoted Dr. King’s words in the aftermath of the murder of four little girls in a black church in Birmingham more than fifty years ago.

“They say to each of us,black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely with who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American Dream.”

Dr. King promised that “God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.”

So, the pope’s encyclical will have to wait. In this moment we need to absorb the pain, acknowledge the evil, and recommit ourselves to be the agents of God’s love, grace, justice and peace in this world. May it be so, Lord. Amen.

Jim Harnish is the author of "A Disciple's Heart" and "Earn. Save. Give." This post first appeared at

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