Responding to the Charleston Terrorist Attack2
“The cross and the confederate flag cannot coexist without one setting the other on fire.” -Dr. Russell Moore
In 1963, at a small black Baptist church in Birmingham, AL, the KKK planted that bomb that would explode and kill four black girls and ignite the Civil Rights Movement. The terrorist attack was a continuation of an awful tradition of terrorism and intimidation that often includes that targeting of African-American churches. That tradition also included the intimidatory imagery of a burning cross, set on fire by the twisted mix of bigotry, hate, heritage, fear, allegiance and oppression represented by the confederate flag. Many of those people considered themselves Christians, went to church, and believed in the power of the cross.
Last Wednesday, the tradition tragically continued when Dylann Roof, a white 21-year-old male, shot and killed 9 black church members at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the nine victims as we mourn their loss.
The mourning process will continue over the next few weeks, but the “healing process” will eventually begin, as Governor Nikki Haley tearfully stated as a press conference on Thursday. That healing process will include a discussion about several important narratives and discussions that the country needs to have -- indeed, in some corners, the the conversation has already begun. The accusation that “now is a only a time to mourn” is partially true; the victims deserve our respect, and that probably should include our humility and temperance. But I hope and pray that the admonishment to only mourn the victims is not self-serving -- too often the ones calling for a tempered reaction are those who are hoping to avoid uncomfortable conversations altogether.
But along with our tears and our sorrow and our calls for specific justice, uncomfortable conversations are exactly what is needed. It would be disrespectful to the victims not to allow their tragic deaths to serve as a catalyst for changing the circumstances that led to their death. There are many conversations and reactions that we could have.
One possible reaction is to renew our fight for racial equality. The tragically dark overtones of the American story is that our country, economy and social stratification was built on the backs of African-American slaves. After a Civil War incidentally led to their freedom, white Americans immediately and tirelessly fought to deny them any acknowledgement of humanity, and to limit or eliminate their basic freedoms and civil rights. As racism became less overt, it became more insidious as white hoods were slowly replaced by “Southern pride” and Dixie flags, first with the creation of an economic and social stratification that funnels black Americans into certain neighborhoods and social classes, then to a criminal justice system and a war on drugs than incarcerates black Americans at discriminatory rates to an astonishing degree, and finally to a widespread ambivalent apathy when 12-year-old children playing with toys are gunned down by government officers in the street. As Christians, no matter our skin color or ethnicity, one possible reaction is to remember our call to advocate for the disenfranchised and defend the oppressed, not out of a condescending paternalism, but as a clear-eyed acknowledgement that we aren’t better, just luckier. The kingdom of God is here, and a significant aspect of kingdom living in a fallen world is to fight to see justice roll like a river (Amos 5:24).
Another possibility is to become cynical, frustrated and look for anything and anyone we disagree with to blame. We can blame guns, or government, or the victims, or Obama, or white conservatives, or the media, or anything other than individual sin and systematic oppression.
Another possible reaction is to address the racist double standard in evaluating killers based on the color of their skin. Most black and brown killers are labeled thugs and terrorists; white killers are often individualized, as we look into problems of mental illness and terrible backgrounds. We often express shock and dismay when tragic killings are the result of white criminals, as we go to their schools and neighborhoods and find those who talk about how “they weren’t always this way” or “but they were such great students” or “we never saw this coming.” Black killers, of course, are just another criminal -- what’s so shocking about them? This is both an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations and a clear reflection of the discriminatory double standard we apply to both killers and victims. We found out very quickly that Trayvon Martin had smoked pot and committed a petty theft, that Michael Brown stole cigars, and that Eric Garner sold cigarettes; if no crimes are committed, then we can always just call say that a person is “no saint,” as Megyn Kelly of Fox News did to describe the 15 year-old-girl who was slammed to the ground by a policemen for, um, being at a pool, I guess -- and those are just black victims. But when the killer is white, we are often quick to turn to words of mental illness. The Charleston killer might happen to actually be clinically insane, but his actions, in and of themselves, are no more the product of mental illness than flying a plane into a New York tower or shooting 12 civilians in Washington, D.C. To assume that this atrocity was the result of mental illness is both hypocritical and an insult to and stigmatization of the brothers and sisters amongst us fighting mental illnesses. These 9 victims weren’t killed as a result of mental illness -- they were killed by a thug and a terrorist. In fact, what is it about white culture that it produces such a disproportionate amount of serial killers and spree shooters?
One quick illustration of my point about the double standard in the narrative created about victims and/or killers based on their skin color. There was a teenage girl who was tragically killed by two other teenagers. It was probably the unfortunate culmination of the months she spent dabbling in witchcraft and the occult, going to local occult meetings, some of which included her two eventual killers. Of course, we can’t blame her interest in witchcraft for her killing (of course!) but it is definitely so sad that the problematic subcommunity she was in ended in her premature death. I’m speaking, of course, of Cassie Bernall, who was shot at Columbine High School. And my characterization of her death is wildly unfair. It ignores that she left the occult, became a Christian, and that her interest in witchcraft had absolutely nothing to do with her death. But then that’s the point. And if pointing out her previous interest in the occult is irrelevant (and it is), then probably so is the fact that Trayvon Martin smoked pot. Our call to be more like Christ means we are called to tell people of their need for redemption and their requirement to “go and sin no more,” not to point out that they are prostitutes after they’ve been stoned.
Another possible reaction is to investigate why these racist acts of violence and murder that have littered our nation’s history so often include black churches as the backdrop. The very church involve here, Emanuel AME, had to be shut down for a period in the 19th century because of the violence committed against it. Throughout the 20th centuries, black churches were often burned and bombed. Going back to days of slavery, white slaveowners often used religion as a means of attempted control, but were terrified of the possibility of slaves gathering together, and alone, to worship. Two reasons come to mind. The first reason is a radical misunderstanding of Christianity -- a Christianity that racists think they “own,” a Christianity they think they need to protect from the dehumanized African-Americans they think unworthy of it. The second is a correct appreciation of Christianity’s message of freedom and the inherent value of everyone made in God’s image. Racists fear that a correct understanding of Christianity’s message creates an existential threat against their racist worldview -- and they are right. It does. How fitting that the families of the murdered victim expressed the message of Jesus Christ in such a concrete and unimaginable way at the bond hearing. See, the Charleston killer wanted (as my brother Jesse said) to start a race war, but he underestimated those he hated. He didn’t start a race war -- he continued a war that goes back much farther, a war between evil and the those who have been given dominion over it, and a war that he’s already lost.
Another possible response is to ignore the teachings of Christ and the solutions found in Scripture. We can continue to try to craft political solutions and pass the right amount and combination of laws and write convincing op-eds and post great points on Facebook and think that that’s enough. We can ignore the example of the Son of Man, the one who empathizes with the weak and needy, redeems the unrighteous, calls us to righteousness even as he dispenses with the evil whose remnants continue to plague us. As Dosyeovsky said, “there is a Being...who can forgive everything, all and all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him that they cry out “Thou art just, O Lord, for thy ways are revealed!’” One of our possible responses is to continue to forget the one on whom is built the edifice, the only one who can show us what true justice looks like.
I don’t know which of those responses will be the ones we choose -- But I think perhaps the first step is to continue the discussion about the place (if any) that the Confederate flag should have in our culture. It is the banner of Old Dixie, the representation of a country whose entire existence was predicated on the notion that blacks were subhuman and undeserving of liberty or self-determined life, a people to be used or disposed of according to the inclinations of those with a lighter skin tone. It’s a flag that represents the very oppression, racism, bigotry and violence that led to the tragedy we now mourn. Of course, some say that the flag represents nothing other than the heritage of the South, and it's not meant to be oppressive or to invoke oppression at all. But that ignores that a lot of people claim that it does -- are we calling them liars or just saying we don't care? Either response is unbecoming of those who purport to desire to become more like Jesus.
That flag is probably displayed in many places in South Carolina, but in a dark twist, we know for a fact it is displayed in at least two places in Charleston, SC. One place, unsurprisingly, is the license plate of the killer; the other, inexplicably, is the state capitol building. When people bombed the church in Alabama, when they lynched black people solely because of the color of their skin, when they wanted to intimidate people, and in many other cases, the confederate flag and everything it represents set the cross on fire, and left it burning in the yards of Southern blacks for everyone to see, while (as William Faulkner would say) Jim Crow sang in the wind in the background. Every time the confederate flag dances in the breezes that blow across Old Dixie, if you listen closely, you can hear him, still singing, still joined by those pining for the “old days.” But his song was drowned by a different song on Friday out on the steps of the courthouse in Charleston, SC, when the victims of the families gathered with others and sang Gospel hymns. My suggestion for the first step in the healing process is to let the family members of the 9 victims go the state capitol building, walk up to the flag, cut it down and -- as they continue their song about an “old rugged cross” -- light a match.
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