But I can’t let the smallness of my mind to understand or the smallness of my heart to feel keep me from responding the best I know how. There is something in me that says, “you are a pastor, you must speak.” And so I speak, very imperfectly, the best words I can come up with today. I’m sorry for what they lack. I’m hopeful they can be helpful nonetheless.
On Wednesday night, a young man walked into Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and asked for the pastor. He was directed to a Bible study that the pastor was leading. After about an hour, he stood up, made some racist remarks, then shot and killed nine people.
On Thursday, authorities arrested Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man who matches the description of the shooter and who appears to hold white supremacist views.
By the time I publish this, all of you probably will have heard this story. You may have heard the President’s remarks, along with the analysis of politicians and commentators. You may have watched Jon Stewart’s emotional monologue. Perhaps you caught up with Michael Ian Black’s Twitter battles.
You also will have decided what it means, how we should respond to it, and how much emotion you should invest in it. Perhaps you’ve concluded that this event was a symptom of our nation’s unhealable racial wound. Or perhaps you believe it was simply the action of a damaged individual. Perhaps you see this as a sign of increasing persecution of Christians. Perhaps you think we should take up the call for more gun control. Perhaps you feel there is no need to come to any conclusions at all.
Despite so many divergent views on causes and meanings, I would like to suggest that there is a way for us to remain united in our response.
First, it is extremely likely that we all agree that the killing of nine human beings is a tragedy. We probably also agree that the circumstances of these deaths–that the victims were black, were gathered in a historic black church that for generations has been attached to the civil rights movement, and were killed at the hands of a white man–make them a national tragedy.
Even more fundamental than agreeing to call this a tragedy, however, is our connection to the victims. Our faith uses the language of family to describe how one person is connected to another. At the broadest level, we are brothers and sisters in humanity, all created in God’s image, all alive by the breath God gave us, all responsible to love each other as we love ourselves.
Christian theology also also describes a special brotherhood and sisterhood among followers of Jesus. The Old Testament’s occasional description of God as a parent becomes a central theme in the life of Jesus. Paul calls us adopted children of God–co-heirs with Christ of the riches of the kingdom of heaven. He points out that we each carry God’s Spirit in us like we carry a last name–the proof of our adoption, the basis of our most fundamental identity, and the assurance of our future hope.
This language of family is not a spiritual platitude. It is not simply intended to inoculate us against loneliness or to manipulate us into good behavior. It is a fact of human existence: We are brothers; we are sisters. And it is a fact of Christian discipleship: We have been made sisters and brothers.
So when we learned on Thursday morning of the deaths of these nine, whether we felt it or not, we were learning that we had been robbed of siblings. News like that brings a few responsibilities: to mourn our sisters and brothers, and to celebrate them. To comfort those whose lives have been turned upside down by their loss.
Yesterday I wrote online: “My sisters & brothers have died; my nation is enraged. I cannot be comforted today. I can barely hope.” Today I feel the same. I envy those who have been able to stand in the midst of grief and say with sincerity, “I forgive.” That is indeed the pattern of Jesus. That is indeed where I want to end up.
But maybe I’m too broken to feel more than one kind of emotion at once, because I don’t feel an impulse to hate or to forgive. All I have in me is sadness: For lives that could have been. Love that will never be shared. Church services and graduations and weddings and family meals where these precious ones’ absence will feel like a hole in the air. Maybe you feel this way, too.
I know, though, that there will come a time when there must be room for more than sadness. When I must allow myself to feel something for the shooter. When I will have to make some decisions about how I will let Christ influence my heart.
And I also know that, after we have attended to the critical emotional needs of this moment, it will be time to step into the future. It will be up to us to decide what our sisters’ and brothers’ deaths will mean.
It is an inescapable fact that they died because of the color of their skin. And that ought to compel American Christians to name racism for what it is, to figure out how Jesus is already at work undermining it, and then to join him in that work.
Racism is an unholy birthright granted to each American. It reaches into the wombs of our mothers to affect the way their babies grow. It weaves itself into our hearts and minds. It manipulates our speech, our work, our art, our play, our worship. It has something to say about when and how we die.
It lives right here. It is expressed in the predominant color of the skin in our sanctuary every Sunday. It’s in the way we think about words like “city” and “suburb”; “rich” and “poor.” It shapes our hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families. And for our church family.
And that should not be. Those are all, by rights, the sole province of Christ to influence.
To admit that racism exists and influences you doesn’t make you any worse than any of your neighbors. It is confession. For those who look to Christ for the restoration of all things, confession is the necessary first step toward experiencing freedom from what binds us.
So for now, let’s remember our brothers and sisters, mourn with their closest family and friends, hold them in our prayers and in our hearts. Let’s call racism what it is, admit that it’s in and around us, even though we hate it.
And then let’s ready ourselves for the day when we step beyond sadness and lament and take up the long, slow work of reconciliation and redemption. We must return to the work of building a world now that echoes the future we hope for. To do any less is to say our brothers and sisters ought to have died.
This is frustratingly non-specific guidance. Frankly, I fear its glaring insufficiency. May Christ lead us where, so far, I have precious little insight for how to go.
God’s grace and peace to our brothers and sisters in pain, and God’s grace and peace to each of you,