Last Wednesday night my heart broke. I don't have the words to adequately describe the flood of emotions that hit as I sat up into the early hours of the morning waiting for each update, refreshing webpages, wondering if they would catch the shooter, watching the footage and seeing the pictures of the heartbroken and grieving families and church members outside praying in circles and embracing each other in shaking arms with tears pouring down their faces. I wish I could say that could just as easily have happened at my church, or that I know how they feel. But the cold, hard truth and reality is that it couldn't, and I really don't.
My church is primarily composed of white Christians, and as much as white conservatives seem determined to make themselves the target here, we weren't. I have never been a part of a church that was attacked for racist motives, and pretending that I understand what they are going through because "faith is under attack in America" seems to trivialize the very real pain and history of struggle that is going on here.
I don't mean to imply that I have not been mourning with the rest of our nation as we start to struggle through some of the big questions in the aftermath of the attack. I have been taking time to sit and quietly reflect on topics like racism, systemic hatred, socialized violence, different philosophies of gun law, racial reconciliation, the racial makeup of my own church, the attitudes within my own extended family towards racial issues in America, and many other similar issues. None of these topics have come to mind lightly, and none seem ready to leave anytime soon.
I have intentionally reached out to look for a variety of perspectives on this situation and gathered insights from reading the hurt and pained responses of fellow Christians, including many whose churches looked a lot more like the target in question than my own. I read responses on Twitter, Facebook, individual blogs, and news sites. After days of soul-searching through this I finally came to several conclusions I would like to share publicly.
To my white fellow Christians:
This attack was motivated by pure, unadulterated racism. Attempting to minimize that fact by avoiding that discussion is disrespectful to those who are living with its effects. This was not simply an attack on Christians and churches (as horrendous as that would be). This was not merely the result of one random, deranged person going on a killing spree. He was calculating, meticulous, and knew what he felt he had to do. The fact that he is in custody should not mean that the greater discussion of what drove him to do this in the first place should end now. It is merely beginning.
Forgiveness will not be an overnight process. Pushing for premature closure does not give the victims and community proper time and openness for grief and mourning and appropriate expressions of anger. In a case like this, it is important to give the victims room to grieve rather than rushing them through that process in order to get them right to the "forgiveness" stage. It is beyond sickening to see so many oblivious people talking about forgiveness in a situation where they resemble the perpetrator much more closely than the victims. It is only those who have actually been hurt who have the power to forgive, and some of them may need time and privacy to heal without the pressure to quickly "forgive and move on" to make the nation feel better. It was awe-striking to see family members stand up and bravely speak forgiveness to the alleged shooter in court, but not all of the families were at that point yet, and they deserve our respect to let them grieve on their own timetable rather than ours.
The media should be held accountable for the double standard of its coverage on crime. It doesn't take much looking through old news stories to realize that when black people are accused of a crime they are portrayed as gang-bangers, drug dealers, and horrible people in general. However, when a white male is accused of shooting at innocent civilians, he is typically covered as a "lone wolf" who must be "mentally deranged" because he is certainly an "aberration." So, we are led to believe through media coverage that black males committing crime means an entire race is the problem, while white males committing crimes are the exception that proves the rule. This needs to be discussed, and the media needs to be held accountable for how it reports on crime domestically.
The public needs to stop looking for easy answers. In much the same vein as the media, the public tends to look for easy answers when tragedies occur. Immediately sympathy pours out on the victims' families, but actual action is hard to come by. This situation has raised awareness of some serious issues that need to be addressed with serious, productive conversation. Sympathy for the victims is not enough, we must be willing to make changes.
Racism is not dead. This may seem a controversial conclusion, but I have thought long and hard about it. I do not believe that there are hundreds of young, white males all around the country getting ready to go storming into black churches with guns, but I do believe that the ideology that led the shooter to take those beautiful lives in that historic church is alive and well in our society in many more subtle ways. This is not a conversation we can afford to shut down until we're ready to have it. It is not something we can just decide we have gotten past. The people most affected by it are telling us that it is still attacking their way of life. We have a choice of listening to them and facing the problem or burying our heads in the sand once again, but that is not even a choice to people of conscience. It is not enough to say "well, not all white people are racist." The worst damage is being done by the silent white majority that is content to pretend nothing is wrong, and I have belonged to that majority for far too long. No more.
I am determined to fight racism in myself, in my family, in my community, in my church, and wherever I find it, because the Gospel leaves no room for it. If we as Christians really care for our brothers and sisters of color we will stop living in the dream world of white, conservative privilege and step into the battlefield that is their home. In the Gospel these dividing walls are broken down, and we are one in Faith and Hope. The same image of God is reflected in their humanity as well. To reflect the Gospel is to love our brothers and sisters enough to listen to them and care about what they have to say.
To my black brothers and sisters in Christ:
I am sorry. I am sorry for all the times that I assumed racism wasn't a big deal. I am sorry for all the times I ignored the issues that brought you so much pain. I am sorry that I wasn't listening. I am sorry that I did not speak up, and I am sorry that I did not care. I am sorry that I have not shown Christlike love to you in sensitive ways, and I am especially sorry that even within the churches of America we still seem as divided as anywhere in society today. I am sorry for the pain you are going through right now, and I am sorry that so many of my fellow white Christians seem unable or unwilling to reach out to you in your pain.
I am listening. I am discovering so many voices of wisdom from within your community, and I am taking their words to heart. Keep speaking the truth. Keep sharing your heart on these matters. Keep reaching out and showing grace when it seems that no one hears, because I am listening. I know I don't understand how all of these issues play together, but I want to understand, and hearing your voices helps me put together more of the pieces. When you voice your pain, I am listening. When you speak up about a system that has never seen you as anything more than a problem or authority figures who view you as less than human, I am listening. When you speak about seeing your church in place of Mother Emmanuel on the news, and the horrors of imagining your own pastor lying dead in your own church, I am listening. I am weeping with you.
I am praying. I am praying that the Gospel will show its power even in what seems like a hopeless cultural standoff. I am praying that God will bring out racial reconciliation that no one else could ever accomplish. I am praying for wisdom in how to speak truth to this in my daily life. I am praying for your communities that are feeling this loss so deeply. I am praying for the awakening of the white conscience in America, that we would no longer just want to "get back to business as usual" but that genuine dialogue would begin from this and bring real change. I am praying for love to conquer hate and light to shine where there was only darkness.