What the forgiveness in Charleston requires of us

It is a wonderful and important turn of events that relatives and friends of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal are showing forgiveness toward the shooter.

Relatives of the nine people shot down during a Bible study session inside their historic black church confronted the 21-year-old suspect Friday during his initial hearing. They described their pain and anger, but also spoke of love.

“I forgive you, my family forgives you,” said Anthony Thompson, whose relative Myra Thompson was killed. “We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. … Do that and you’ll be better off than you are right now.”

This news is being proclaimed as a victory for our faith, a hallmark of the efficacy of the gospel, and evidence of the exciting viability of our Lord’s teachings. Where is thy sting, O godless spirit of the age?

Please, friends, not so fast.

The forgiveness granted by these bereaved loved ones does not mean that the story has ended happily ever after; it does not mean that the battle is over and that the Church has won. Specifically, it does not grant absolution for our racism, violence, gun rights grandstanding, the Confederate flag, or anything else.

And it definitely doesn’t suggest, as is being construed in some predictable quarters, that we can dismiss as politically opportunistic “race-baiters” all those those who insist that this story is evidence that we still have a race problem. Pretending that the targets’ race was more or less incidental is willful blindness. Emanuel AME’s choice to forgive Dylann’s blatant racism is no sanction for our hidden and often institutional prejudices.

As a Southerner* and the descendant of many different slave owners, I need to say this: the white South has far too long clung to its paltry defenses of its ancestors’ “states’ rights” principles, covering the shame of being exposed to the globe as villains with the darkness of obfuscation and the rags of denial. Localized, decentralized government may well be more ideal than the “northern aggression” of Washington in most matters of state, but can these beliefs not be proclaimed and argued without propping up and whitewashing the Confederacy? The facelift that conservative states’ rights apologists attempt to give the institution of slavery (caring paternalism in many slave owners and frequently reciprocated affection from slaves are the usual defenses) are void; no doubt there are all kinds of vile acts whose list of motivations are neither wholly evil nor, by virtue of that fact alone, somehow worth defending. We can’t and shouldn’t deny the past, and we should learn to dispassionately confront and analyze root causes accurately without caricaturing (the reasons for the Civil War did reach beyond racism), but neither can we glory in such things as the South’s sociopolitical structure as though it were some imperfect but nearly appropriate instantiation of our political principles. Build your platform from scratch rather than on the top of so rotten a foundation.

In my experience, most Southerners no longer really think of blacks (among others) as an inferior race. My impression is that “racism” per se among my generation in the South has much more to do with how the minorities experience life among the majority – how whites shut them out, how the worst is expected and assumed of them – than any real animosity or feelings of supremacy based on the color of skin on the part of whites. In my experience, whites do not as commonly feel that they are inherently superior in any way; on the contrary (though quite as bad), as in so many other areas, we just have so much more sympathy for those like us and suspicion of those unlike us. It’s more about classism or cultural supremacy, and poor, uneducated blacks tend to occupy the lowest caste in our society. We are quite content with things being this way and (surprise, surprise) we’ve resisted the gubment telling us to abolish our castes.

As usual, I’m going to steer clear of prescribing any particular political action. But if we really want the Church to earn the victory, we’ve got to prepare our hearts to begin yearning for change, something very different from reaching for our guns and rezoning to keep our kids away from them. If we desire God’s reign to be brought to bear on our world for all to see, we desperately need our pastors and religious leaders encouraging us to bring radical changes to the status quo. We can’t just continue acting nicely, treading lightly, hoping the media won’t out another abuse of blacks by white police officers, voting down the people who shout about lingering inequality, and expecting that time will heal all wounds. That expectation of healing would be tantamount to hoping that skin would grow to cover the bullet entry point: we will have to remove all trace of the projectile before healing really happens, and a craving for that difficult surgery needs to begin in our churches. It was our double-minded contentment with the status quo that fueled the deranged desire of the shooter to expose the still festering wound and claim it as health.

These believers who were left grieving after last week’s tragedy have admirably taken the essential first step, no mistake about it. But their refusal to scapegoat Dylann Roof for all the discrimination their race has suffered is not really comforting news: it’s also a serious challenge to all of the rest of us. Accepting that challenge will entail avoiding the urge to hunker down with our like-minded comrades, reaching out to restore relationships even prior to an offending party’s repentance, and resisting the knee-jerk identification of opponents in any of these ideological squabbles without first picking through the wreckage to recover the wounded. It must include rethinking many longstanding boundaries and other aspects of “the way we do things down here”–whatever it takes to fully repudiate our contentment with the world we inherited from our oppressive past.

That’s a start, anyway. The humility of Emanuel AME’s response means that we must humbly look everyone in our community in the eye and sacrifice ourselves and all of our pride for the welfare of all within it.

Only then, after that self-sacrificial work is becoming our way of life in every respect, will the Church have grounds to claim any sort of victory.


* I focus on my own region in this post, but of course this does not just apply to the South or even all communities within the South. Please look at your own region or community and apply what I say as necessary.

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