The Charleston Massacre
The murder of nine church members in a house of worship places us once again at the crash site of race, politics, guns and violence. Worse, these horrible incidents keep happening with an alarming frequency. No one is safe as each atrocity is followed by endless chatter on the hot button issues of the day like mental illness, terrorism and religion. And while each perspective contains some truths, they are not necessarily truthful. They may hold part of the equation but certainly not all of it. And while partially correct they are usually wrong.
The site of the latest evil, the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, has a rich and storied history. One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, was a free black and former slave in Charleston, South Carolina, noted for his planning of “the rising”, a major slave revolt in 1822. The plan was revealed by a slave and Denmark and his followers were quickly captured. On July 2, 1822, they were hung by the neck until dead and the church was burnt to the ground shortly thereafter. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denmark_Vesey. Baby faced, 21-year-old killer Dylann Roof, has just added another sad chapter to the oldest AME Church in the South.
On Wednesday night June 17, 2015, Mr. Roof drove 100 miles from Lexington, South Carolina to the church. Mr. Roof was welcomed into the sanctuary and for an hour sat through bible study amongst the very people he murdered, one of whom was an 87-year-old woman. He then fled only to be caught over 200 hundred miles away in Shelby, North Carolina.
Dylann has already confessed to both motive and deed. The reason he murdered 9 innocent people as they prayed, none of whom sinned against him, is as old as the nation. It is the wound that never heals; the racial hatred to which America has longed succumbed.
We can forever discuss the issues of race and guns. We can always debate the relevance of religion and mental illness. But the class and dignity exhibited by the victim’s families and the good people of Charleston is beyond dispute.
This is the light and the lesson of the “Charleston Nine”. This is what separates the Charleston Massacre from Ferguson, and Baltimore; what raises it above McKinney and Cleveland. And this is what models the way for responding to the future atrocities that will surely come.
Similar to the response of the Sikh community regarding the 2012 mass shooting in their house of worship, the Charleston community calmed rather than inflamed the situation. There was no talk of revenge, demands for justice or raised voices. Neither were there riots or violence all of which would have spread the hate.
Rather than make matters worse the dignified response to the shootings allowed us to reexamine our embrace of symbols of the racist past. Instead of alienating potential allies, the absence of bitterness and discord permitted all people of good will, white black and all shades in between to join together in peace and justice. This coming together, this healthy introspection would not have been possible had the Charleston response been anything less than an example of forgiveness and faith in action that defies comprehension.
In the past we have been critical of both the church and law enforcement for slights both real and perceived. But now is the time to give credit where credit is due. This also applies to the South Carolina Governor and Charleston Mayor for their responses. Each provided the support and resources necessary to heal a wounded community. Ditto for the South Carolina citizenry and law enforcement that quickly captured the assailant.
Dylann’s ultimate goal was to divide the races and to start a race war. In this he failed miserably. Rather than divide he united us not because of his conduct but because of the dignity displayed in response thereto.
And even though he is forgiven, Dylann Roof is not excused. He has been charged with the calculated murder of nine people and will most likely face capital punishment. Whatever the final disposition, Dylann will pay dearly for his crimes.
In summary, the Charleston Nine are now laid to rest. But they did not die in vain. They have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that forgiveness and reconciliation bar neither justice nor accountability. They instead ennoble and empower the innocent while disarming the wicked.
As a friend once observed, to hate is like taking poison in the mistaken believe that doing so will destroy the enemy. It is comforting to know that the “Charleston Nine” did not die in vain.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO