By now, most Americans know that on Wednesday a man who felt it was his mission to rid re-start the Civil War and rid the United Sates of African Americans opened fire on a midweek Bible study in a historically black church in Charleston, SC. Nine people lost their lives that day in what should have been the most secure physical location they could occupy. Naturally, there has been an outpouring of prayer, support, and sympathy from the nation and especially from the Christian community.
This tragic incident comes after a long line of high profile acts of violence and aggression against black bodies. Beginning with Trayvon Martin and continuing with Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, and many other men, women, and children of color, the news has been filled with stories of tragedy and aggression suffered by Americans, often at the hands of government-employed peace officers. Unlike those situations, this tragedy was not the result of a zealous or potentially racist police officer. The man who entered Emanuel AME Church was nothing less than a domestic terrorist. In many of the aforementioned events, the perpetrator never articulated clear racist intent. This terrorist did. He clearly, deliberately, and admittedly, entered a sacred space – a sacred Christian space – with the intent of murdering black people, an intent born of deep seeded racism.
After hearing of this tragedy, I tried not to dwell on it or the details of it too much because I knew how angry and obsessed it would make me. I knew that I would develop an insatiable frustration with the stupid, bone-headed, tone-deaf comments that were sure to come. I knew that I would be repulsed by the endless stream of politicians and pundits who would point away from racism, away from gun violence, and demand that a grieving and increasingly exasperated black community would just play nice and learn to “forgive.”
Still, there was one question I could not shake. How would Christian leaders respond. You see, as Christians, we have the anecdote to all of the world’s ailments: Jesus Christ. However, we need to be wise and put ourselves in position to share his mercy and grace with the world. How we respond in times of crisis can go a long way to giving us credibility or revealing us as irrelevant. We can see examples of this in relatively recent statements from major Evangelical leaders. One leader, Matt Chandler (http://www.thevillagechurch.net/the-village-blog/more-on-ferguson-and-white-privilege/), really impressed me with his passionate call for humble and responsible responses from white Christians. Another, Franklin Graham (http://www.charismanews.com/us/48721-franklin-graham-mr-president-the-nation-needs-to-hear-this-message-from-you), disappointed by resorting to distorting and slandering the African American community*.
What I would hope to see from leaders in the Christian community can be broken down into at least two categories.
First, pray. Pray for yourself, your family, and your congregation. The Bible is clear that we struggle not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces. Christian leader, you are under attack. Pray that God will protect you and those you lead, and pray for wisdom to act in ways that promote safety.
Second, be real about the way our spiritual enemy manifest in the natural realm. Racism is real. White privilege is real. These are tools the enemy uses to kill, steal, and destroy, to cut down faithful men and women of God and to divide the body of Christ. The last thing the church needs is some of its leaders telling their brothers and sisters in Christ that the very real struggles they face are figments of their imagination stoked by political propaganda. Address the issue head on and address it biblically.
Acknowledging race and racism will not divide the church, it will unite us. I don’t know Matt Chandler. I’ve heard him preach multiple times, but I’ve never met the man. However, when I read his brief statement on race and white privilege, I felt bonded to him as a brother in Christ. This was not just because I learned that we shared a common social view. It was because he was living out the biblical command from Galatians 6 to “bear one another’s burdens.”
In difficult times like these, what the Church needs is to be a family, to feel one another’s pain, and to work together towards a moment where God will turn that sorrow into joy.
*I debated whether to call these brothers out by name, but I figured I might as well since I linked to their statements. My reference to them is just to use them as examples of human behavior, not to endorse or disparage either’s ministry.