Some Thoughts on Charleston

I haven’t really said anything about Charleston because, really, what more can I say that hasn’t already been said? I first heard the story on NPR on my way to CPE Thursday morning. To say I was horrified, like so many others, would be an understatement.

The next thought that came to my mind was that not one year ago I was on vacation in Charleston and fell in love with the city. I looked up the church on Google maps and saw that it’s only a few blocks away from the hotel I stayed at. Suddenly I realized it’s very possible that I may have unknowingly walked by one of Mother Emanuel’s members during my week-long stay.

Now, Charleston’s a big city, and the likelihood of that possibility is slim–but it exists. And it serves to underscore the reality that those killed Wednesday night are not just crime statistics but actual flesh-and-blood human beings. The age range of the victims goes from 26 to 87. These are people’s children, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends. I may have never met any of them, but those who did know them will live with irreplaceable loss for the rest of their lives.

I also read that two of the pastors killed were graduates of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, a sister institution of my own seminary in Chicago. The beloved community of Emanuel AME lost their spiritual leaders this week–the very people that they should be able to turn to when tragedies like this happen.

But this runs deeper than personal and institutional loss. This is about a problem in our country that just won’t go away. Ferguson. Staten Island. Cleveland. Baltimore. Charleston. It’s a litany of incidents of violence and disregard done to black bodies in this country, and it goes back to the very beginning. Slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. Mass incarceration. This is a systemic problem.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Charleston case as a federal hate crime, and I applaud that decision. But this case seems to be more the exception than the rule. Not to mention that, as painful as it is to utter, Charleston will happen again. The only question is where and when.

So what do we do?

Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, urges us to get to work:

Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage. [1]

But how? Among those of us who have been in the trenches doing this work for a while, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who asks, “What more can we do?” Or to echo the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”  How many more Fergusons and Charlestons do we have to go through?

This week, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts about Charleston. I read a few articles and watched a couple videos, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Not because I didn’t want to or because I didn’t care. I just don’t know what to say anymore. And frankly, I’m tired of all this crap.

But I do know that we the church need to keep showing up. We need to keep showing up where the pain is, where the suffering is, where the brokenness is. And we need to keep witnessing to the radically inclusive Gospel that declares Black Lives Matter. We need to be the ones to declare to the evil of racism, no matter how many times it takes, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped!” (Job 38.11)

When the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor and one of those killed on Wednesday night, was elected state senator, he was asked how he could reconcile being involved in politics with being a religious leader. He said, “Our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation, but we are part of the life and community in which our condition resides.” [2]

I don’t know if Rev. Pinckney knew how prophetic his words would be, but I think the best way to honor his memory and the memory of the other eight beloved children of God is to never forget those words. For indeed, whether we like it or not, our community is bound up in an inescapable network of mutuality. I only pray that all people might come to recognize that.



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