On Wednesday evening a young white man joined a prayer group at one of the South's most historic and prominent black churches. An hour later, the prayers ended with gunfire. Nine of the worshipers were killed, including the pastor, who was also a South Carolina state senator.
We are rapidly approaching a time and place where it is difficult to truly shock our country's collective conscience. We are desensitized with permanent images of horrible and unspeakable acts courtesy of social media and 24-hour news organizations. There is, unfortunately, a well-established routine for similar events.
Before actual facts can be ascertained and reported, "news" has already been established based on a lose knowledge of the facts and informed speculation. Opinion makers from cable news, print, and online organizations quickly work to establish their individual narrative.
Much of it is noise, though it continues in certain circles at a very loud volume. In Charleston, there was much to amplify for those who wished to look at this horrible act of evil through whichever lens they see. We have issues of race, religion, and guns at the very top of the surface. It didn't take some people terribly long to twist the narrative to even further fit their agenda du jour.
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Others filled social media last week with the simpler request for "prayers for Charleston." With nine killed in a place that is quite literally and figuratively supposed to be their sanctuary, there was much to pray for.
Though the initial timing of the political debate remains unseemly and often counterproductive, it is also impossible for an event such as this not to become part of contemporary political and cultural debate. We in the South, unfortunately, are not unaccustomed to violence in our places of worship.
In 1963 Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four innocent young girls as they attended Sunday school. In 1958, Atlanta's Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple was bombed. Hundreds of our churches have fallen victim to arson.
Acts of violence in and on our houses of worship strike us at our very core. The additional element of racism or anti-Semitism turns the already indefensible into something that adds a potential of divisiveness and separation. Places that are designed to bring us together on common ground in the eyes of God are placed into a bizarre game by those who would seek to pit some of us against our neighbors.
And yet, the loudest voices heard around the country last week came not from those attempting to loudly set an agenda, but from those speaking softly and tearfully. They were from the relatives of those who died, spoken in court as the assailant was arraigned on murder charges.
Speaking directly to the suspect who appeared via video, family members told him "We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts. But, as we say in the Bible study. We enjoyed you. May God have mercy on you "
Another said "I forgive you my family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one that matters the most. Christ."
Still another offered forgiveness: "I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never be able to talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you."
The message was louder and more powerful than any of the voices attempting to frame an instant political narrative around these gruesome murders. God will triumph over any human-caused tragedy. This is what Christians believe. It takes courage and faith that most of us cannot fathom to be able to express it in such a time, and such a place.
The days ahead will still lend themselves to the political issues that overlap the narrative of this tragedy. Some of the deepest fissures in our nation and our region have been exposed by this crime. We will not be able to dismiss them by merely moving on to the next tragedy or event that consumes the next news cycle.
I hope all will continue to pray for Charleston. But I hope it not selfish or too much to ask that the members of the Emanuel AME Church pray for us too as we move forward.
They have shown us the way. May we find our own peace in order to listen to their message.