Last night, a young white male opened fire on a Bible study in a historic black church, killing nine including the pastor, a state senator. The accusations of this being a hate crime started almost immediately, and it seems that this murder of nine black worshipers of Jesus was racially motivated. This church is four blocks from my house, and across the street from a school where I have worked for two years. My heart breaks for the victims and this city, which has not worked hard enough to battle the forces of racism.
What now should be our response? As I lay awake last night, listening to the helicopters overhead, these were my thoughts:
1. The victims of this crime are not at fault, but are martyrs. They were shot en mass while praying, worshiping God, and studying his word. They died following Christ and are martyrs, to be lifted up by all Christians. To say that the victims had a hand in their own demise, were asking for it, or any other victim blaming is to deny the very concept of martyrdom. Did Stephen have a hand in his own death? Yes. He preached boldly the gospel of Christ. Should we then blame him? No. He has been celebrated for two thousand years as the first martyr and lifted up as a saint to emulate his faithfulness and courage. The same with these nine. They were worshiping God and studying his word. The price for that is sometimes death. They were faithful in the small things, they are now with Christ and clothed in white as examples to us who survive them.
2. There is one, and only one, way in which the victims were at fault. In the hearts of all of the victims, they had reached our their hands to the metaphorical tree that they judged to be good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise. They rebelled against their creator and declared that another was more fit to be god: themselves. They joined their father Adam and their mother Eve in this. I have also done this, and you have done this. The shooter has done this, and every person who tries to make spurious arguments in favor of the shooter has done this. It is original sin, and from it come all of the evils intrinsic to humanity. It is the source of all of “man’s inhumanity to man”, and it is with us from birth. Racism, hatred, and murder are not foreign entities to any human heart, implanted only by a bad upbringing, mental illness, or an evil society. They are endemic and universal in our hearts, and it is by the grace of God and his life-renewing Spirit at work within us that we are freed from slavery to our own evils of Pride, Greed, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth. Left to our own devices and a life of active rejection of God, those will manifest themselves as terrible sins such as what happened last night. I am a potential racist murderer. So are you. If we continue to deny that we all have the fertile soil of racism and all other exclusionary group-isms within each of us, our society will continue to be unjust and unequal at it’s core. Rather than finding blame in others, be they the victims or the shooter, we must all get on our knees before God and ask forgiveness for the ways in which we have cultivated a garden of sin in our own hearts that manifests in thousands of small ways, reinforced by millions of other sinners, to make our culture that is unequal, racist, and unjust.
3. The perpetrator of this crime has committed a grave injustice, and before God he is guilty. Before his countrymen, however, he must be innocent. He will remain innocent when he is arrested and when he is tried. The moment that a jury of his peers hands down the verdict is the first time he may be considered guilty by Americans, because we are a country of laws and the best justice system the world has ever seen. The perpetrator will be served justice in the next life, and we must trust in our laws and judges to mete out his just recompense in this life. Our laws are modeled on God’s laws and in place to save us from the vicious cycles of violence that happen when we disobey God in our sinfulness and take vengeance into our own hands. Rom 12:19. As Christians we must forgive and serve in love. Serve the victims, serve the police, and even serve the perpetrator. The government is appointed by God and he has given it the authority to try and punish murderers. He has not given that authority to any individual person, and certainly not to the media. Anyone who advocates for delivering violence unto the violent is directly rebelling against what Jesus and the rest of the Bible say.
4a. Guns are not the problem. Please do not dismiss this as a pro-second amendment rant. The problem is not that the perpetrator had access to a gun. The problem is that the perpetrator had hatred inside of him unchecked for long enough to make it seem that committing a despicable act was the right thing to do. He chose a gun as his instrument. If guns didn’t exist, the root problem still would have been present: his hatred. That hatred would have manifested somehow, probably with a different instrument for murder. Immediately talking about guns is intellectually lazy; in search of a quick and discreet solution to their own discomfort when confronted with the horror of humanity. It is also a sure sign that the person speaking wants to deny that we are all sinners who must repent. Let us continue this idea:
4b. Mental illness and recidivism and racist parents et al. are not the problem. Just as above, there is only one cause of murder, and it is sin. We cannot create a Utopian society by removing all of the societal evils, for the evil is within each of us. Do we need better mental illness care? Yes. Do we need better strategies for decreasing recidivism? Yes. Do racist parents raise racist children? Usually. Do we need different gun control laws? Yes. However, our search for someone to blame in this moment is really the panicked cry of our hearts to make sure the blame lays somewhere other than at our own feet. The world is not “good vs. evil” where we are the well-behaved “good people” who sometimes make mistakes. The world is “God vs. Rebels” where we are the rebels until God saves us by grace. Without Christ we are the bad guys who sometimes do good, not the good guys who sometimes make a mistake; we are in the same category as the mass murderers, and no change in legislation will change our hearts. Thanks be to God that while we were in the height of our rebellion against him, he sent his son to reconcile us back to him, then sent his spirit to give us a new birth with new and pure desires that we may now boldly claim to be children of God.
What happened last night is tragic, horrible, and evil. As we come to terms with what has happened, let us not distance ourselves out of fear. This city and this country and this world: they are all broken and racist and unjust. We pray with Habakkuk for the final justice at the end of the age, and a foretaste of that through God’s mercy and the government he has allowed us to have. However, we do not deny that the brokenness in our world, country, and city is our collective fault, and ours to remedy. We ask for forgiveness, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. We ask for the strength and vision to move forward as agents of change so that in five years Charleston has less racial hate in it, and therefore more resembles the coming kingdom. Lord, save us! Lord, have mercy!