I was away when the tragic shootings at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church took place. There have been periodic “warnings” from various officials and others over the past few years that churches could become a “soft target” for terrorists or extremists, but fortunately those warnings had been overblown—until a few weeks ago.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about these shootings. It appears the young man who committed this crime had become a proponent of extreme racism. How did that happen? Who knows? But it is clear that he went to this Bible Study intent on doing harm. 10 were shot, 9 were killed—including the Pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also happened to be a much-respected State Senator.
I’m pretty sure I met him once at a conference some years ago. His death offended me.
I feel anger at such a heinous act. I have to temper my own anger because it would be all too easy for me to want to lash out and exact some revenge. Revenge would make me feel better—somehow superior—but only for an instant. It won’t solve anything—it would only serve to drop me into the same league of undistinguished people. Like the young man who pulled the trigger.
I am brought back to a place of hope by witnessing the reaction of the City of Charleston. Family members offered a public act of forgiveness for the shooter. Nobody looted or vandalized or burned anything. Thousands of citizens—black, white, brown and others—joined hands to grieve and begin the process of healing.
Charleston’s reaction as a city has been well-documented by now. It has been held up as a beacon for all to see—as opposed to what happened in Ferguson and Baltimore and Cleveland and other places. I don’t know that such comparisons are fair to make—I’ll leave that for others to judge. And I don’t know how much it might have to do with the nature of the people in Charleston. It has been suggested that they are somehow “better people” in Charleston than these other cities where unrest has emerged. I’m not sure how true that is.
I have an idea that the events of Charleston and their aftermath have something to do with another factor. The events in Charleston took place in a church, among people who were simply trying to follow the way of Jesus. It even included the leader of that congregation, a man who was well-known for his work among the poor and his attempts to make Charleston a better city. I tend to think that the witness of those ten shooting victims—especially the nine who died—put the city on alert. I believe that city recognized that any other response to this tragedy would have been an insult to the memories of those who died. They were simply trying to be better disciples. Burning down buildings would only have served to tarnish their memory.
They lived as humble followers of a man who believed in love, mercy and forgiveness of enemies. What else could the city do but honor them by doing the same?? It is a powerful witness to those around us when we do our best to also act as humble followers of Jesus.
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.