Church, Race, and Guns
The shooter, Dylann Roof, killer of nine, including four ministers, at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, was many things: an ELCA member, baptized and probably confirmed in the ELCA, regular church attendee, and a summer camper at a church camp. And a White supremacist. Dylann's father, Franklin, goes to church twice a week. And there is more. Two of the pastoral victims were graduates of an ELCA seminary.
What intrigues me is how the church is a central focus in this tragedy. I am driven to my knees that as an ELCA pastor, I am led to ask questions about the place of the church, the teachings of the church, the practices of the church, my ELCA! And of the Black Church. Places of worship, learning, counseling, nurturing, community gathering, suddenly becoming central casting characters in a racist tragedy.
Yet, this scenario is unfortunately not new. The church has historically been the cauldron of violence. In the 1960's, more than 200 Black and multi-racial churches were torched. Similarly, in the 1960's, over 300 Black churches were bombed. In the fall of 1870, the KKK burned nearly every Black church in Tuskegee, Alabama to the ground. In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, 4 young girls were killed in a church bombing.
Why? Racism for sure. But more deeply, according to W.E.B. Dubois, churches were the "First social institution fully controlled by Black men in America." Pastor Belin, an African American pastor, said, "You attack the center, whatever you think is going to hit at the heart. The Black church has been the heart." The church was a center for growing Black strength which was threatening to the White power structure.
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center says: "[The Black church] is a symbol of Black communion. If you want to harm Black folks, it's an obvious easy target." The Black church was a vulnerable "soft target." There were no guard towers, land mines, or barbed wire protections. The church is about relationships, fellowship, sharing of means, learning, and listening to the Word, together. Come on in!
In the NEW YORK TIMES, Campbell Robertson and Rachel Swarns write: ""During segregation, churches became places where Black men and women found leadership opportunities denied them by White society." The Black church was about empowerment and human development, unsettling dynamics to White Supremacists.
Yet unfortunately, the impact of church on violence is sadly legion. Church can create guilt. Church can create a relationship of us and them, insider and outsider. Church can create a justification of the righteous against the unrighteous. Church can be a volatile mix. Into this mix, guns can be the means of a distorted cleansing and blasphemous capital punishment.
Yet, the church must be the church. By its nature, the church is a vulnerable people. The church welcomes all people, opens itself to all, peaches and teaches to all. The church is not a place for guns, nor a place to preach and teach hatred. The church is the place where peace and love are practiced, forgiveness is generous, where justice is planned and carried out in the world, where the nonviolence of Jesus is announced, taught, and practiced, where all kneel to receive the grace of God in the Body and Blood of Jesus. In church, guns do not have the last word, even as the gun cracks, the bullets strike, and the powder fills the room. The church is the place of eternal rising. The Emanuel AME Bible study has reclaimed the place of shooting: "This territory belongs to God." "Death is swallowed up in victory!"