Posts tagged ‘Charleston’

The Strategy of Love

Credit:  New York Times via The Associated Press

Credit: New York Times via The Associated Press

It was a day law enforcement officials were dreading. On the same day, during the same hours, two groups whose worldviews could not be farther apart planned to hold rallies for their respective causes on the same grounds – the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol. One group, Black Educators for Justice, which has ties to the Black Panthers, held signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and chanted “black power.” The other group, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, waved Confederate flags while chanting “white power.”

This has not been a good season for race relations in America. The latest round of racial tension began with a horrific racially motivated shooting at a Charleston church. This sparked a debate over displaying the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House that became so fierce that a black man named Anthony Hervey who often dressed in Confederate regalia and waved the state flag of Mississippi, which contains the Confederate flag in its design, in an attempt to honor African-Americans who served with the Confederacy during the Civil War was allegedly run off the road by another vehicle full of people angry at his demonstrations. Then there was 43-year-old James Dubose, a black man, who was shot and killed by a white University of Cincinnati police officer after being pulled over for not having a front license plate on his vehicle. The officer is charged with murder. Although authorities do not yet know precisely what precipitated this shooting, the episode has certainly exacerbated race relations in that community.

Now, there are these dueling rallies between two self-identified racially distinctive groups at the State House in South Carolina. The New York Times reports that though there were some scuffles between the groups and some demonstrators were arrested, because the groups were on opposite ends of the State House and their contact with each other was minimal, thankfully, no major fights erupted.

Perhaps the point of contact that was most noteworthy in these demonstrations was not a point of contention between these two groups with each other, but a point of grace that an officer had with a Klan member.

Officer Leroy Smith is the Director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. He was at the State House the day of the demonstrations, working crowd control. In the midst of his duties, he spotted an elderly man who was part of the Klan rally, donning a t-shirt emblazoned with a swastika, who looked sickly and weak as he protested in the hot South Carolina sun. What did Officer Smith do?   He took him by the arm and led him up the steps of the State Capitol into the air-conditioned building.

Did I mention Officer Smith was black?

Just days before, Officer Smith had watched as state troopers lowered the Confederate flag from its perch atop the capitol grounds for the final time. The symbolism of the moment sent chills up his spine. But lowering a flag that is widely associated with racial tension cannot kill hatred. It cannot kill suspicion. It cannot kill resentment. It cannot kill self-absorption. Indeed, all of these things were on display the day of the demonstrations. But then one man decided to show love.

The Klan did not volunteer the name of the man Officer Smith helped up the steps of the State House. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this one scene – this one act – is what will be remembered out of an otherwise frightful day in Charleston. This one scene – this one act – is what wound up overshadowing all the expressions of dismay, distrust, and disunity.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). When we read these words, we can be tempted to relegate them to the realm of nice sentiment rather than practical reality. Enemies, our street smarts tell us, need to be defeated, not loved. But then one man decided to love someone who, by all accounts, was his enemy. And his love devastated the divisive strategies of literally thousands of protesters. Jesus’ strategy of love, it turns out, made a much stronger impression than any human strategy of malcontent.

What will be remembered the most from that day in Charleston is the love of an officer for a man who, morally, holds repugnant views. As Christians, what will be remembered of us? Will we be remembered for loving those who others – and, if we’re honest, we ourselves – would find it far easier to hate? If our lives are marked by anything other than Jesus’ strategy of love, it’s time to change our strategies.  After all, Jesus’ strategy is better. And His strategy really does work. In fact, more than that, His strategy really can transform prejudices and people.  Just ask Officer Smith.

August 3, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

On Confederate Flags and Moral Clarity

South Carolina CapitolOn the heels of a terrible tragedy has come a robust debate. When 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston for a Wednesday evening Bible study, 50 minutes later, he had shot eight people dead with a ninth victim who died later at the hospital. His stated reason for the rampage was horrifyingly racist. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” he said to the African-American churchgoers, “and you have to go.”

As our nation has been processing its grief, it’s also been engaging in a debate over an old symbol connected to racism and slavery: the Confederate flag – specifically, the one that flies at the South Carolina State Capitol. In one way, I am still trying to wrap my head around how this debate was sparked by this tragedy. Although I would heartily agree that racism and slavery, in all their forms, are egregious, it seems that a debate over how to keep a firearm out of the hands of a man like Roof would be much more directly related to the tragedy at hand. In one way, I can’t help but wonder if we needed to find something over which to be morally outraged as a catharsis for our deep shock and grief. My psychologizing notwithstanding, this is still an interesting debate.

Sadly, as with so many of our debates, this one has quickly degenerated into cheap attacks. Take, for instance, this tweet from Vox’s David Roberts: “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy. Can we admit that now?” Somehow, Roberts managed to connect a racist lunatic with a gun and a Civil War era symbol to a whole region of our country and its prevailing cultural sensibilities. Thankfully, CNN ran a much more nuanced piece on the history of the Confederate flag, which, it turns out, is not the Confederate flag at all, but the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee’s army unit. David Brooks of The New York Times provided us with a thoughtful biographical analysis of General Lee – both the good and the ugly.

I, for one, though I certainly see and would uphold the value in preserving the history of the Confederate flag, am not quite sure why this particular flag needs to fly outside the South Carolina State Capitol, especially when it is a reminder of terrible pain and division to so many. Preserving history is more the job of museums than it is of flagpoles outside capitol buildings.

But there is more here than just a debate over a flag. For out of this debate, a broader trend has once again emerged that deeply troubles me. Our cultural conversations have become so anemic and, in many instances, so vile that they are often of little to no value. Politically, sociologically, and morally, we have divided ourselves into traditional and progressive camps, loathe to admit that there is any worth, insight, or righteousness on the side to which we are opposed.

I happen to come from the generally progressive Pacific Northwest while finding myself much more at ease now living in the generally traditional state of Texas. This does not mean, however, that progressivism has nothing to teach me. I think of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year.  But that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Senator Kennedy may have been progressive, but it is hard to find sharper moral clarity than his. Traditionalists need to listen. Likewise, in what may come as a surprise to David Roberts, traditional culture – even when it’s from the South – has a lot that is good and outright charming. Chivalry, Southern manners, and a biblically informed, even if imperfectly so, moral compass are important to the thriving and future of any civilized society. Progressivism needs to take note.

As Christians, no matter what our general cultural sensibilities may be, we will always find ourselves as strangers in the midst of raging culture wars. After all, our first loyalty is not to the sensibilities or hobbyhorses of any particular culture, but to the truth of the Word of God. And God’s Word has a funny way of challenging every culture and every sinner.

Let’s remember that when we fight over flags – or over anything else, for that matter.

June 29, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Charleston

A view ofthe Emanuel AME Church is seen June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the church on the evening of June 17, 2015.  US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

There have been plenty of tears in Charleston these past few days. When 21-year old Dylann Roof first walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, he appeared as though he came to join the congregation in its Wednesday evening Bible study. But after nearly an hour, he opened fire, killing nine people, including the church’s pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. According to reports, he announced as he stood up and drew his gun that he was there “to shoot black people.” Survivors said Roof also told the congregation, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

I wish I could attribute what happened in Charleston to the simple fact that Roof is a deranged lunatic, which, if preliminary reports are any indication, he probably is. But there is more at work here than just Roof’s psychological health. What happened in Charleston is also a reminder that ideas have consequences. Good ideas have good consequences. And yes, bad ideas can have devastating consequences. Roof, as insane as he may be, is a man with ideas – deeply racist ideas. And these ideas have now left a church, a town, and a nation in mourning. This is why, in today’s blog, I want to take a moment to remind you of what the gospel has to say about racism. For the bad ideas of racist hatred can never be allowed to trump the holy ideals of perfect love.

Acts 10 tells the story of a Roman soldier named Cornelius and one of Jesus’ apostles, a Jew named Peter. Generally, Jews and Romans did not get along. This had to do in part with the fact that the Romans were the occupying force in Israel at this time. It also had to do with the fact that Romans were Gentiles, and Jews and Gentiles despised each other. One of the prayers many pious Jews of this day would pray was, “Blessed art Thou, [O God], who did not make me a Gentile.” So you can imagine that Peter must have been more than a little uncomfortable when three men came to his door and said, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion” (Acts 10:22). Just the mention of a Gentile soldier, especially when that Gentile soldier happens to be working for the army that is occupying your nation, would have turned Peter’s stomach. But this group of men had a special request of the apostle: “A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say” (Acts 10:22).

It is at this point that Peter had a decision to make: does he turn his nose up in disgust at these men because of their racial and political differences, or does he welcome them and honor their request?

“Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them” (Acts 10:23).

Peter, rather than walking the well-worn and socially accepted road of the racism of his day, instead chose the road of racial reconciliation. Indeed, when Peter finally does talk to Cornelius, he announces, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). God, Peter explains, loves people without regard to race. He loves people “from every nation.” This is why, when another apostle named John sees a vision of heaven, he sees people “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

Peter’s words, then, cut the core of the problem with racism. Racism says, “Even if God accepts people from every nation, I will not.” And to not accept someone that God has is not only hateful, it is wicked.

In my mind, the most eerie, yet poignant, part of this tragedy at Charleston is that Roof, when he first entered the church building, walked up and sat next to Pastor Pinckney. In a predominantly black congregation, and as someone who had not been there before, he would have surely stuck out. The pastor could have shunned him, or, at the very least, ushered him to a more “appropriate” spot that wasn’t right next to the church’s leader. But Pastor Pinckney welcomed him. He gladly let him sit next to him. He, as Jesus said, loved his enemies even though, at the time, he didn’t know Roof was his enemy.  Indeed, in one of Roof’s most chilling confessions, he said he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”  Now that’s amazing love from a congregation who has every reason to hate.

Oh, that we would all have a double portion of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal’s spirit. For a spirit like that is just what we need to prevent tragedies like this.

+ IN MEMORIAM +

Cynthia Hurd
Susie Jackson
Ethel Lance
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons
Rev. Sharonda Singleton
Myra Thompson

June 22, 2015 at 5:15 am 5 comments


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