This morning I am thinking about responses.
Since the violence that killed nine members and ministers of Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church, I have been watching the news, listening to the talk shows and reading the postings of friends and colleagues on the internet about where this kind of racial hatred comes from and how it might best be eradicated. Because this is such an obvious and egregious moral offense to the vast majority of us, both black and white, the solutions that I have seen proposed have been both blunt and at times, simplistic. They have had a certain “duh” quality to them. In my mind they have clumped together into three rather broad categories: (1) Legislate, (2) Educate, and (3) Agitate, and I truly believe that there is something to be said for each one of them.
Since the racially motivated violence in Charleston last Wednesday night there have been lots of conversations about how events like this one can be adequately addressed by the law. We can legislate our way out of this mess, or so some say. And while I’m not sure that the external force of law can ever adequately or effectively touch the inner part of ourselves that is the spring of both our attitudes and actions, I’m not oblivious to the power of restraint that the law possesses. Romans 13:1-7 looms large in my thinking about the role and function of government. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “It is the sad duty of government to establish and maintain order in a fallen world.” Our structure of justice and our system of governance are both established by law, and in our participatory democracy, we have a direct hand in shaping those laws by who we elect, and so there is a crucial political dimension to this situation that cannot be denied. In a Presidential election season like this one that we are just now entering, alternate visions of how “liberty and justice for all” can be better established and best be served proliferate. And so if you aren’t listening carefully, thinking critically and planning on voting conscientiously, then you are irresponsibly abdicating your civic responsibility and you are failing in an important part of your response to what happened last week in Charleston.
The second assumption that many have made since the horror of last Wednesday night in Charleston is that racism is a learned behavior and that it can therefore be unlearned with just the right educational technique and effort. We can educate ourselves out of this crisis, or some say. And while I’m not persuaded that this fully accounts for the complexities of human nature and the mysterious bend in the human heart towards selfishness and darkness, I’m nothing if not a fan of education. Sometimes I facetiously say that I have been educated well beyond my intelligence. Who would have ever imagined that that little boy at Glenoaks Elementary School who struggled academically would go on to earn a college degree with honors, a Masters of Divinity degree, a Doctor of Ministry degree, and be a published author? I know the power of education and how a committed teacher or two along the way can change the world by changing the way that a little boy thinks, or, by teaching that little boy how to think. I believe in education, and passionately so. I value the challenging of assumptions, the exploration of alternate ideas, the intellectual force of inductive reasoning, and the wonderful gift of reading and the freedom to read widely, and so I believe that education has its part to play in addressing what continues to be America’s, or should I say, humanity’s “besetting sin” – racism. And while I’m not at all sure that just knowing what’s good and right and true means that we will then automatically do what’s good and right and true, I don’t discount for a moment the foundational importance of first figuring out what’s good and right and true, and for this we need education – a good, rigorous and thoroughly engaging education.
The third response that I have seen and heard since the shootings in Charleston last Wednesday night after a Bible Study has been the natural human instinct to give some kind of public expression to what one is privately thinking and feeling inside. Some agitate by marching and protesting, others agitate by blogging. Either way, there’s something inside us that compels us to make public our convictions and to give expression to what’s going on deep in our consciences. We can agitate our way through these days of anguish and in this season of change, or so some believe. I grew up in the 1960’s. Twice I saw how public protest dramatically changed public policy. The Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement both changed the direction of history. In more recent years, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc of communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the remarkable changes that the Arab Spring brought to nations like Egypt are all concrete illustrations of the power of public protest and civil disobedience. It seems to me that the name of the Movement that changed Communist Poland in the 1980’s – “Solidarity” – is the effective power inherent in such agitation, and the promise it holds every time people head for the streets in response to something that is happening in the course of human events on the stage of human history. Don’t underestimate the power of public outrage. Don’t discount the visual force of people massing to show their displeasure with the way that things are going and their identification with the victims of oppression, injustice and suffering. And while not given to such public displays myself (I’m much more inclined to sit at a computer to write and post), I certainly understand the appeal of marches and rallies, especially at the beginning of a movement for social change. They have a catalytic force. They can push society towards a tipping points. But I also understand that at some point they can become distractions from the hard work and evasions of the heavy lifting that real change requires. The line between the sincere expression of conscience and self-serving and self-congratulatory grandstanding is both fine and elusive. And so we must be vigilant in remembering that marching, and writing, are just the opening act in the long process of social change. It’s always easier to hoist a placard, shout a slogan or post an opinion than it is to dismantle an oppressive system or navigate the middle path through competing values and differing perspectives.
One More Response
Most striking to me in the aftermath of what transpired in Charleston last week at Emanuel AME Church, has not been the expected calls to legislate, educate and agitate from people outside the event looking in at it, but rather the response of forgiveness and grace that has been made by people from inside the event, by fellow church members and the families of the slain. They have had an extraordinary presence in the media throughout the days of this unfolding tragedy and they have given voice to an astonishing perspective, the perspective of their faith in a suffering Savior and Risen Lord.
The only comparable public display of this kind of faith that comes to my mind is that which followed the shooting at the Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, back in 2006, that left 10 girls aged 6–13, dead. Just like the folks associated with the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the folks in the Amish community of Lancaster County responded to their unimaginable loss and inconceivable grief out of the deep resources of the Gospel. Their profound commitment to Jesus Christ provided them with the comfort and strength that they needed to respond to their painful circumstance with courage and hope. A white Amish community in rural Pennsylvania and an African American community in a major Southern American city, different in so many ways, and yet joined at the heart in the experience of loss and in the power of promise.
Carl F.H. Henry, one of the defining influences on my “thinking believing,” began his book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans 1964) by writing –
The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-political-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to bring about rapid social fulfillment. In the performance of its mission in the world, even the Christian Church was drawn to neglect its supernatural resources and – in an apostate mood – relied instead upon education, legislation and compulsive techniques to achieve social transformation. (9)
The Church certainly does have a vital stake in legislation; involvement in the social arena it neglects both to its own detriment and to the detriment of society… But how this social involvement is properly carried out – whether by the institutional Church acting in a political way, or by individual Christians conscientiously fulfilling their civic dirties – is a very important question. (10)
The problem may be stated this way: in seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to what extent on grace? How much shall we trust legislation and how much shall we trust regeneration to change the social setting? (15)
The strategy of regeneration… relies primarily on spiritual dynamic for social change. It aims not merely to reeducate man (although it knows that the Holy Spirit uses truth – particularly the truth of the Gospel – as a means of conviction), but to renew the whole man morally and spiritually through a saving experience of Jesus Christ. The power on which it relies for social change is not totalitarian compulsion, nor is it the power, per se, of legislated morality, education and unregenerate conscience. Regeneration rests upon spiritual power. The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar dynamis for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order. (24-25)
And to see what this looks like, one need look no further than Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. DBS+