Dylann Roof, the accused Charleston shooter, is one of us. Thank God the martyrs of Mother Emanuel, and their families, are part of us too.
4th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) – June 21, 2015 – 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Just Like You – Pastor Evan Davis
A lot went wrong in Dylann Roof’s life. Whatever it was, whatever happened or didn’t happen, Dylann Roof developed a theory as to the cause of his sufferings: it was because of black people. People like the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Mother Emanuel Church and a South Carolina state senator, and his associate pastor, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons, both distinguished graduates from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, who had nothing to do with Dylann Roof or his problems, except that they were targets of his hatred.
It is so tempting to believe that Dylann Roof is a rare breed, a uniquely disturbed individual, far away and unconnected to us. But the horrible reality that we cannot and must not ignore, is that Dylann Roof is an ELCA Lutheran. Dylann Roof was raised in a church much like ours, by a caring family that tried to give him the values of Jesus. As our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote in her letter this week, “all of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.”
Bishop Eaton continues, “Racism is a fact in American culture. Denial and avoidance of this fact are deadly.”
Dylann Roof could be any one of us. He is one of us. We are not separate from this. We’re a part of it. We didn’t pull the trigger, we don’t agree with his racism, we recoil with disgust at his thoughts, his words, his actions – but his thoughts which led to words which led to websites and pictures and plans which led to these nine murders did not spontaneously arise in his head. They aren’t unique. They’re the “strange fruit” of the racist seed planted in the soil of American life from the time colonists first arrived in South Carolina and here in our native Virginia, soon to enslave millions of Africans.
It’s tragically common that people find it possible to assign blame to an entire race, and really believe that we are somehow not all, simply, human beings created in the same divine image of God, sharing the same humanity God was willing to take on himself in Jesus Christ. A child of God has murdered nine children of God. And so we have to face that these racist thoughts which caused slavery, and Jim Crow, and 52 years ago caused someone to blow up four little girls in 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, are real and today they cause a Dylann Roof to murder nine sisters and brothers in Christ, as they prayed and studied the Word.
And we also have to face the reality that somewhere in our hearts and minds, at one point or another, we have harbored thoughts and assumptions that can, given enough isolation from each other, from love, grace, and God, take us down the dark path of Dylann Roof. We have denied this, along with denying the reality of our white privilege – the reality that most of us don’t have to worry about being stopped by police on our way to get groceries, or being viewed as a threat when we walk into a jewelry store. It’s far less likely that someone will walk into our church as we pray and murder us because we’re white. As we face these hard truths, we must also face the ways in which we stereotype people by their race. Do we cross the street as a young black man approaches? Do we lock the car doors or roll up our windows? Do we refer to “black people” or “Hispanic people” as if those of a certain skin tone are all the same? Do we allow racist jokes told by friends and family to go unchallenged? Are we too afraid of backlash to speak up in our own workplaces and families?
It’s critical for the safety of our communities and the wellbeing of our souls that we face this truth.
But that’s not even what I really want to tell you this morning. I want to tell you another story.
A story about some of God’s children – the martyred Ambassadors for Christ of Mother Emanuel, and their families, who already at Dylann Roof’s bond hearing Friday afternoon offered forgiveness that can only come from God. The daughter of the 70 year-old victim Ethel Lance said, “I forgive you […] you took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you.” Felicia Sanders, mother of murdered 26 year-old Tywanza Sanders, said to Dylann, “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms […] you have killed some of the beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I’ll never be the same … But as we say in Bible study, ‘We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.’” Another said, “We have no room for hate. We have to forgive.” Believe this, because I can hardly believe it – this is the new creation St. Paul talks about! These are Ambassadors for Christ!
Dylann Roof said he wanted to start a race war. But God had already planted the seed of faith in these blessed sisters and brothers. No racism born of fear and despair, no bullets or bombs can overcome the power of God. This story, at the end of the day, isn’t about racism, as real as that is, it’s about the power of God to make us one family of faith across race and class and culture, it’s about the power of God to hold us in all our pain so that we do not give in to fear and despair which always lead to anger and hate, but rather let our trust in him give rise to love and forgiveness even when it hurts.
These apostles of Mother Emanuel were just like Jesus, who is Emmanuel – they were innocent victims of hatred. Like Paul, they have suffered “afflictions” and “calamities” as have their forebears. Their bodies were pierced, like Paul’s, like Jesus’, only to reveal that though once again humanity has broken the innocent Body of Christ, that Body will rise again. Like their ancestors, these witnesses endured, and their surviving loved ones will endure, “by purity” and “patience,” “kindness” and “holiness of spirit,” “genuine love” and “truthful speech,” by “the power of God.” Though they have been “treated as dying … see – [they] are alive” Today their families are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” We may think of them as “having nothing” yet they are “possessing everything.” Today when we come to this table, we will dine with them and all the saints – black, brown, white, and everyone in between.
Brett shared with me this week an antidote to racism that comes from a woman named Verna Myers.1 She talks about how as children we’re taught to associate “white” with “good” and “black” from “bad.” The answer, she says, is not to pretend we’re colorblind, but to change our associations. She says, “go looking for your bias.” Look deeply into the beautiful, black faces of our sisters and brothers. Look at a bunch of awesome black men and be really honest about what you think…then change your association. Learn to look at those black faces and see beauty and goodness.
Because these people of faith, the Blessed Charleston Nine, are just like you. You have the same grace of God. You share in the same faith. Your faith can and will lead you to write your own story of God’s new creation. You are free to let no stereotype or slur stand, free to speak out about systemic racism wherever it shows its ugly head, free to, as Bishop Eaton says, look at yourself “with newly opened eyes.” Free to stare hate in the face and say “we’ve got no room for hate in here…we have to forgive.” Amen.
1Brett’s blog post about this: https://widemercy.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/in-light-of-charleston-take-a-few-minutes-look-at-these-faces-how-to-overcome-our-biases-walk-boldly-toward-them/