A Fresh Breeze From Charleston

Emmanuel AME ChurchI spent last weekend longing for some fresh summer breezes. But really my thoughts turned again and again to the parched landscape of our world. And I thought, yes, we need a cool breeze to blow through the land bringing some hint of new beginnings.

Brutal, unspeakably hateful shootings in Charleston; three more horrifying terrorist events of maiming and killing on three different continents; cracks in European economic stability that sent desperate, frightened people to their cash machines; high court decisions that unsettle what we thought were the right conclusions—yes, where is the fresh air that will blow through a stultifying moment?

And then I began to think we may have witnessed a hint of hope as the courageous people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston faced the killer in their midst. Hatred, betrayal, carnage, aching loss—and then the quiet, unadorned statements of forgiveness by the family members of those who were mercilessly mowed down in the basement of their church.

Nadine Collier, whose mother was killed: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. . . . You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But if God forgives you, I forgive you.” Alana Simmons, whose grandfather was killed: “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions, and that is what we want to get out to the world.” Bethane Middleton-Brown said of her murdered sister: “She taught me that we are the family love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.” Anthony Thompson called on the shooter: “Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways no matter what happens to you and you’ll be okay.”

In a remarkable article in CT online, Michael Wear says that some people have asked “whether or not forgiveness provided an easy out to the public,” especially for the white community. Clearly, he goes on, “we should reject all calls from those who wish to sweep under the rug the culture and systems of racism that infect people like [the killer] Roof.”

Wear, though, continues:

But we should also reject all calls to strip the agency and dignity from the mourning families as well. I am not mature enough in the faith to so quickly pass the burden of judgment to God. But I am inspired by those family members to grow in that direction. I am a Christian because of the black church and black faith. When I was far from God, it was the unashamedly Christian black culture, movies, and music of people like Lauryn Hill and Fred Hammond that introduced me to Jesus. It is the black church that so consistently embodies the confounding, radical love of Jesus. What other American community today displays less shame, less reservation, less self-awareness about proclaiming the Christian faith? I will not turn the Bride of the living Christ into a cultural artifact.

As I was reflecting on all of this, coincidentally, I was reading N. T. Wright’s latest book Simply Good News. Here’s the question Wright asks: What difference does it make when we believe that “the God who made the world is the God of infinite, exuberant, lavish, generous love”?

But then Wright raises the stakes:

So what does this love do when faced with broken limbs and broken lives? . . . . What does it do when humans who have the capacity to share in the innermost being of the Creator twist that capacity into its opposite, the capacity to hate and sneer and spit and snarl, to kick and stab and wound and kill? Does love then say, ‘Well, perhaps love is all very well when things are going fine, but now that it’s all gone wrong, we’d better try the other way’? No. the good news that Jesus put into practice during his public career and that he enacted as he went to his death is this: love, faced with rejection, overcomes it with yet more love.

This is no preachment on my part, you may be sure. This kind of love is the hardest to live out, even in the small offenses in most of our lives. It is certainly not appropriate for me to ask of those black families to do what they did in the face of searing hatred. But the black church in Charleston soared above the expectations of timid followers of Jesus like most of us.

These people are heroes, they are saints, they are noble, they represent the human dignity to which we all should aspire. But here’s the thing: These people read often in their Bible studies on those Wednesday nights; they heard the inspired preaching from their pulpit every Sunday; they sang their gospel songs until the message sunk into their souls—“we love because he first loved us.” There is a life-giving well from which they draw their forgiveness. The world may be befuddled by the power of this forgiveness—our press certainly was—but there it is for all the world to see.

Maybe a light rain has already begun to fall. What we witnessed here are people who know how to mourn—as they have done so many times before—and yet they know how exuberantly to sing of extravagant, courageous love. Maybe the breezes are bringing rain. Maybe this is the place to begin again. I sure hope so.