A Racist Attack on Religious People

Mourners pray at Emanuel AME Church for the victims of Wednesday's shooting.

He sat through an hour of the Bible study. Once captured, he told police he was having second thoughts about what he was about to do because everyone was being so nice to him. But then he took out his gun, called the people who had just been so nice to him rapists, said they were taking over his country and had to be stopped, and shot and killed nine people, leaving one witness alive so she could tell others what he did and why he did it.

The shooter's motives were clear for many reasons, most obviously the statement he made before opening fire. There were other clues: the confederate flag stickers on his car, the photograph that surfaced of him wearing patches of the flags of Rhodesia and Apartheid-era South Africa, and the particular church he carefully selected as scene of the crime, then drove two hours to reach. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church--"Mother Emanuel," to its members, its community, and throughout the AME denomination--is the oldest AME church in the South, and has a long history of standing against first slavery, then the institutional racism of Jim Crow, and always for the full rights and inclusion of persons of African descent in American society. Soon after its founding, the church was suspected of involvement in an abortive slave rebellion. Of all the Black churches in South Carolina, none were as symbolic of Black resistance to oppression, or as empowering to members of the Black community, as Mother Emanuel. Killing these pious, dedicated, and--by his own account--loving people would, he hoped, touch off the race war coveted by militant racists.

I'm sick over this. Black churches hold a special place in my heart. I've always found them welcoming, generous, and accepting, making no distinctions about the ethnicity of visitors. Nor, it must be said, do they make concessions: worship in a Black church is authentically what it is, regardless of who's in the pews. If you don't care for it, you go elsewhere, but it's never because you were asked to leave.

The tone and spirit of Black gospel preaching and singing grabbed me the first time I experienced them, at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, sometime around 1987. The sense of everyone working together to create something authentic, inspirational, and utterly interactive were a revelation to me. White Methodist worship--or Presbyterian, or Episcopalian, or even Baptist worship--never felt this spontaneous; nor had I ever known the welcome I experienced here. I came back whenever I could--not often, as I was usually directing church choirs on Sunday mornings in Dallas--and eventually I became an "Affiliate Member" (the only way an ordained Methodist can belong to a local church) of St. Luke's.

I held onto those qualities of Black worship throughout my nine years of post-seminary ministry, trying whenever possible to inject them into the services I led. This proved frustrating: white Methodists just couldn't get the feel for this style of worship. They tried, and I could tell many of them hungered for something more spontaneous than what normally went on in their quiet, comfortable sanctuaries, but old habits die hard. I also have to acknowledge that, however much my own preaching style was influenced by Black preaching, the result owed much more to Garrison Keillor than Jesse Jackson.

It was a great privilege for me, then, to be welcomed into the leadership of Church of the Good Shepherd, first as pianist, then music director and, ultimately, to be considered one of its ministers, and given a monthly preaching spot. Church of the Good Shepherd while, independent, was solidly in the tradition of the AME Zion Church. I sat in on some of their Sunday morning Bible studies, waiting for it to become time for me to move up to the piano and begin the prelude, and I was impressed by the seriousness of the leadership, the depth of thought evident in all interactions, and the love people clearly felt for each other.

At a deep level, then, I'm shocked and angered by this crime against a Black church. The fact that you're reading this tells me you probably have some sense of the place of church in African-American culture, so I'm not going to go into that here--though this article is an excellent introduction of Mother Emanuel's role in that rich history.

There's another level to my horror, though, as I intimated in the lede to this essay: the shooting took place after a Bible study. It's unlikely this was an accident: the shooter chose the church carefully for its historic significance, information he could have garnered from its web page, where he also would've found this listing of weekly events. He knew enough about the way churches operate to guess that the Bible study would be led by one or more of its pastors (there were actually three there Wednesday night, and all of them died), and that others in attendance would be pious, dedicated church leaders. Take out a Bible study, and you deal a mortal blow to a church.

I know this from my own experience. As much as I enjoyed preaching, the most rewarding work I did as a pastor was leading Bible studies. In white churches, Bible studies are meetings where people express themselves in ways they don't on Sunday mornings--most likely because it's a much smaller gathering of people who've known each other for many years, and who, before the study is over, pray for each other, often holding hands. It's an intimate meeting of the church's spiritual backbone, the people without whom the congregation could not go on functioning. Killing people at a Bible study, the shooter got the heart of the church as he would not had he sprayed a Sunday service with bullets or destroyed the church with a bomb.

There are many on the right who have been downplaying the racist aspects of this crime, trying to make it out to be religiously motivated. Progressive commentators--including humorists Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore--have been quick to denounce the conservative fictions that America has solved its race problem, and that American Christians are objects of persecution, and I think they're correct to do so. But even though the motives for this crime were, I believe, entirely grounded in racism, there is no denying that the victims of the crime were church leaders, and that the greater victim was a church community. People of faith, engaged in the spiritual practice of searching the scriptures for meaning, were targeted and slaughtered because of what they found in those scriptures, the same things their ancestors found there: the good news of liberation, of God's preferential option for the poor, of Christ's ringing denunciation of bigotry, of a vision for a future that draws no distinction, that turns swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, of a coming kingdom that will cast oppressors from their thrones, in which the poor will eat and drink their fill while the rich are sent empty away.

Knowing as much as he clearly did about this particular church, I suspect the shooter had at least some experience of church during his own childhood, enough so that he knew a Bible study would be the best strategic target for his assault. That his own experience of Christianity never exposed him to the liberating edge of the gospel is an indictment of the many white churches that avoid that edge as assiduously as Fox News avoided mentioning racism in its coverage of the shooting.

From my perspective, then, I see this massacre as a racist attack on religious people. Knowing what kind of people the victims were makes it doubly horrifying.

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