Today marks the six-month anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Though other stories now dominate the headlines, and though the trial of Dylann Roof is at least a half-year away, the issues raised by the events of that horrific day are still sadly relevant. Issues of racism, oppression, responsibility and reconciliation continue to haunt American society and continue to confront Christian church. But, just as yesterday’s tragic headlines are all too quickly forgotten, so too does the white church all too easily ignore these deeper issues, instead sacrificing meaningful engagement for the complacency of simplistic platitudes.
In an interview with NBC News several months after the Charleston shooting, two of the survivors spoke about their experience. Felicia Sanders recalled watching her son, Tywanza Sanders, breathe his last breath. Polly Shepherd recalled being specifically told by Dylann Roof that he would intentionally spare her life so that she might tell the story of his actions. In the interview Sanders says, “I’ve forgiven him now. It’s all in God’s hands.”
In the days after Dylann Roof was apprehended by South Carolina authorities, the victims’ families and the Emanuel AME community gathered for Roof’s bail hearing. Through the course of the hearing, the community members were given an opportunity to speak directly to Roof. They tearfully declared that they had chosen to forgive him for taking the lives of their loved ones. A video of this encounter went viral during the following weeks.
Two Sundays after the murders took place, that video was shown to the large mainline Protestant congregation with which I had recently begun working over the summer. This particular parish was located in a town whose population is almost two-thirds white and is historically one of the wealthiest cities in its southern state. After the video ended, the pastor began the sermon by marveling at the forbearance of the family members of the victims. He went on to declare that they offered a remarkable example of the freedom that we are given by God’s grace, a freedom that allows followers of Christ the strength to forgive even the starkest of crimes.
It was perhaps the most violent sermon that I have ever heard. By saying nothing of the role of white supremacy and racism in the shooting and instead extolling the remarkable forgiveness of the community at Mother Emanuel, sermons like this one, though not appearing to be overtly racist, nevertheless forward systems of oppression.
This particular response to the Charleston shootings was not limited to my own congregation. A simple search of the sermon archives of other churches within this same branch of mainline Protestantism yields many similar results. On the Sunday immediately following the shooting, one pastor condemned the killings and in the next breath lauded the power of forgiveness that comes from God alone, saying,
“Who is this that can calm the raging storm of anger and howling winds, calling for revenge and say, I forgive you? I don’t know where strength and compassion like that comes from. But it comes. Sometimes it’s just a matter of waking up the power that lies dormant in your heart.”
Another pastor noted that as Christians, the victims’ families were able to forgive Roof:
“Only those who have experienced the power of forgiveness in their own lives can forgive in this way. Only those who have experienced grace can extend grace in this way. Only those who have experienced the life-changing love of God can extend that same kind of love to others. And that is exactly what these family members have done.”
Preaching black forgiveness to white communities without a recognition of the need for the white church to repent of its complicity and its apathy in the struggle of the black community, these sermons amount to little more than cheap grace.
The trauma of losing loved ones in the violent manner in which the community at Mother Emanuel lost nine of its precious congregants is unimaginable for most people. The prospect of then forgiving such a monstrous act is incomprehensible. However, the fortitude and resilience of the survivors and the community at Emanuel AME is not the principal lesson of this tragedy for white churches. The heinous, racist attacks that we have seen on black and brown bodies this past year from Charleston to Ferguson serve as vicious reminders that white supremacy is alive and well in our nation and, yes, even in our churches. Our hesitancy to confront its presence from the pulpit is a testament to its presence among us, and in our silence, we smother the cries of our brothers and sisters of color.
The failure of the white church to confront racial injustices in the United States has been a plague on the struggles of people of color since the nation’s inception. Too often, we forget that our white clergy and laypersons deployed Biblical texts to justify the horrors of the North American slave trade for over two hundred years. We forget that our white churches hosted public lynchings of black people as well as Klan meetings on church grounds. We forget even as we speak about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that he especially grieved about the apathy of his fellow white ministers and the white moderate. Time and time again, our white churches have been a source of terror and grief faced by people of color in the United States.
Yet, still we bemoan the destruction of property in places like Ferguson and Baltimore in our pastoral prayers over and above the destruction of the lives of young black men and women, and we preach about the forgiveness of the oppressed instead of calling into question the hate of the oppressor. When we have the audacity to only preach the forgiveness of Mother Emanuel from our pulpits today, white churches commodify the black experience by hollowing out snippets of Dr. King’s words on nonviolence. By ignoring his cry for change, we manufacture a stale piety for consumption by our congregations. In preaching only the remarkable forgiveness of a community that has endured unthinkable pain at our hands, we dishonor the memories of Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman Singleman, Clementa Pickney, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Daniel Simmons Jr., and DePayne Middleton Doctor. In extracting the forgiveness of Felicia Sanders, we ignore our complicity in the insidious systems of oppression that killed her son.
The white church’s veneration of Mother Emanuel’s forgiveness further mistakes this forgiveness for resignation to the forces of white supremacy. Writing in the New Yorker, David Remnick quotes my professor, Dr. James Cone, who makes this point powerfully:
“The forgiveness shown by the relatives of the Emanuel Nine was hard to understand for anyone who hasn’t had to cope with that kind of powerlessness. It’s victory out of defeat. It is the weak overcoming the strong. It’s ‘You can’t destroy my spirit. I have a forgiving spirit because that’s what God created me to be. You are not going to destroy that.’ When they forgive, it is a form of resistance, a kind of resilience. It is not bowing down.”
For some predominantly white denominations, the Charleston shooting has served as an impetus to discuss the sin of racism in their congregations. On September 6th, the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Council of Bishops, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion requested that all faith communities observe a day of confession, repentance, prayer, and commitment to end racism.
Various denominations partnered with this coalition, including the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the United Methodist Church, all of which requested that their congregations participate. The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, said, “As churches, we must confront the sin of racism in our society and in our shared life together,” and promised to “renew our calling to speak and act against racism and injustice.”
The insistence of making matters of race in the United States a priority from the clerical level is just the sort of action that is demanded by the Christian witness. After perpetuating violence upon the black community for nearly two hundred years, it is the responsibility of white churches not only to teach their congregations of the realities of institutional, systemic racism but also to recognize and repent of their own complicity in its structure from the pulpit. Though its action is a positive step forward, the enduring presence of sermons upholding forgiveness in light of Charleston indicates that the white church has a long road towards repentance.
We need pastors in our white churches who can show us how to repent of our timidity and our apathy to the plight of people of color from the pulpit. We need sermons that acknowledge the depth of the condition of white supremacy and its insidious grip on our society. We need leaders who are strong enough to show us how to stop talking, to step back, and to learn from the black prophetic tradition rather than cheapening the forgiveness of the community at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. We need our white churches to shake us from our stupor and compel us to remember the long and devastating history of white supremacy in the United States rather than mass producing a farcical moderate morality.
About Kaytlin Butler
Kaytlin Butler is a Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.