Last night I attended a memorial service for the nine victims of the Mother Emmanuel church shooting in Charleston, SC. Hearing each name, we sat in silence to mourn the loss for nine families, for this historic congregation, for the church universal and for a country deeply divided by its history of racial injustice.
From across the political spectrum, prayers and messages of sympathy have poorer into Charleston over the past two days.
But as anyone who’s stood in a receiving line knows, there are words–often well-meaning words–that can sting wounds opened by loss. Some words of comfort don’t comfort. They stir up rage.
The most offensive word in expressions of sympathy for the Charleston shooting victims may be “senseless.”
I know it’s a word that comes from a sincere place of confusion. So many of us from white America simply cannot imagine the violence committed in a church in Charleston. We do not hear the violence in words spoken by politicians and arm chair commentators. We do not see the violence and fear in our own hearts.
When a man opens fire on a Wednesday night Bible study, it makes no sense. We assume he must be disturbed, mentally ill, insane.
But in a black church that was burned down by its white neighbors almost 200 years ago, the murder of nine sisters and brothers makes far too much sense. It is in keeping with a story that black folks know too well.
Racism has, indeed, made us insane. But this young brother in Charleston was quoting the Red Shirts of 1898 and Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma when he cried out, “You rape our women.”
“You’re taking over the country, ” has been the code language of white supremacy’s backlash since the Civil War. We have heard it, in various forms, from scores of politicians and pundits since Obama moved into a White House built by slaves.
The tragedy of the Emmanuel AME murders is not that they were senseless, but that they are so much in keeping with the sensibilities that have fueled white supremacy since this nation’s inception.
You don’t need a conspiracy theory to see that the Charleston gunman did not act alone. What Dr. King said about the shooting of Jimmy Lee Jackson in 1965 is just as true of the Charleston shooting:
He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law.
He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician, from governors on down, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.
He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote.
He was murdered by the indifference of every white minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of his stained-glass windows.
And he was murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who passively accepts the evils of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.
Like everyone gathered for memorials across the country, I want to mourn with those who mourn. But I don’t want to senselessly add to their pain.
I want, instead, to follow the witness of Mother Emmanuel and its martyr’s toward the only thing that can save us–the beloved community of our Lord, Jesus Christ.