Sin & Grace in Charleston

by Michael Sean Winters

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The murders in Charleston, South Carolina make one’s mind reel and one’s soul strain. The alleged murderer, Dylann Roof, prayed and talked with those he intended to kill for an hour before pulling the trigger, yet his heart was not moved to release the hatred with which he entered Mother Emmanuel AME Church. The victims were not only innocent in every sense of the word, they could not have played any role in Roof’s evilly fancied racial theories: He allegedly told a black man, before killing him, that black men rape women, but surely even Roof realized that this kindly Christian, at church on a Wednesday night, had not raped anyone and surely that should have been obvious to Roof before he pulled the trigger. But, whatever torment occurred in this young man’s soul during that hour of prayer before the killings, his hatred was too strong and it overran the evidence before his eyes.

That hatred has a name. It is racism.

Racism is a complicated evil because it can find a place to thrive even in the precincts of otherwise noble endeavors and situations. In his landmark 2001 pastoral letter on racism, Cardinal Francis George recalled that when asked “where are you from?” many Catholics would respond by naming their parish, “the place where Catholics attend Mass, confess their sins, send children to school, watch children get married and bury their dead.” Cardinal George went on to say:

If strong parish communities remain today the glory of Catholic life in Chicago and throughout Cook and Lake counties, the way in which parish communities can become parish fortresses was sometimes and can be still today a source of tragedy. For too many Catholics during the decades just passed, “Where are you from?” became an interrogation, not a gesture of welcome. Some groups embraced ethnocentric patterns of exclusivity and notions of racial superiority without considering the moral implications or the psychological and emotional wounds inflicted upon others. In some cases, the vision of faith was narrowed; the community of faith became a private club.

The late cardinal was clearly not condemning vital parishes, even parishes that celebrated the people’s ethnic lineage. But, he was demonstrating the way that the Father of Lies works his way into even the holiest of places. The Father of Lies was busy last Wednesday night in Dylann Roof’s heart.

Racism is first and foremost a lie, a distortion of the truth that we are all children of God. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were plenty of southern Pastors who cited the biblical account of Ham to justify segregation, and there were plenty of ethnic neighborhoods in the Northeast and Midwest where other justifications were employed to obscure the truth, and its reach, and to propagate the lie. Fear as often as not accompanies a lie, and the killer in Charleston reportedly voiced his fear that blacks were “taking over the country,” a fear as conspicuous for its irrationality as for its hatefulness.

Recently, I made a mistake. Writing in the Tablet, I criticized the U.S. bishops’ conference for introducing the idea of “intrinsic evil” into its analysis of the responsibilities of voters. I wrote that abortion and same sex marriage and abortion are intrinsic evils but poverty and racism are not. The bishops actually do identify racism as an intrinsic evil. But, the fact that racism is an intrinsic evil, that it redounds against the perpetrator regardless of circumstance, is the least important thing to know about racism in evaluating public policies and societal attitudes. If Dylann Roof has a confessor, they can discuss the intrinsic evil of his act. But the act did not just redound against him. The act killed nine people. Racism, too often coddled in various parts of our society, harms those it takes aim at, not just those who are doing the aiming.

Just as evil did not have the last word on Calvary, so, too, evil did not have the last word at Mother Emmanuel. Jesus forgave those who put Him to death while hanging on the cross. The families of the slain, carrying the cross of grief and loss, forgave Dylann Roof when they spoke at his arraignment. It was impossible to listen to their words and not be seized with the overwhelming power of our Christian faith. In this morning’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson writes:

The killer chose a historic African American church for a reason. For centuries, black churches have been a place of refuge, a voice for social justice and a target of racist violence. The alleged gunman, Dylann Roof, drove two hours to Charleston, S.C., because he undoubtedly wanted a symbol — and he got one. Against all his intentions, it is now the symbol of a living faith. The killer set out to defile a sacred place and ended up showing why it is sacred.

The forgiveness of the victims’ families felt like being at the tomb on Easter morning. Live and love and forgiveness triumphed over hatred, at least for these Christians. The streets of Charleston were filled this last Sunday with people at prayer. The Father of Lies must have felt foiled again.

The lie that is racism will not go away anytime soon. Fear of the other seems to be a part of the human condition. The most hopeful statistic in America is that the rate of interracial marriages is on the rise, especially among young people, and even more pronouncedly among the fastest growing demographic, Latinos. If we cannot, in this vale of tears, rid ourselves entirely of a fear of the other, we can reconfigure what constitutes the other. Not for nothing do the ugliest haters in human history show a disproportionate fear of “mongrelization” among the races. When we are all mongrels, racism will be deprived of oxygen. It will be a happy day.

In the meantime, there are steps we can take to rob racism of its power to persuade troubled souls like the soul of this mass murderer. The Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, did herself proud in calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol. That flag may represent a pride in one’s heritage for some, but it represents state-sponsored racial degradation for others. It is a divisive symbol and it belongs in a museum. We can, as President Obama suggested, speak up when someone utters a racial slur in conversation. We must find ways, the way the victims’ families found a way, to let our love even for the haters triumph over their hatred.

Racism stains American history from its beginnings to today. Its resilience shows the power of evil to be sure. All of us who felt good about our country on the night Barack Obama was elected president, good that a racial barrier had been broken, whether we voted for him or not, look back on those feelings that night of having crossed a barrier with ambivalence. Obama’s victory did not put an end to racism. The tragedies in Ferguson and Baltimore demonstrate that. But, in Charleston, South Carolina this week, there is hope as well as heartache. There is love as well as grief. There is forgiveness as well as justice. The Father of Lies won for a moment, but in the twinkling of an eye, he has been cast out. Bethane Middleton-Brown, whose sister was killed, said, “she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.” We can all pray that, by the grace of Jesus Christ, we too, we the people, all the people, will have no room for hating.



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