What happened in Charleston is evil. I’m wrestling with this question: Is God’s salvation potent enough to dismantle this present evil?
This tragedy is actually a series of tragedies, a network of sin woven throughout time and space but converged on Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the form of terrorism. It didn’t begin Wednesday night, and it certainly didn’t end with the arrest of Dylann Roof.
The Charleston terror killings are the tip of the racist iceberg. But the real evil, the hidden and denied evil, is what God’s salvation is up against.
And let’s name it as what it is: internalized racist superiority.
Whites and dominant culture have for too long unconsciously internalized the lie that their experience in America is “normal.” That jobs and loans, privilege and power have been earned, that rewards or punishment is never doled based on group membership. In repeatedly beating the colorblind drums that “all lives matter” we have proven that, ultimately, black lives don’t matter. We are sick, and the healing we need is at the root of the gospel — what must God do for us to love again?
Consider the fact that the black church has consistently, nearly uniformly interpreted events such as this as unmasking systemic racism. But also consider these facts:
- Confederate flags as symbols of hate and white supremacy hang from the state capital building of South Carolina, and are fought for on Texas license plates.
- Too often victims are blamed for police brutality — victims like Walter Scott, Freddy Grey, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown.
- The stunning imbalance in incarceration and execution rates destroy black lives and communities.
- White killers are more frequently labeled as having problems with mental illness, or cheap available guns, or isolated incidents, or media overexposure.
- Blacks are often forced to live a lie for the sake of everyday survival.
- We turn a blind eye to the hundreds of migrant deaths on the Texas border, or, when we do take notice, we minimize their lives by blaming them for not having documents (a civil, not criminal, offense). Do you know how many bodies have been found since October? 55.
- We are desensitized to white acts of terror perpetrated against people of color: Abu Ghraib, torture, drones indiscriminately killing across the Middle East, nuclear war in Japan, American troops spread through Arab and African countries, etc.
Is God’s gospel strong enough to heal even this evil?
Can Jesus actually come and take away the sins of the world?
And not just sins like swearing and sex. But social sins like the way race works in America, hate, privileged paralysis, white blindness, black fear, racist culture and the church’s inability to understand the problem and fight in solidarity.
Salvation in the midst of racially motivated hate must include God’s powerful capacity to transform systems and souls alike.
Gospel is good news because God is healing the brokenness of victims and killers, systems of exclusion and cultures of indifference.
God can take the tiny thread of love the black community still holds onto and make it a mighty chord that overcomes centuries of forced invisibility and silence. In the midst of the hate, salvation allows black communities to love again . . . but to love in the form of lament, protest, a spirit of liberation and a spirituality of dignity.
God’s love is big enough to use the anger and grief of the black community and her allies to make America a place where holistic shalom reigns. This isn’t a peace kept by sweeping lies under the rug, but a powerful peace which breaks down cultures and destroys hate.
But love requires action, and Paul begs us to consider ourselves as being dead to these sins — we can be dead to white superiority, privilege, color blindness. And we can consider ourselves as partners in the justice of God, to the all-transforming, all-beautiful kingdom of God being formed in our midst even now.
Being dead (to sin) and alive (to justice) is a struggle the black community has for generations openly welcomed — to see themselves clearly as God does. In arts the black community has re-storied itself with the blues, spirituals, gospel, TV shows dealing with race like Blackish, and a flood of authors like Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou — the list is long.
Add to that W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Cornel West, Chimamanda Adiche as amazing thinkers about race. The brightest minds in music, books, religion and public speech have all actively struggled to help the black community see clearly and to find healing and hope for the relevant needs of their time. They have fought the good fight against internalized oppression.
But what about whites? Where is our struggle among artists and thinkers to undo the bad scripts of racism we inherited? Where is our repentance and struggle?
Our greatest 20th-century thinkers did not do this: Rauschenbush, Niebuhr, Tillich, Hemingway, Steinbech, Faulkner, Orwell, Flannery O’Conner, Ayn Rand. Not since Huck Finn’s break from racism (“All right then, I’ll go to hell”) have we had a white author deeply struggle with the effects of racism on the souls of white folks. Has there ever been a white TV show with race at its center?
We simply haven’t struggled; not at the soul level needed to unhinge ourselves from the bad scripts we’ve inherited to free us from our internalized superiority.
And so I keep asking myself, after generations of torturing, enslaving, exploiting, restricting, fearing and dehumanizing people of color, is it still possible for white people to love?
It’s time to learn another way to experience self-love than white supremacy. Centuries of self-love and identity based on shaming, dehumanizing and racializing others must be surgically, spiritually removed.
Are we willing to unleash gospel beyond the four walls of our church and the four chambers of our heart?
Are we willing to take the plank out of our own racialized eye and pray for ourselves, “Deliver us from evil”?
Are we capable of infusing every level of culture and every space in white community (music, family, church, books) with the issue of how race works?
God’s gospel vision of salvation is indeed large and strong enough to defeat the powers of sin and terror.
Will we have the faith to be transformed with it? Will we do everything we can, will we fight, struggle, repent and confess until we’ve removed every single block that stops us from loving?
Will we dare to hope that Jesus can indeed take away the sins of the world, if only we knew what they actually were?
Lord have mercy on Charleston. And Lord, please start with me.
Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount and writes at blog.chron.com, where this post originally appeared. He tweets @thepeacepastor and is on Facebook.