Church shooting exposes ugly truths

Krattenmaker-tomBy Tom Krattenmaker
 Award-winning Portland-based writer
Recent book: The Evangelicals you Don’t Know
Tom’s article also featured on USA Today

Charleston slaughter demands we heal our sick society

Let this awful moment open our eyes and galvanize our action. After the hideous murders of nine black worshipers in a Christian church in Charleston, S.C., there can be no denying the malignancy in our country. And no denying that the impact of this sickness is hitting not just black people but churches, too — and, in truth, all of us who want to live in a decent society.

With an African-American in the White House, and other blacks in highly visible leadership positions, it is tempting for many Americans to view racism as a solved problem. If the wildly disproportionate rates of black incarceration have not put the lie to this theory, or if the string of black men killed by police have not convinced us of its falsehood, let’s consider what the alleged perpetrator of the Charleston murder spree said as he paused to reload.

“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” he said to the African Americans he was killing. “And you have to go.”

Denial is a hard shell to crack. Sometimes in history, we have to have injustice framed in the absolutely harshest light before we can see what is really happening. This was part of the genius of the nonviolent tactics deployed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement a half-century ago, brought to light brilliantly by the recent movie “Selma.” In essence, the brave protesters took action — and, quite literally, beatings — that framed for the whole country the cruelty and immorality of discrimination and the brutal means by which it was enforced.

Jumping to the present, we see signs that police action against black people is starting to infect the public conscience and transcend racial identity in a similar way. Many white people are adding their voices to the chorus of concerned citizens insisting on justice for the African-American victims of police shootings, and calling for reforms to ensure that black citizens are treated the same as white.

Perceptions are swinging. Polling back in January showed 56% of whites dismissed Michael Brown’s death by police shooting as an isolated incident. When Freddie Gray was killed by police in Baltimore about three months later, only 36% thought it an isolated incident.

It’s encouraging, too, to see stories like this from Justin Worland of Time magazine. Worland reports encountering a scene on the street recently where a crowd of mostly white onlookers were confronting police who appeared to be abusing a black arrestee. They demanded the officers’ badge numbers and assured the man receiving this treatment that they would take action.

What happened Wednesday in Charleston has the potential not only to reinforce this beyond-race response but to take it to a higher level.

In addition to the powerful race dimension evident in Wednesday’s hideous crime, we find a faith element, too. The people gunned down were Christians who were participating in a Bible study at their church. In a culture like ours where religious freedom is prized and faith is often associated with goodness and morality, it’s hard to imagine a more sacred, innocent setting being violated; it’s hard to imagine more sympathetic victims.

We can only hope that those not appalled by the racial hatred on display will be able to see this shooting spree as a blatant attack on Christian religion — and that it will put in perspective the oft-heard rhetoric about Christians being subject to persecution because of their opposition to some forms of social change.

When you factor in the role of black churches in honoring African Americans’ dignity and humanity (and the price they have paid for it), and when you contemplate Jesus’ core teachings about the way people are to treat one another–teachings thoroughly modeled by the church victims in their welcoming Dylann Roof into their circle–you reach this conclusion: Wednesday’s shooting is Christian persecution in its most vile form. Black Christian persecution.

Beyond these dimensions of race and religion, however, there is enough in this story that is disgusting and bloodcurdling that it ought to stir your conscience, even if neither racial justice nor religious freedom is your personal cause célèbre.

Do you want to live in a society where nine black people at prayer are gunned down by a hate-filled murderer who sees them as rapists bent on taking over the country?

I sure don’t. Let’s face the fact that we have a serious sickness in our society — and commit ourselves to the work of healing it.

— Tom Krattenmaker is communications director at Yale Divinity School and a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors. He is the author of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.

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