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The country is reeling. Black voices are again amplified with the rage, sorrow, and disillusionment of a community wearied from another shooting that claimed the lives of their own. Conservative media is set to downplay and liberal media is set to sensationalize—each narrative will be filled with agendas. Law enforcement and the justice system will again be scrutinized. We should anticipate the debate regarding the cause of this shooting: whether it was a matter of calculated, intentional violence ignited by hatred of black people, or whether it was the result of the mental illness of a disturbed youth. In the throes of it all, the people of this country are again being reminded of the intense racism that still permeates our society.

Notable to this most recent murder is the direct context of religion. As if we didn’t already have the deeply disturbing notion that current events are shadowy reminders of the 1960s Civil Rights era, we now see the direct correlation of God-fearing, nonviolent black people subjected to terrifyingly violent acts by white perpetrators. The site of this massacre is a church deeply entrenched in the history of racism in this country. I’ve already heard this being called the “Birmingham church bombing” of our time.

Many Layers

All of this is worth our collective consideration. There are many layers to this growing tension in our country, and there is no reason to trivialize the complexities we will encounter. There are voices, some of which are from my friends, that argue that the heavy analysis of these stories is a distraction, designed to keep our minds occupied while a deeper plot unfolds. I don’t dispute this as a possibility, and I do want to be discerning. However, I cannot ignore the weight that the in-your-face news is leveling on the youth in this country. There are those whose lives are being shaped by what they see on the surface without the proclivity to think more deeply about darker intentions. There are children and young adults—of all ethnicities—in this country who are having a difficult time determining what to do with the emotions and thoughts provoked by what is right in front of them. We cannot ignore our responsibility to help them to see clearly.

After attempting to lay a foundation for what we are thinking and feeling, I’d like to speak to directly to the identity of the Church. We saw this happen at a weekly Bible Study, a prayer meeting. The young man came to the church, asked for the pastor, and preceded to sit quietly for an hour during a time of prayer before opening fire. To think about this is terrifying. Here is a local church, serving and extending grace to someone they did not know, and the person they are hosting proceeds to maliciously attack them. Are local churches in danger? What security protocols should we ramp up? What does this mean about how we serve the folks we don’t know?

I would contend that the answers to those three questions are:

  • Churches are no more in danger than they’ve always been.
  • Assuming that security precautions are already in place, we should continue to exercise protocol as usual.
  • We should extend the same grace to strangers as we always have.

Changing Nothing

The long and short of it is—the church should change nothing. I do not believe that there is a reactionary measure we should be scurrying to develop in light of this tragedy. I believe we should celebrate the mundane, tried-and-true Gospel witness of the Emanuel AME Church in extending the love of God to anyone who comes knocking. Whether we encounter racists, murders, child molesters, rapists, thieves, or any other type of felons, we should still stand firm that there is a Gospel for them. This church invited a man in to join with them in prayer and welcomed him kindly. Was this so different from the church in Acts, when armed Roman centurions were directly experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit? Can you imagine the vantage point of the apostle Peter, who was being summoned to the home of the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10, after he’d himself witnessed the Roman court brutally execute the Lord Jesus? Might he have hesitated—not just due to the religious disparity of Gentiles and Jews, but because he’d seen these men kill the very author of his belief? He may have.

Many Frustrations

Many people will make this tragedy about race, which is a true and correct conclusion. Many will (and already have) use this tragedy as an opportunity to discredit religion and make a call to action that seems to extend beyond faith. We’ve seen so many people who are angry and frustrated with the systemic injustices of this country, and the momentum seems to be building around a message which considers institutionalized prayer irrelevant. As the church’s power and influence is continuously questioned, will we shrink back into a heavy reliance on conventional wisdom and social solutions? Or will we remain at the old landmark, leaning even further into our identity as Christ’s beloved people? We must be faithful to the faith to which we were called. The search for social solutions must never trump supernatural solace.

We must pray as our founder fathers prayed. In Acts 4, we see the church praying for boldness after Peter and John were interrogated before the Jewish council. They were praying so fervently, Acts 4:31 says, that: “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” Shouldn’t that be our prayer today? Boldness in proclaiming the Word of God seems an appropriate request in a time when conventional wisdom is starting to suggest that we lay it aside. People are angry and skeptical, so preaching the Gospel doesn’t seem like enough for them. We as the Church must continue to be altogether convinced that we need more than anything the power of God unto salvation, unto sanctification, and unto resurrection. We must pray to this end, that men and women would actually be born again. As I write this, I ask, why does it seem as if this conclusion would be considered trite and incomplete? We must examine why it feels insufficient to pray for a supernatural forgiveness that supersedes the temptation of revenge. A tragedy like this should produce a resolve for the church to mourn, yes, but to also rejoice that God’s people were found faithful. It should. We simply cannot afford to lose our ultimate hope in Jesus in this cultural maelstrom of commentary and opinion.

A Resolute Church

I do not want to suggest that the narrative for this act of terrorism was an attack on faith. This was not simply persecution of the church; this was an execution fueled by racism. However, I do want to highlight the willingness of the Church to extend its arms to all people. I want to believe that if the pastor and 8 other members of the church were alive today, they would change nothing if given the opportunity to replay this tragic scenario. They would encourage the global Body of Christ to consider our lives on this earth as a handbreadth and give our lives to Gospel-faithfulness, even unto danger and death. We are not entitled to safety and security. This brutal murder is indicative of the times we now live in this country, and where we are headed. I believe the Church must be resolute in our devotion to the holy commission in the midst of coming suffering. We have enjoyed religious freedoms, cultural influence, and even financial benefit—are we prepared to endure the painful times ahead? As our society becomes less tolerant to the apostolic doctrine of the Church, we must decide what we are going to do. Many are rethinking their theological stances on issues central to the core of our very identity as Christ’s church. Many are backing away from the table of controversy and scandal in an effort to preserve what they believe they’ve built. But Christ built this Church, and it will only stand in him, through him, and by him. Racism is no exception. Do not cast away your confidence in what God is doing. If you discern well, you’ll see that his work has already begun—in his Church.

A Beautiful Glimpse

Finally, what I see here is a beautiful glimpse of racial reconciliation. Hear me out. This church in Charleston is a historic site that carries with it the evils of slavery, whereby its founder was even executed by white supremacists. The church has endured emotional and even structural damage for over a century, yet it still stands. This act of violence should not invoke a step backwards to reconsider the lack of progress we’ve made. I contend that this was a picture of resolve to see a black pastor extend himself in Christian charity in an environment of racial tension. As Charleston is still recovering from the Walter Scott murder, we do not see this pastor retreat to skepticism and timidity. We see him and his parishioners embody a response of hope. They were defined by what Holy Scripture says and allow it to shape their interaction with society. They prayed with someone who was not of the same race as them and spent time ministering to him in spite of the explosive narrative pervading the country. What I pray we see is that this extension was worth it, and that it must endure. May God give us grace, and may we see the Holy Spirit’s power in our pursuit of a glorious end.


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