Current Events

Four Practical Responses to the Charleston Shooting

Jemar Tisby

The force of the news about the shooting in Charleston crashing into our world leaves us with a sense of mental and emotional vertigo. In the aftermath we struggle to articulate the words and take the actions that will bring both justice and healing. Perhaps the sentiments of several learned and tender-hearted people will help us regain a sense of equilibrium and move forward with steadier footing.

A day after the massacre in Charleston, Pass the Mic, the official podcast of the RAANetwork, hosted a special live podcast addressing the shootings (view here). Our guests were: Carl Ellis, Jr., Mike Higgins, Otis Pickett. We spent over an hour discussing various aspects of the shooting, and we concluded with a final charge from each person. Here is a summary of what each guest gave as suggestions going forward after the Charleston shooting.

Rev. Mike Higgins(Senior Minister, South City Church, STL; Dean of Students, Covenant Theological Seminary)

Mike Higgins is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is the Senior Minister of South City Church in St. Louis. This past year he devoted himself to active involvement in social justice following the death of unarmed, African American teenager, Mike Brown, at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, not far from Pastor Higgins’ church.

As someone who has been recently embroiled on one of the nation’s most divisive and volatile racial incidents, Pastor Higgins gave the following advice: Read the book of Acts and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

For a Christian, Scripture must have primacy in all of life, especially following horrific events like the shootings in Charleston. The book of Acts, equips humble readers with a vision for unity across cultural and ethnic lines. As the gospel goes forth from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth, Acts demonstrates the reconciling power of God through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts provides a pattern and a promise for those seeking unity today.

Pastor Higgins goes on to say, “The one document outside of Scripture that has had the most impact on me is Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” while imprisoned in a cell in Alabama. He had been arrested for leading a demonstration in Birmingham designed to draw attention to the ongoing human rights abuses suffered by African Americans under a white hegemony. While in jail, King obtained a copy of a local newspaper that contained an open letter from eight Christian and Jewish leaders in Birmingham. They condemned direct action in the Civil Rights Movement and denounced King as an “outside agitator.” They advised a more gradual and less disruptive approach to change.

The letter King penned in response to these religious leaders became what Otis Pickett called, “one of the most beautiful things that has been written in American history.” Pastor Higgins descried the letter as laying down “the reason why we need each other and why we need to respond to things and not just retreat to our sanctuaries.” Read the full text of the Letter here.

Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. (Assistant Professors of Practical Theology, Redeemer Seminary; Visiting Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary)

Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. lived through the Civil Rights Movement and has spent his career articulating theology from an African American perspective. His advice to us after the Charleston shooting draws upon the principles that gave the Civil Rights Movement its moral authority.

What made the Civil Rights Movement effective, in part, was its appeal to the ideals proposed in America’s founding. The notion that all men are created equal and that everyone should have the freedom to pursue his own flourishing were integral to the new democracy. Yet America failed to live up to her ideals, especially when it came to African Americans. Yet the problem was not with the principles, many of which were based on Judeo-Christian concepts, but with the way they were implemented. While the contemporary context necessarily affects their application, the challenge is not so much to introduce new ideals as to live up to the old ones.

“We need to recapture our core values. We never lived up to them, but at least they were there,” says Dr. Ellis. People today need to remind themselves of foundational concepts that made America such a promising new nation. Such a recovery will give her citizens a shared language and a picture for progress.

As part of the recovery of the nation’s core values, Dr. Ellis also advises us to remember what Christians call the doctrine of “total depravity. “We think that people are basically good, and we have to understand that people are sinners,” he says. The sentiment that human beings are fundamentally good and will act morally under the right conditions runs askew of the Bible. “The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:2-3). Acts of evil like the Charleston shooting remind us that we cannot trust human nature to “do the right thing.”

Dr. Otis W. Pickett (Assistant Professor of History, Mississippi College)

Dr. Pickett teaches American History and has studied American racial and Civil Rights history extensively. He is also a native Charlestonian who felt the pain of the shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. more personally than most. He understands the social climate of a white Southern town with history that is significant in story of this nation.

Dr. Pickett points us back to the gospel. “We’ve got to unite and love each other and listen to one another. We need to not be afraid to attack some of these issues head on as Christians…Satan will not win the day. Christ is coming.”

Too many Christians shy away from naming the sin of racism. Too many refuse to face the clear implications of the racist foundations of this country. In doing so, they miss the opportunity to build bridges of unity. Both love and courage should define our responses to racially charged events like the shooting in Charleston.

Jemar Tisby (President, Reformed African American Network)

My own input is two-fold. First, learn the history. Our knowledge of American Civil Rights generally comes from the chapter or paragraph we read in our middle school Social Studies textbook. Our concept of national history is shaped more by pop culture than by careful study and remembering. But the Charleston shooting comes within a historical context that helps us understand it. When we read the stories we see this isn’t just African American history, it’s not just Civil Rights history, it’s American history.

Second, we need to begin with the end in mind. History has a point and purpose. We are not hurtling aimlessly through time. There is an outcome that has already been decided. In the book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, God pulls back the curtain to Heaven and reveals what is to come. He gives humanity a glorious, hope-filled picture of eternity. Paradise is a place where sin has been eradicated, death has been defeated forever, and peace has been eternally established. This ending has already been accomplished by the life, death, resurrection, and coming return of Jesus Christ. Since we know the end of the story, Christians can endure tragedies like the Charleston shooting with pain, yes, but also with hope and strength.

The verses that closed our time on the podcast serve as an appropriate finish to this post, too.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” ~ Revelation 21:1-4

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