On this Sunday morning, as church bells chime all over Charleston and throughout the South at 10 EST, I wanted to hear some words from a man of the cloth. The Rev. Dr. Daniel W. Massie recently retired as Pastor of First Scots Presbyterian Church in downtown Charleston.
In the wake of the recent unconscionable and perverse act of malice and murder inflicted upon nine of our innocent and outstanding black citizens, their welcoming and historic church, their city often called “Holy” and indeed their entire race, I listened with great interest to the raw emotion of our Mayor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. as he struggled to put into words for himself and his city our communal heartbreak, anger, pain, sorrow, sympathy and even hope. Of course it was an impossible task but as usual he captured the conflicting feelings and thoughts well at a noon prayer vigil held at a daughter congregation of the devastated “Mother Emanuel” AME congregation on the day after the vicious attack. Over his unprecedented ten terms as Mayor of Charleston, Riley has striven tirelessly to move this charming and staid old town from the past into the future. He has succeeded by most counts, helping to fashion a vibrant, growing and modern city. In few cities in America are the citizens and their Mayor so intimately connected as in Charleston. So it was rather obvious to all of us congregants at the vigil to see how he is personally, and not just politically, invested in Charleston’s health and harmony. Riley was hurting at the noon service, as were the gathered and diverse crowd of worshippers at the Morris Brown AME Church. His frailty and pain were palpable.
In many ways the recent taking of the innocent lives at Emanuel has probably been for our Mayor more devastating personally than Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and more emotionally draining than the loss of nine firefighters in the line of duty in 2007. Those losses were tragic to be sure, but unlike the present crisis, they were the result of nature’s indiscriminate wrath and fire’s inexplicable fury. They were not caused by the intentional and malicious act of a hate-filled person determined to inflict as much damage as possible. So repentance was not in order or forgiveness expected in those earlier instances. But this most recent act, this heinous crime at Emanuel begs for penitence on the part of a troubled young man and hopes beyond hope for forgiveness from the victims’ family and friends in order to move forward from this point. And guess what? To the utter amazement of those watching the bond hearing at court on TV, the families of the victims did the divine and near incomprehensible thing — they extended forgiveness to the perpetrator, the confessed killer of their loved ones. They did the unimaginable but right and loving thing in the midst of the worst of circumstances. They loved their enemy and validated what their lost kinsmen had believed in, worked toward and prayed for in the basement of that church. In so doing they humbled and stunned the news media covering the story and amazed countless viewers around the nation and the world who witnessed the gospel in action, and heard on live television the costly love which alone can bring reconciliation. A friend in Ghana sent me an e-mail this morning saying his congregation had been glued to the Charleston events on TV for three days and had marveled at the grace, the goodness and yes, the God-ness of the families left behind. This is what comprises the hope for Charleston as we move beyond this demonic action.
Charleston will surely emerge from this dark hour and perhaps as a better, more compassionate, more just and more racially sensitive community. We are encouraged toward this end not only by the grace of the families in grief, but also by the quick and appropriate actions undertaken by our elected leaders, our branches of law enforcement, our media that assisted in the search for the shooter and especially by the response of the African-American clergy who acted quickly, appropriately and effectively to bring the community together in unity and commitment. My hope and prayer is that this tragedy will prove to be the event used of God to touch the hearts of people and institutions too long separated from and too long silent about their neighbors and their continuing indignities, especially the neighbors who differ from them.
We have come a long way in America over the past fifty years with respect to race and justice, but we have such a long way to go still. As I reflect on my fifty years of serving congregations across the south I am aware that it all began for me in the soil of racial injustice in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. As if it were yesterday I recall the fragile hopes and fears as three civil rights workers went missing, their bodies to be found in shallow graves two months later. They had been brutalized and killed execution style by hate-filled practitioners of violence and lawlessness. Now as I retire I see that my years of ministry are bracketed on the closing end by yet another act of bigotry, ignorance, hatred and violence. The deaths of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and his eight faithful parishioners this week, like the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwermer in 1964 were due to “malice aforethought,” the worst kind of evil. But our recently deceased, like the faithful before them, will not have died in vain if those of us who remain will resolve to walk by faith, not fear; to live with courage, not cowardice; to practice love, not hate; to pursue inclusion, not exclusion; to extend forgiveness rather than exacting revenge; to exhibit humility instead of pride; and to live with the welfare of our neighbor placed above our own selfish interests. These will be ongoing and never ending tasks but they are goals worthy of our best efforts as citizens of Charleston and persons of faith. So let us step forth united with these goals before us. Let them inform our continuing discussions of race and heritage, of justice and violence in this society. And let us never forget that the malice that ends with the indiscriminate taking of innocent human life in an act of unprovoked violence had its inception in the heart and mind of an individual. Did not the Galilean remind us two millennia ago that it is out of the heart that come all evil intentions? May each of us, therefore, look within and examine ourselves, lest malice shape our character and injure our neighbor. A friend of mine often recited an anonymous poem that comes to mind now:
Two natures beat within my breast,
The one is foul, the one is blessed.
The one I love, the one I hate,
The one I feed will dominate.