Last night after one of our editors and I were emailing about the brutal Charleston church shooting, an email appeared in my inbox with the subject line, “another new church attacked last night.” My heart sank and I blurted out “Oh no!” assuming it was a copycat crime, with another white supremacist attacking another black church.
I opened the email to read, “The new Rock Church in Hangzhou (same Zhejiang province as Wenzhou city) was demolished last night.” You can imagine my relief.
But not for long. It just reminded me that evil roams this world and often sets its laser sights on the church of Jesus Christ. In America, it’s clear that evil has taken the vile form of murderous racism, and we have to deal this particular manifestation.
In the face of such evil, we first grieve. There is no understanding evil because it is ultimately irrational. But God has shown us what an initial response looks like: the Psalms of lament, like Psalm 74.
Your foes roared in the place where you met with us;
they set up their standards as signs.
They behaved like men wielding axes
to cut through a thicket of trees.
They smashed all the carved paneling
with their axes and hatchets.
They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!”
They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.
We are given no signs from God;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.
How long will the enemy mock you, God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.
Lament often includes doubt: “My God, my God…?” While we greive, and especially after we grieve, we wonder where God is to be found and what we are called to do. We realize that some of our theology has been a tad sentimental, and that we need to think and pray more deeply.
Take the phrase imago dei. It’s true as true can be that each and every human being is created in the image of God. This must include the murderer Dylann Roof. But we’re hearing few if any calls to honor and respect him as a bearer of God’s image, and rightfully so. The fact that he bears the image of God does not really help us understand what has happened and what we should do—other than not immediately kill him. If anything, it makes his crime more horrific: how can one person made in the divine image go on a killing spree of others made in the divine image? In short, the phrase doesn’t do much work for us here. So while not abandoning this vital theological truth, we want to think about it in a less sentimental way.
Another popular idea is that to solve racial (or any other) prejudice, we need to sit down and talk, get to know one another, learn to appreciate our differences. While this might be wisdom under calmer circumstances, we hear no one calling for black or whites to reconciliation talks with white supremacists. Again, for good reason. We realize more than ever that mere talking will sometimes be fruitless. Still, “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war,” as Winston Churchill put it. But now we’ll want to think more deeply about what we mean by “talking,” and what has to supplement that talking sometimes.
Then there’s the idea that we should separate a person’s opinion from the person themselves, and not judge them for their mere opinions. Except that violent opinions sometimes lead to violent actions. So now we’re reminded that the human person cannot be so easily split between mind and body, and that maybe we need to be more sober about bad ideas, because we today see more clearly that bad ideas can have horrific consequences.
Another idea still is that we should treat other people’s opinions with respect, no matter how much we disagree. I’m not hearing many calls for us to understand white racism, and for good reason. Now we’re seeing why righteous anger and holy denunciation might be part and parcel of our Christian ethic.
And on it goes.
Let us whites especially admit that many of us have inadvertently imbibed theological and ethical assumptions that, in the face of a tragedy like this, show themselves to be naïve. We sometimes write and act as if the Christian ethic is mainly niceness on steroids, all in the name of grace. Anyone who knows my writing knows I’ve wandered into this territory from time to time. In short, we do not take into sufficient account the depth of evil roaming this world, and in this particular case, the radical evil that lies at the heart of racism.
Of course, we mustn’t swing the pendulum in the other direction. We mustn’t now abandon the doctrine of imago dei, nor the need for mutual respect, nor the fruitfulness of dialogue, and so forth. To assume we can solve racism with by merely mocking white supremacists and treating perpetrators of hate crimes with brutality and hatred—well, that is just as naïve. As if evil can be checked with distrust, suspicion, and hate.
And we can never forget that radical “niceness”—what is better called agape love—has extraordinary power to bring miracles to bear on seemingly intractable evil in isolated cases. Agape love on the ground is a large part of the reason Martin Luther King, Jr. made as much progress as he did in his day.
Still, the moment of lament is the moment to rethink what we believe, and to adopt the radically realistic ethic of Jesus, who has no illusions about the power of evil: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
Which is another way of saying that this particular attack reminds us that racism runs deep in the veins of American life, and that it is not going to be eradicated any time soon. And that it is not just a prejudice subject to better education and dialogue but an irrational evil. And that it will require extraordinary resources of wisdom and love to make any headway. And that it demands both righteous impatience and holy forbearance. And that it will require us to shed many more tears and pray many more Psalms of lament before, at last by God’s grace, victory is in sight.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.
Also: To read other ways Christians are responding, see Leadership Journal's piece on "Grieving with Charleston: What five pastors plan to say this Sunday after the massacre at Emanuel Church."
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