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A Lament for Charleston: What Makes This Mass Shooting Different

Christians respond to the deadly attack at a South Carolina church.
A Lament for Charleston: What Makes This Mass Shooting Different
Image: Eric Thayer / Getty

Among the startling details in America’s latest mass shooting was the location: a church Bible study.

A gunman killed nine people from a historic African American congregation in Charleston on Wednesday. The incident is the deadliest church attack in decades.

Image: carlchinn.com

Violence has increased on church properties across the country. Dozens of US churches report fatal incidents each year, according to data from church violence researcher Carl Chinn.

Last year, 74 people died during violent altercations at churches. A quarter of those occured during attempted robberies.

Image: carlchinn.com

Other motives included domestic violence and mental illness. Religious bias only triggered 6 percent of attacks, according to Chinn's assessment. (His research did not track racism as a factor.)

Like shooting suspect Dylann Roof, the vast majority of aggressors—nearly 8 in 10 of them—were not affiliated with the church.

Following the tragedy at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, writers and bloggers have explored the racial tensions underpinning the latest deadly attack on black Americans. We’ve excerpted several reports and reflections below.

Austin Channing Brown, The Only Logical Conclusion:

There have been far too many mass shootings in America…. But this is different.

Though the weapon is the same, gun violence, this is different because the driving force was white supremacy, this act the epitome of racism, the goal to kill black people. The level of terror that black people feel in America at this moment cannot be underestimated. Because when the driving force of such a massacre is the very thing imbedded in the roots of America, thriving on the branches of generation after generation, sitting in the pews unchallenged every Sunday morning in white churches- there is no reason why black Americans should feel safe.

The sin of white supremacy is thriving in this country because white Christians refuse to name it and uproot it, refuse to confess it and dismantle it, refuse to acknowledge it and repent of it, refuse to say the words, “It’s in my family,” “It’s in my church,” “It’s in my soul.”

Every time I write about race, someone white says “just know it isn’t all of us,” believing this will bring me comfort. It is offered as balm, but fails miserably. I would much rather people say, “I see this sin in my own heart, my own life, my own church and I am working to uproot it. I don’t want to be this way, and I will do the work to submit this ugliness before Christ.” That’s what I want to hear. Creating distance from it doesn’t serve me, doesn’t bring me comfort. Because it is in all of us.

Joshua DuBois, The Daily Beast, We Need to Talk About White Culture:

It would be disproportionate to the magnitude of this tragedy to reach pat conclusions and then move along. We need to mourn first. We need to sit with the rage and pain, and mourn.

But then we have to come back to this… sickness. That’s what it feels like to me: a sickness. Not just the one-off malady of an insane individual. But a pervasive, gnawing illness that affects him and others in our country in varying, curious ways….

The question now is: Will we convince ourselves of the delusion that this killer is the only one who is sick? Or will we examine our national conscience and finally take steps to become well?

Jennifer Bailey, The Huffington Post, Rolling in Sackcloth and Ashes:

Nine people are dead today and I am angry. I have no doubt the anger I feel is righteous. My God is one who stands on the side of those who are marginalized and oppressed. My God is not docile, and is big enough to hold my anger, frustration and questions. My God understands that narratives of reconciliation and peace are not what my community needs right now. What we need is truth-telling and accountability. We need this horrific massacre to be named for what it was: a racist act of domestic terrorism. We need those in positions of power to acknowledge that this was not simply a "single incident," but the latest in a 400-year history of violence against black people in the United States.

We need religious leaders to step up and speak out against implicit and explicit acts of racial violence in their congregations. Until then, I'll adorned in sackcloth and ashes in mourning for my people and the nation they call home. I will also be in the streets continuing to raise the profile of these issues in solidarity and sorrow. The virtue of anger is that it does not remain static. It is active and will not stop working until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Osheta Moore, What I Need You to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charleston:

Whenever black lives are treated as worthless, whenever our story is marked yet again with violence, whenever we’re forced to remember the brutality our grandparents endured when they stood for freedom and dignity—it feels like Dr. King’s dream is a hope deferred and our hearts are sickened.

As a white person, you may have heard Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and thought, “yes, that’s a nice sentiment.” That “nice sentiment” is a defining dream for the African- American community. We don’t want to be angry anymore. We’re tired of being afraid. We’re tired of these headlines. We want to have peace. We dream of unity too.

Anthea Butler, The Washington Post,Call the Charleston Church Shooting What It Is: Terrorism:

This time, I hope that reporters and newscasters will ask the questions that get to the root of acts of racially motivated violence in America. Where did this man, who killed parishioners in their church during Bible study, learn to hate black people so much? Did he have an allegiance to the Confederate flag that continues to fly over the state house of South Carolina? Was he influenced by right-wing media’s endless portrayals of black Americans as lazy and violent?

I hope the media coverage won’t fall back on the typical narrative ascribed to white male shooters: a lone, disturbed or mentally ill young man failed by society. This is not an act of just “one hateful person.” It is a manifestation of the racial hatred and white supremacy that continues to pervade our society, 50 years after the Birmingham church bombing galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. It should be covered as such. And now that authorities have found their suspect, we should be calling him what he is: a terrorist.

ERLC President Russell Moore, The Cross and the Confederate Flag:

This week the nation reels over the murder of praying Christians in an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. At the same time, one of the issues hurting many is the Confederate Battle Flag flying at full-mast from the South Carolina Capitol grounds even in the aftermath of this racist act of violence on innocent people….

The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. White Christians, let’s listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them. In Christ, we were slaves in Egypt—and as part of the Body of Christ we were all slaves too in Mississippi. Let’s watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors. Let’s take down that flag.

Christena Cleveland, Relevant, Standing With Charleston: Solidarity in the Church:

This tragedy brought against both faith and race represents unmasked evil. And it appears to be another incident pointing to the shockingly commonplace sin of racism in our culture. Every few days now we hear of black men and children killed unjustly, and now a terrorist attack levied against believers in a prayer circle.

Those of us within the body of Christ must grieve with our brothers and sisters in Charleston. When the apostle Paul says that “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26), he is saying that when evil visits Charleston, it visits all of us.

Joshunda Sanders, Shelter in the Time of Storm:

There is a reminder that it is simpler to pretend that shooting down black citizens anywhere, at any time, for any reason, is more of an isolated “hate crime” (in quotes, because somehow naming it before it is officially designated by the proper authorities is treacherous territory) than it is to contextualize the reality of right-wing terrorism as one of the many legacies of white supremacist tyranny in the black community that has ranged from lynching to bombing black churches, killing black women, little girls and men.

On days like today, my faith is shaken. My heart is heavy. I’ve been told this is the most important time to lean on God, to find shelter in a weary land. I’m praying for Charleston, for the families of the victims, for the man who was filled with such hatred that he would claim them as they sought peace. And I’m praying for us, that we might find an answer to whether there are any shelters in a time of storm left for us.

Carolyn McKinstry, TIME, 1963 Church Bombing Survivor: The End of Hatred Starts With You:

How do we begin to individually and purposefully address this problem? … Each of us is accountable for ourselves. Each of us must examine our lives and our treatment of others if we are going to have even a remote chance of living with the tremendous diversity that exists in our country. We still have not learned the simple principle of living next door to someone who may be different from us. We have not learned to treat others in the same manner that we ourselves want to be treated. We can begin changing America now, and continue one day at a time, if we have the will.

With reporting by Bob Smietana and Morgan Lee.

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