A pastoral reflection on the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church,
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
(Luke 23:34 -Jesus, hanging on the cross -before taking his last breath)
“…But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
(Nadine Collier to the killer of her mother Ethel Lance)
“Divine Forgiveness” and an Inconvenient Truth
There is nothing more powerful or memorable than mountain top experiences – they can be among the most transformative moments in our lives. Moses experienced God on Sinai – from there he would find the courage to lead a people out of slavery.
Mountain top experiences are those moments that pierce us deeply and compel us to transform not only ourselves, but also the world around us. These moments fill the entirety of our senses – making us feel alive with a purpose. We are filled with inspiration and conviction. As a child, I remember going to Billy Graham Crusades – what a high! I was struck by the voices of thousands together singing and praying. I recall the visual of his altar calls and the words of “Just as I Am” – only to learn that of all those who came forward, only a handful were transformed to become a faithful people of Christ. These mountain top experiences often occur when we as a people gather to mourn, to remember, to reclaim and affirm our faith in the midst of life’s tragedies. They touch us in those deepest places that call us up to a place of courage and action.
The massacre last week has rightfully rallied that kind of transformative energy. We have been deeply moved by the framing of the Christian faith foundational to the response of the nine slain at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. We have been humbled by the public witness of the family members who, one after another, offered what I consider to be “Divine forgiveness” to the one who caused the violence and pain. We have been convicted by the witness of that historic community of faith as they worshipped together last Sunday and kept the doors open as Rev. Norvel Goff proclaimed that they “would overcome evil with faith.” There is clearly a “balm” in Charleston – one that heals in the midst of unspeakable evil. The solidarity of the world – Christian and other – has been palpable as people of all walks of life, theologies, religions and races rally together. The cry of pain and anger have been such that one can believe the slaughter of those nine saints who gathered to study the Bible and welcomed a stranger to their table – would not be in vain.
But what happens next? What happens when the public music stops? What happens when the reporters go on to their next story? What happens when the crowd disperses? What happens when we come off that mountain of solidarity, anger, and pain?
This is the ultimate question for us as a people of faith – what happens next? Over the past week, I have been reminded of just how differently we each respond to tragedy.
For some, there is the retreat back into the already chaotic reality and presumed safety of our communities.
For some, there is the lashing out in pain and frustration.
For some, there is the fighting for legislation that will address gun violence and symbols of hate that still fly in state houses.
For some, there is a rationalizing that the violence was an isolated terrible act with no connection to some bigger systemic illness.
For some, there is the lamenting, not unlike the exilic children of Israel, wondering, “Lord, how Long?” What does the promise land look like?
For some, there is the call to prayer –a praying that will lead to some real change in the hearts of our broken humanity.
But for the saints at Emanuel AME and their response? Well, they have publicly modeled a faith that carries you from the mountains through the valleys and back again. It’s the kind of faith that will continue to sustain them – even as they pursue justice, the making right of what is incomprehensible. They’ve modeled a faith that frankly leaves me speechless; no words can capture the depth of their witness compared to my feeling of ineptitude. No words!
I’ve been thinking about the complexities of our presbytery – about the racial divide that in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways has historically showed itself in our congregations and in our presbytery gatherings.
I’ve been thinking about the response of our churches together; of what is required of us as individuals and as a larger covenant community. I’ve been thinking of how we must understand our “own privilege and access in ways that help right injustice in the world. “ (The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, former Moderator, PCUSA).
Tonight as I write, I have no specific answers; no clever 12-step plan to resolve a challenge that has permitted us to treat one another in ways that are simply sinful. And like most of you, my spirit is heavy and restless from the pain and the evil that caused it. I choose, however, to believe that together we might find a better way; a way that will not allow difference of race, theology, socio-economic class, gender, age, etc., to perpetuate separation, isolation, and ignorance. I choose to believe that we can make a way that will bring together the heart of our presbytery – from the inner city of Philadelphia to the suburbs and rural corners where we gather to worship. It will take intentional work, but the truth is that if we can’t find a way together to be a witness for justice in both small and larger ways, to what end is our faith without resurrection possibilities?
This is the “inconvenient truth” that we as Christians must engage. And so to you – my dearest brothers and sisters on the journey – may we find a way that will be transformative long after the camera crews leave; long after the rallying to our faith brought us together for a time. May we find a way to stand with the families of the nine as they lay their loved ones to rest. May their witness of “Divine forgiveness” give us the courage to witness to the reconciliation possibilities only made possible by the one to whom we belong. And may God forgive us for where we will surely fall short!