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What’s love got to do with it?

Dylann Roof, State Senator Pinckney, and the challenge for faith communities to become more “loving” and honest places of social transformation

As I prepared to write about the need for faith communities and religious institutions to take seriously their role in affirming individuals and building a network of “loving” communities, a news bulletin flashed across the television announcing that a young white man had shot and killed nine people while they were attending Bible Study at an historic Black Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. The images of dissonance flashed before me. Members of a faith community sitting together, possibly in a circle, listening to their pastor and studying the Biblical principles so that they could live more faithful and loving lives. Principles that had taught them to welcome a young, unknown, white man into their circle and community. But suddenly, the young man stood and burst out with words and bullets that shattered their lives and community. Within minutes their lives were cut short as the young man announced that he was shooting them because he saw and perceived them as a threat and felt that he had to kill them. Ironically, it was later reported that Dylann said, “I almost changed my mind because they were so nice to me.”

Shocked by the blatant violence occurring in a major downtown worship space and fearful that the black- on-white dynamic may insight public riots, local and state political leaders acted quickly. Media and city officials carefully chose their words, highlighting the attack on a “faith” institution more than on a “Black” faith institution. Aware of the recent public protects of police abuse, their fears led to the swift identification, pursuit, and capture of Dylann, with no physical harm done to him by police whatsoever. The media and others quickly focused on his mental instability and drug use and possible links to white supremacists groups. Politicians pledged to get the harshest penalty possible, execution or life in prison, because he was such a “hateful” person and had committed such a heinous crime.

As an African American woman who specializes in teaching the history of the Black Church and the role of the Christian church in social justice, the news bulletin took me immediately to the history of attacks on African American churches. Through the years, white public officials, police, and private groups and citizens have sought to terrorize or intimidate Blacks as they sought refuge in their own, African-founded places of worship. It was in these places that they reclaimed and affirmed their African cultural values and planned activities that would help them to progress spiritually, socially, and economically. There was no doubt in my mind that it was the “Blackness” of the church and not its “Christian” nature that drew Dylann to its doors.

What’s love got to do with it?

But as disturbed and upset as I was by the senseless death of nine faithful members, I was more disturbed by the politicians and the media, who rushed to capture, label, and sweep Dylann’s actions away, labeling it the lone act of a mentally disturbed or drug-addicted young man. Dylann is not an alien. He did not just appear out of the blue. He was born in the United States and raised in South Carolina.

There is an African word, “Ubuntu,” which is a concept of community which has its motto the following: “I am because You are, and We are because You are.” Simply put, “I am You and You are me.” It speaks to the interconnectedness of personal and community identity development. The community shapes the individual and the individual represents the community. Dylann was raised in a state that held fast to its love and glorification of the Confederate flag, a symbol of rebellion and pro-slavery sentiments and legal racism. His state is also known for fighting to ensure that gun ownership is a protected right. The local politicians were quick to condemn the shooting but not the cultural values and the legal system that seeded the violent mindset and provided the tools for Dylann to accomplish the task. Dylann is a reflection of us.

A key element of any religious community’s role is that it is seeks to provide a foundation for the development of moral character, judgment, and values for the persons who are within its communion. Although Dylann was nurtured by a Christian Church in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, something did not go right in Dylan’s moral development. Perhaps his faith was not strong enough to make him feel valued or to help him overcome the influence of other groups that were encouraging him to base his self-worth on his ability to demonize or to disassociate himself from other ethnic groups. Perhaps there was a need for those around him to recognize and to help him to connect to the mental health, substance abuse, or personal counseling services that he may have needed.

By contrast, the State Senator Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor who was killed in the shooting, was also the product of a community. He was deeply influenced by faith communities which nurtured his self-esteem, affirmed his value, and made room for his leadership and the use of his gifts as a youth. His exposure to a nurturing and loving community, the Black Church, taught him how to have a faith that taught him to love himself and to love others, despite the negative messages that also surrounded him. He learned that affirming his African heritage and traditions did not require that he demonize persons who were different from him. By the age of 18 years old he was pastoring a church. At 23 years old, he was one of the youngest persons elected to the state’s House of Representatives. At 27, he was elected to the office of State Senator. Rev. Pinckney represented what is possible when our youth and their families are embraced, loved, corrected, and supported by many loving communities. He too reflects us.

Even as the news of the massacre was still spreading, members of Emanuel AME Church attended Dylann’s hearing and spoke through their pain. They told Dylann that they still had the courage and obligation to love and forgive him. They were still trying to live out the faith taught by their loving communities even when love was difficult and their pain was still fresh. But forgiveness does not mean that we do not hold those around us accountable for their actions, it means that we do not become imprisoned by the hurt and anger that their actions have inflicted upon us.
It is not the responsibility of one family or one religious congregation to take the blame when an individual makes bad choices and causes harm to others. It is our collective responsibility to look at the many places where community happens, in-person, the media images, video games. and via facebook and the internet, and to ask: Is this place building bridges or creating places of separation and division? Are we reinforcing racism and prejudices or creating opportunities to dialogue and to challenge negative symbols, systems, and beliefs?

Carl Chinn, who tracks violent incidents occurring in religious spaces, says that the motivations for the incidents vary. Chinn says that the Charleston shooting is tied for the most people killed at a religious site. Nine people were also killed at a shooting at Promkunaram, a Buddhist temple, which occurred in Arizona in 1991. Chinn says that more than half of the shootings in religious spaces are related to domestic violence spillover, personal conflict, or robbery. (“The Charleston shooting is tied for the largest mass shooting in a house of worship since 1991,” Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, June 28, 2015)

The lives of Clementa Pinckney and Dylann Roof challenge our faith communities to more intentionally assess how we can openly and respectfully talk about the prejudices and fears that we wrestle with daily. Perhaps the ongoing challenge to the symbolism and the presence of the Confederate flag on our state capitol buildings is an opportunity to dialogue and to acknowledge that Dylann’s moral development is in part the result of what we have not addressed as Americans and as the collective community of faith—the ongoing presence of racism and racist structures and symbols in American society.

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, presiding Bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the denomination which includes Dylann’s home church, observed, “Even if the shooter (Dylann) was unstable, the framework upon which he built his vision is not. Racism is a fact of American culture. Denial and avoidance of the fact are deadly.” (“South Carolina Lutheran Pastor: Dylann Roof was church member, his family prays for victims, “ Huff Post Religion. Jaweed Kaleem. June 19, 2015)

If we hide in silence or avoid real talk about what we have been taught about each other, our common history, and our interconnected destiny, will continue to feed the move toward violence. We cannot provide moral correction if the people we serve are afraid to tell us what they really think and feel. We must create safe spaces for discussion that allow people to honestly share their fears so that we can lovingly educate and redirect them. We must break the silence which hides our prejudices and traditions and create forums for dialogue that will acknowledge where we are now. Once acknowledged, we must talk about how to move forward in our thinking and relationships with others. We must teach youth and adults to affirm their life experiences, to expand their visions of who is included in their community, and to discover ways to move from fear and isolation to love and inclusion of the whole human community as our brothers and sisters, both the Dylanns and the Clementas.

A joint project of Advocate Health Care & the OCEAN-HP at the University of Illinois at Chicago.