THE BLOG

Getting Beyond Tragedy: A Call for Compassion and Commitment

06/24/2015 09:45 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

A white man's unconscionable killings of nine people at a historically significant African American church in Charleston, South Carolina has yet again exposed our nation's desperate need to address racial divisions in our culture and our relationship with guns.

With the National Baptist Convention starting next week (June 22-26), we must take time to pray and mourn for the innocent victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a significant congregation that played an important role in helping blacks achieve freedom and equality.

However, as chair of the social justice committee, I believe we also have a responsibility to respond to this tragedy in ways that can prevent such racially-fueled violence from continuing.

To do this, we must first dispel the notion that mental illness alone caused a 21-year-old white man to kill innocent black people. What is more disturbing is the hatred that he and others who likely influenced his views harbor for people who they believe are responsible for their lot in life. And what should also cause alarm is that despite being armed with such hatred, the killer's father had gifted him a handgun two months prior to the killings.

Fact is, his mental illness did not cause him to be a racist; his feelings of hatred were nurtured. The deep anger that led him to unspeakable actions was fueled by a segment of our country that has a negative and limited understanding of black culture and history. They do not fully comprehend the many consequences of slavery that linger to this day, including the continued social and economic inequity that has landed many blacks in ghettos and jail cells.

Had this young killer known any of his victims personally, would he still have carried out the attacks? If he had spent more time getting to know the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, would he still have viewed the beloved pastor as a thug or by his true character: As a scholar, a preacher of peace and devoted husband and father?

No, this killer did not know his victims, not one bit. He wasn't aware of the history of Emanuel, which since 1787 has strived for social justice and made incredible gains to ensure all races and cultures have equal access to opportunity. This killing was the result of pure ignorance, and it may shock some when I say here that this is partly the fault of us faith leaders.

This should be a wakeup call for our communities. Faith leaders of both black and white congregations in this country need to come together, learn more about one another, and collectively say enough is enough. We need to combine our efforts to denounce preachers of hate and educate those influenced by racism. White evangelicals need to join us in prayer and reflect upon these senseless murders as part of a unified front. For there to be justice for the victims at Emanuel church, we cannot simply lock up a white man and be done with it. We must attack racism at its root.

To truly reach this goal, however, we can no longer contain our common message to our individual silos. Southern Baptists should speak not only to their own congregations but as a unified voice reaching a nation. We can and must form a massive and powerful alliance of religious leaders against racism and inequity. Our most influential voices need to come together, draw up a playbook, and meet our challenges with hard work, dedication and precision. The Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants have had talented players, but their recent championships were the result of team efforts. We must assist each other for real change to occur.

And we must not limit the discussion to race. As President Obama stated after the tragedy, at some point we as a nation will need to come to grips with our relationship to guns. We need to come together on a sensible approach to getting guns off our streets, as these tragedies are too frequent and too close to home. And we need to stop bowing to the National Rifle Association.

Let's not stand by and continue to let these incidents happen. I call upon all faith leaders to join us, starting at the National Baptist Convention, in a unified fight against hate and violence.

We need to talk to each other. We need to preach love, not hate. Bigotry and racism are costly. It's cheaper to be peaceful. To be loving.