THE BLOG

Charleston Is Testing the Soul of America

06/26/2015 11:31 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016
Don Bayley via Getty Images

On Wednesday, June 17, a young believer in white supremacy invaded the sacred sanctuary of the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. There he murdered nine black Christians who were gathered together for their weekly Wednesday-night prayer meeting. The killer had been welcomed by the African Methodist Episcopal church members to join them in prayer when he walked in, and he sat with them for more than an hour before he pulled out his gun and shot them dead at the prayer table. They were targeted and killed because they were black.

It is painfully true that in our time, in this year, in the United States, there is still no safe space for black people in America -- even in their own churches. Racism is America's original sin. It expresses itself explicitly and overtly in what we horribly saw last week in a black church, but racism continues on, implicitly and covertly, in American institutions and culture.

The sin of racism was very much alive at Mother Emanuel that horrible night. But it lingers and lives on in so many systemic ways throughout American life. The multiracial horror and rejection of this extreme act of white supremacy we witnessed last week is undoubtedly sincere, but it remains to be seen if this racial atrocity will awaken the soul of white America and create a multiracial commitment against the lingering sins of systemic racism. Will the continuing racial injustice in America now be more forthrightly addressed -- by all of us? That will be the moral test of white America's soul.

If we are willing to go deeper, we will see that white privilege is the benefit of white supremacy -- an assumption of racial entitlement that most white people still fail to recognize or resist. The only redemption of the sin of June 17 would be to name the sin of racism and ask ourselves what true repentance would mean. The moral principal that we white people need to understand is that if you benefit from oppression, you are responsible for changing it.

The killings in the church were indeed a terrorist act, part of the continuing terror of white violence that has threatened black men, women, and children ever since they were brought to the United States to be slaves. From the beginning, racism was a social construct to justify the enormous economic profit of turning children of God into chattel property. And that system of white supremacy has always used the practice and fear of violence against innocent black people to enforce itself. That's terrorism. We easily call violence against us as Americans terrorism, but usually not the violence we commit against each other -- especially the historic white violence against blacks.

In all the recent controversial killings of young black men in the streets, defenders of police behavior or other shooters have often pointed to something the young men allegedly did or might have done like making eye contact with the police, running, holding a water pistol, reaching for a driver's license that could have been a gun, walking at night in a predominantly white neighborhood, playing loud music, selling illegal cigarettes, being large and threatening, etc. But the victims at Mother Emanuel were mostly older people in their own church having a prayer meeting when they were shot by an avowed believer in white supremacy, who said to the victims before he killed them, "You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."

The Confederate flag, emblazoned all over the murderer's website, has been now called to come down by the South Carolina governor and other politicians who had accepted or supported it being flown on the state Capitol grounds before the massacre took place in the church. This Confederate battle flag was only put up above the South Carolina state house in 1962 -- in direct defiance of racial integration and the civil rights movement -- and has been used as the emblem of white hate and violence against black people ever since. Thus, the Confederate flag is an anti-Christian flag that helped inspire the murder of black Christians last week. And only since then have many Southern white Christian political leaders called for bringing down this "deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past," as Gov. Nikki Haley put it this week.

Let's take all the Confederate flags down, remove them from all Southern state signs and license plates, and take Confederate merchandise out of all of our stores. And then let us move from symbols to substance. Let's repent from our original sin of racism by beginning to repair our racialized policing and criminal justice system, by no longer tolerating terrible urban and rural schools that are only accepted because the children in them are black and brown, a black unemployment rate that is never less than 66-percent higher than the white unemployment rate, the fact that the median net worth of white households is 13 times higher than that of black households, that three of every five black children live in low-income households, that a cradle-to-prison pipeline has African Americans making up nearly 40 percent of the incarcerated population despite making up only 13 percent of the population. All of this is our lingering original sin.

But today, let us remember those who have died and exemplify the image of God among us and put a lie to white supremacy. Among the slain Christians were:

  • Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a 41-year-old pastor and South Carolina state senator, the youngest black representative ever elected to the state legislature. He was a father to two children.
  • Tywanza Sanders, who, at 26 years old, was the youngest victim of the shooting. He was a graduate of Allen University's business administration program and wrote poetry. He died trying to protect his aunt, Susie Jackson, who was another of the victims.
  • Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a 45-year-old pastor at Mother Emanuel, as well as a speech therapist and girls' track coach at a local high school. Her son plays baseball for Charleston Southern University.
  • Cynthia Hurd, a 54-year-old library manager who worked in the Charleston County Public Library system for 31 years and was the sister of former North Carolina State Sen. Malcolm Graham. She left behind a husband and five siblings.
  • Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, a 49-year-old mother of four daughters who worked as the director of federal community development block grants for Charleston county until retiring from that job in 2005. She had recently started a job as an enrollment counselor at Southern Wesleyan University and was also a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • Rev. Dr. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., a 74-year-old pastor and a veteran of the Vietnam War who was awarded a Purple Heart. He served as a pastor for three decades at area AME churches and in semi-retirement had joined the ministerial staff at Mother Emanuel. He was said to have a great sense of humor and was a proud grandfather.
  • Ethel Lance, a 70-year-old woman who had worked as a custodian at Gaillard Municipal Auditorium for more than 30 years and served as a sexton at Mother Emanuel. She had five children, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
  • Susie Jackson, at age 87, the oldest victim, was aunt to Tywanza Sanders and cousin to Ethel Lance and at one time sang in the choir at Mother Emanuel.
  • Myra Thompson, a 59-year-old former middle school teacher in the Charleston County School District. She left behind a husband, two children, and two grandchildren, as well as 12 brothers and three sisters. She had recently decided to pursue a calling to join the ministry and received her license on the night of her death.

Yesterday, funerals began for the victims of Dylann Roof's proudly admitted racial hatred, and today many will gather for the funeral of State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was also Mother Emanuel's pastor. President Barack Obama will deliver the eulogy. Pinckney's bereaved Senate colleagues, on both sides of the political aisle, have honored his body and life in the Senate Chambers.

Each of these was a child of God, created in the image of God, whose life on this earth was exterminated by the explicit sin of white supremacy. Millions of other African Americans who are also the children of God created in the image of God still have their lives regularly interrupted, undermined, and assaulted by the implicit sins of white privilege as the legacy of white supremacy. And the idol of "whiteness" continues to separate many white Christians from God, and their souls need to be set free.

On the day that Dylann Roof appeared in court and opened his mouth for the first time, family members of the people killed were there. Although there was no plan beforehand, some of them decided to speak directly to Roof. Nadine Collier startled the courtroom when she said to Roof, "I forgive you and have mercy on your soul." Her mother, Ethel Lance, had been one of the shooter's victims. Alana Simmons, whose grandfather had been killed, then stood up and said, "We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions ... And that is what we want to get out to the world." Despite their anger and pain, others offered forgiveness to the young white supremacist.

The anguish, grace, and forgiveness of one family member after another stunned the world. Those families are not just victims now. They have set the tone for the national conversation on race that we now need to have. They want and will require justice but are also offering forgiveness. They are telling the country that love is stronger than hate, and that love must attack hate. We must fight what is so wrong, but without being wrong ourselves. It's time for white Christians to be more Christian than white -- only that will make racial reconciliation possible. That's what the country and, more importantly, what God is now waiting for.

Jim Wallis is the president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.