Mass Shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church: An American Ritual of Blood

06/19/2015 02:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

The horrific mass slaying inside of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina has an all-too-familiar feel. Violent attacks against African American spaces of worship have a long and persistent history in our nation. Beginning in the 18th century, there is documented evidence of white citizens targeting black religious gatherings with both legal sanctions and terroristic methods.

Consider the treatment of Andrew and Sampson Bryan, the founders of what is arguably the oldest African American independent Christian congregation in the country, First African Baptist Church of Savannah. These brothers were repeatedly whipped for holding black only religious meetings. Enslaved worshippers were regularly beaten, tortured, and even murdered if it was discovered that they were gathering independently of an approved white minister. Family lore has it that my own great-great grandfather, an enslaved preacher, was strung up by his thumbs for unauthorized preaching to other blacks. This explains why historians came to refer to black churches under slavery as invisible institutions. Invisibility was the cost of existence. The mere thought of self-determining black congregations was enough to threaten those who defended servitude as the natural condition of African peoples.

Unfortunately, the bright dawn of emancipation only intensified attacks on African American houses of worship. Violence toward black communities of faith defined African American's struggle for equal rights in the twentieth century. Blacks worshipped God under the specter of church burnings, constant intimidation, and racially motivated lynchings. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four little girls in 1963 typified this white supremacist reign of terror--a tragic time in our nation's history whose structural ripple effect remains with us. These are the reasons why anyone who identifies with the African American Christian tradition feels last night's vile attack at a deeper, gut-wrenching level. It evokes over two centuries of terror for those who still find spiritual succor inside of historically black congregations.

As people of good-will around this nation protest violence against African Americans, including the slaying of an unarmed Walter Scott in Charleston, the historical similarities are evident. One might imagine that just as the agents of white supremacy tried to squelch forces of protest in previous centuries, a hateful young man tried to terrorize those who dare declare "Black Lives Matter" into silence. Watching this story unfold alongside my ninety-one year old grandfather in rural North Carolina, who is himself a lifelong member of the African American Methodist Episcopal denomination, I both feel and understand the historical analogy.

Nevertheless, I fear media outlets will latch on to these historical connections to the detriment of equally problematic cultural realities. The tragedy at Emanuel harkens back to a painful past for African Americans, but it also represents a cultural pathology of mass shootings and gun worship that targets all communities across racial and religious lines. Focusing on the shooter's assumed hatred of African Americans and possible white supremacist affiliations provide good copy for the 24/7 infotainment industry. It will also feed America's racialized porn addiction insofar as sensationalist stories about lone acting racist cops, Klan members, and grieving communities of color titillate our attention without challenging us to examine our own participation in racial injustice. But such storylines will deflect our attention away from the larger sickness of gun violence and mass shootings that are particular to the twenty-first century.

Other than the race of these victims, this latest tragedy cannot be separated from the spate of mass shootings that have become regular occurrences in our country. Whether the twelve murdered movie goers in Aurora, Illinois; the six worshippers inside of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; the twenty seven teachers and children in Newton, Connecticut; or the five murdered officers and civilians in Las Vegas, Nevada, our nation is paying a high price for our devotion to guns and faith in their capacity to keep us safe. According to a recent FBI report, active shooting incidents have more than doubled since 2000. Between 2000-20007, the number of individuals who either killed or attempted to kill a group of people within a confined space skyrocketed from an already egregious 6.4 to 16.4 incidents per year.

Let's face it. Our nation is dying a violent death, and the National Rifle Association and other gun valorizing groups will be etched across the death certificate. As long as people continue to consider automatic weapons as some sort of divine right, view violent video games as harmless fun, and further dismantle our already lax gun restrictions in the name of "sport," we will be here again soon. Sure the tragic event at Emanuel AME has a historical precedent. But it also represents a sick and twisted blood ritual of mass shootings peculiar to this historical moment.