Thus read the sign carried by a grieving member of Charleston's Black community: "No more." A plea. A lament. A cry of sorrow. An expression of anger.
The BBC coverage of the murder of nine men and women at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, communicated the grief and fear of many in America. We watched the screen in silence, sitting in our room at a bed and breakfast in Scotland, shaking our heads, wondering why this sort of violence continues to happen in our country. The British news presenter spoke of the inability of Americans to deal with racism and our unwillingness to pass meaningful laws to deal with gun violence.
Hearing these reports while in Britain only increases the power of President Obama's statement that other civilized nations do not repeatedly suffer these atrocities. He is quite simply right, whether we want to hear it or not.
My own dismay and sadness turned to anger when I heard a representative of the gun lobby say that the problem is that the members of that Bible study weren't exercising their "God-given right to carry guns." I think it is time we put this outrageous and cynical claim in its place. People have a right to attend a Bible study or worship service, go to a movie, shop in a mall, or send their children to school without worrying whether an insane, criminal or hate-filled person will gun them down. We have a right in our country not to bear arms.
I remember a conversation my dad and I had when I was a small child. We were watching the old Western television show, Bonanza, and I asked my dad why all the men in the old west wore guns. He said it was because the west in those days was a violent and dangerous place. "Why don't we carry guns now?" I asked. "Because," he answered, "we are now a civilized country governed by laws."
The president says that at some point Americans will have to face the fact that we are the only advanced country in the world where this sort of violence occurs repeatedly. I hope so.
The seemingly bottomless pockets of the gun lobbies have succeeded in manipulating, cajoling and threatening politicians into supporting their right to peddle their deadly wares without any meaningful limits. They have succeeded in linking their financial gain to a strain of American patriotism that is only too willing to be used. I say this as a person who was given my first shotgun when I was twelve and who has enjoyed shooting for sport my entire life. But it is time for responsible sportsmen, gun enthusiasts and proud patriots of every stripe to make it clear that no right is absolute. And those who peddle weapons without regard for the uses and abuses to which those weapons are put are merely merchants of death.
There is another aspect to the murder of the members of "Mother Emanuel" that we must address, the race of the men and women who were killed. Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., Clementa Pinckney, and DePayne Middleton-Doctor were all African Americans. They were all targeted, and they were all slain because they were Black. The Daily Telegraph quoted their murderer as saying, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country and you have to go." To call their murderer a white supremacist lets us all off too easily. Their murderer has been fed on the lies and bigotry that surface repeatedly in our culture in a variety of ways, in innuendo and racist jokes, in the smears and garden-variety disrespect that many Black citizens suffer through every day. He acted alone, but he is not alone in his racist sentiments.
What was different about the man who reloaded five times as he shot the members of this Bible study group who had extended Christian hospitality to him was the lethality of his hatred because of his ready access to firearms. This was a hate crime, but even more, this was an act of terror which stands in a long tradition of racial terrorism in our country, from lynchings to the institutionalized slavery of the American penal system.
It is time for racism to be raked from our hearts. It is time for us to stand up against those who cynically exploit the fears of many to sell more weapons. No, that's not quite true; it is not time. It is past time. And for us as Christians, there never was a time when such attitudes and actions were appropriate.
The grace of God has compelled members of the Mother Emanuel Church to forgive the man who committed this act of terror against their community. The justice of God demands that we take the steps necessary to make our nation safe enough for people to go to church, for our children to go to school, and for teenagers to take in a movie free of fear.
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