In the wake of the Emmanuel A.M.E. massacre, it’s hard not to succumb to the dueling poles of cynicism or despair, grandiosity or silencing shame. It is so easy to feel powerless and hopeless in the face of widespread white denial. Or exasperated and enraged at a grandiose white culture that wants to dismiss this as “not a race issue.” It’s about mental illness, they say. Or easy access to guns.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for gun control. And, as a licensed marriage & family therapist, I most certainly want policies and practices in American culture that lead to more compassionate, empathic & constructive understandings of and responses to mental illness. Taking refuge in culture war issues in the face of the horrific slaughter in Charleston, however, only pours more emotional salt in the gaping wound of a people who, around every corner in American history, has had to deal with the deadly consequences of white denial in all its subtle, and not so subtle, forms.
I’m not saying white people take refuge in these issues with the intent to cause harm. I’m not even saying they realize they’re doing it. But that’s also why it’s so dangerous. The pathological always is. The pathological is unseen and “unintentional” by nature. And American empire has deeply entrenched racist pathologies in us all, to ensure we don’t see clearly enough, lest we get at their root.
I am reminded of a fitting Gore Vidal (1992) quote:
If you want to get to the root of anything you must be radical. It is no accident that the word has been totally demonized by our masters, and no one in politics dares even to use the word favorably, much less track any problem to its root.
The problem, most recently illuminated by the chain of events in Charleston that led to last week’s horrific massacre, is the continuing legacy of racism, fueled by a white supremacy that soaks through every fiber of our American psyche. Denmark Vesey (co-founder of Emmanuel A.M.E., executed for attempting to organize a massive slave revolt in 1822), alongside newly martyred Reverend Pickney, understood this all too well. Indeed, their deep understanding and courageous resistance and organizing around this root problem made them both the inevitable and irresistible targets of a pathological, white-knuckling, white denial turned homicidal rage. People of color living in American empire have always known that when they dare speak out about America’s original sin, they become subject to name-calling (at best) and shot-calling (at worst).
When will white America follow Vesey and Pickney’s courageous lead?
When will we apprentice ourselves to this miraculous integrity and humility, refusing to demonize, seek vengeance, and perpetuate violence in the face of unfathomable horror and violation?
Will we have the wherewithal to follow the audacity of the surviving members of Emmanuel A.M.E., who forgave the killer and called for repentance, rather than call down fire on these terrorists ever-stalking their communities?
Indeed, the victims and family members of Emmanuel A.M.E. faithfully follow the 400-year-old tradition of the black American church: they are the leaven in the loaf, the city on a hill, the true salt that has not lost its saltiness.
The deadly, unacknowledged virus of white supremacy haunts, infects, divides and sickens us all. For white Christians like me, discipleship demands no less than repentance for these sins of the father. But it is also an invitation:
To turn from the imperial road of white supremacy.
To find repentance and renewal along a gently demanding path of personal inventory, prophetic imagination & meaningful solidarity with communities of color.
The martyrs’ blood of century upon century is calling out to us. Whether it will indict or save us remains to be seen.
Jesus, too, calls from beyond the freshly dug graves of the precious 9 slain in Charleston. To follow him is to do the work, with fear and trembling, of repentance and justice. This inevitably leads us down the path toward the festering wound inflicted by white supremacy, all the way to its root. Until we wrestle with the oppressive legacy of our forebears, how it swims in our very bones, we will be sentenced to unwittingly perpetuate it, over and over and over, the cycle of violence steam-rolling through history. We will be the abuser who sincerely asks forgiveness, but shows neither insight nor capacity to change his behavior and stop the abuse.
We did not choose this legacy. It chose us. It’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility to transform it, and at the very least, stop being complicit in its rampant destruction. This means doing the inner and outer work of justice. It means unlearning white supremacy, denial, calculating power and control, and horrific violence.
We can choose, here and now, every single day, to be schooled instead in the ancient roots of our faith tradition: the demanding and liberating path of radical discipleship, which promises deliverance from the violence of empire and new life within the alternative, gentle, vulnerable, truthful, forgiving, peaceable, loving and just rhythms of Beloved Community.
May we, as faith communities, gather to name and support each other in this long-past-due work of repentance. A new life awaits us on the other side. But we must count the cost and go there. It won’t come to us.