ON SUNDAY, I joined tens of thousands of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and others who use a common lectionary in listening to God’s rebuke to Job for questioning why he had allowed such suffering. For those of us searching for meaning from last week’s slaughter of the innocents at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, it was a great blessing to be reminded that we simply cannot understand the will of God, and it was difficult not to feel God’s hand in that passage having been selected, years ago, for this particular day. I would urge anyone with those questions to read Job 38:1-11.
And then we joined congregations across the state and nation in singing a hymn that a Presbyterian pastor from Delaware composed in response to the massacre. Eyes teared up, voices cracked, and I was particularly touched by the third stanza, because it spoke to a truth that had just started taking shape in my mind as I began to make the turn from shock and mourning to policy and action:
“We grieve a wounded culture
“Where fear and terror thrive,
“Where some hate others for their race
“And guns are glorified.”
There’s not a law that could have stopped an evil young man from seeking out Mother Emanuel, pretending to engage in Bible study and then executing the pastor and nine parishioners while they actually were studying God’s word, and praying.
Dylann Roof wasn’t a felon, which is why he was able to walk into a Charleston gun store in the spring and purchase the gun he used with such brutal effectiveness; so a law requiring criminal background checks for all gun purchases wouldn’t have deterred him. He had the gun long before his massacre, so a waiting period wouldn’t have made a difference. He did use a semi-automatic, large-caliber handgun of the sort that it makes no sense for individuals to own, but he reloaded several times, which suggests that he just as easily could have carried out his executions with a revolver.
Background checks, waiting periods and even limits on the size and capacity of guns could prevent other killings, but not this one; the sad truth is that we can’t stop this sort of thing from happening again simply by passing a law.
Rather, if we are to learn from this massacre, if we are to bring good from this atrocity — and we must — then our task is much more difficult.
Our task is to change our society.
Our task is to change a society that worships guns and allows a father to think it’s a great idea to help his shiftless, possibly drug-addicted, clearly irresponsible and immature and sullen and angry 21-year-old son get his hands on a gun that is most efficient not at killing ducks or deer but human beings.
Our task is to change a society that allows an angry young man to believe that our nation is being taken over by a racial minority whose political, social and economic power is far inferior to its numbers. It’s to change a society that allows him to believe that his point of view is widespread, and that an oppressed majority is waiting for someone to light a spark, so it can rise up in racial warfare.
Change must come through the human heart — through each one of us pledging to bring some good out of evil, to give positive purpose to the horror.
Each one of us must pledge to not turn our political disagreements with a leader who happens to be black into animosity toward black people. To not laugh at that racially tinged joke. To not sit silently as friends or colleagues go on a rant about how dangerous and shiftless black people are, allowing them to believe by our silence that we share their prejudice.
But it’s not just the hearts of individuals that must change. Laws and leadership are essential components of true societal change.
Change comes when our governors stop glorifying guns. Change comes when our legislators stop cowering in fear beneath their desks whenever someone suggests that maybe, just maybe, they should defy the demands of the gun lobby that they pass laws that further encourage an armed society. Change comes when our politicians are willing to say to people who feel naked without a gun: “If you feel like you have to be armed to go to a restaurant for dinner, then maybe that’s a restaurant you ought not be going to.”
Change comes when our leaders condemn an NRA board member who blames a pastor/senator for causing his own death and the death of his parishioners because he supported a law that prohibits guns in church. Change comes when our political leaders are willing to stand up to such perverted logic and say, “I don’t want to go to church with people who feel like they need to arm themselves to be there, who feel like the answer to every problem is a gun. I want to go to church with people who feel like the answer to every problem is God.”
Change comes when we are willing to recognize that no matter how sincere some people might be in believing that the Confederate flag is simply a symbol that honors their ancestors, that banner is also the symbol that Dylann Roof was so proud to pose next to with the gun he planned to use to massacre black people.
Change comes when we recognize that every white racist in this country shares Dylann Roof’s devotion to that flag.
Change comes when we recognize that whatever we might believe about our ancestors’ motivations for fighting the Civil War, that war represented liberation to the ancestors of black South Carolinians, and the Confederate flag represented the states and the people who had kept them in bondage. Change comes when we recognize that the 20th century lynch mobs carried that flag into battle when they murdered black people.
The most poignant political statement I’ve heard in the past week came from Rep. Doug Brannon, the Spartanburg Republican who announced he planned to file legislation to remove the flag from its display at the intersection of Gervais and Main. In explaining his motivation, Mr. Brannon said: “I had a friend who died on Wednesday night simply because he was a black man.”
Removing the flag from the State House grounds won’t prevent racists like Dylann Roof from slaughtering black people. It certainly won’t bring back the nine people who were executed in their church for the crime of being black.
But it would say to their families, and to the world, and to ourselves that the things that flag has come to represent are not who we are. It would say to the family of Emanuel AME Church that we grieve with them and we pray with them. It would say to African-Americans across our state that we are through insulting them out of some misplaced allegiance that allowed us to put ancestor worship ahead of common decency to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
It would say that we are dedicated to changing our society.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.