Dylann Storm Roof, whose birthday is April 3, had just barely turned twenty-one. Twenty-one used to be the age of legal majority in America—the age at which society allowed one to vote, enter into a contract with someone else, get married without parental consent, drive a car, go to war. “I'm free, white, and 21” was a declaration of independence for generations of good-ole boys in the South. Young Mr. Roof celebrated his 21st birthday by using gift money to buy a .45-caliber revolver and then going to Charleston to start a war of his own in the city where the Civil War began 133 years before he was born.
Roof was a baptized and, presumably, confirmed member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina. We do not know much more about his personal commitment to the Christian faith. We do know that one of the racist websites he frequented touted white supremacy as a “Christian value.” But what did his baptism mean to him? Did he remember his confirmation? Luther's own baptismal liturgy includes exorcism, a required renunciation of the devil and all his pomp. It is not possible to tell the story of what happened at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston—popularly known as Mother Emmanuel—without reference to the Evil One. Not that blaming it on the devil gets anyone else off the hook, but whatever “rational” explanations for the massacre—a shooter on drugs, Internet violence, gun control policies—something deep and demonic, something sinister, was at work.
The Rev. Dr. Carolyn McKinstry remembers another day when Evil itself showed up in the house of God. It was September 15, 1963, at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Carolyn was fourteen years old when the bomb exploded, killing her four Sunday School friends that day. That bomb was planted by men who drank deeply from the same racist fountain as young Roof. What happened in Charleston was “frighteningly reminiscent,” says McKinstry, of the bomb in Birmingham 52 years ago.
In a recent piece for Time magazine, McKinstry writes, “Yes, much has changed in America since then. Many signs of segregation are gone. But the real question is: Have hearts changed?” She then closes with the following soul-stirring appeal:
Each of us is accountable for ourselves. Each of us must examine our lives and our treatment of others if we are going to have even a remote chance of living with the tremendous diversity that exists in our country. We still have not learned the simple principle of living next door to someone who may be different from us. We have not learned to treat others in the same manner that we ourselves want to be treated. . . .It is the responsibility of each of us. Examine yourself. Treat others as you want to be treated. Keep the faith. Then pray—pray for a reconciled world.
One visible sign that racism has not gone away quite yet is the enduring presence of the Confederate battle flag. When Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore wrote in the wake of the Charleston shooting, “Take down that flag!” it had all the moral force of Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall!” All of a sudden, the Southern Baptist Convention and The New York Times were saying the same thing! In response, several state governments in the former Confederacy have already taken legislative as well as executive action, including Alabama’s Republican governor Robert Bentley, who ordered Confederate flags on the grounds of the state capitol in Montgomery taken down the morning of June 24.
But as important and long overdue as this gesture is, at one level it is still window-dressing. It does not answer McKinstry's question: “Have hearts changed?” For that we need a power greater than the sum total of our good, even our best, intentions. For that we need the fierce Christ of Easter faith, the one whose love has conquered the devil and his kingdom of death.
For from whom else did those members of Mother Emanuel, who had suffered such unspeakable loss, summon the courage and fearless faith to say to the one who had done this deed, “I forgive you. . . .You took away someone very precious to me. It hurts, but I forgive you. Hate won't win”? The normal, expected response sounds more like Roxane Gay’s disclosure that “I do not forgive Dylann Roof, a racist terrorist whose name I hate saying or knowing…. I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am wholly at ease with that choice.” It takes, therefore, more than any man or woman’s good will to forgive something so heinous—it takes the God-become-man’s great love flowing through his Spirit-indwelt children.
On the Sunday after the shooting, the doors of Mother Emanuel were opened once again. The families and friends of the faithful fallen gathered in grief to pray, praise, and to hear the Scriptures read and preached. “We didn't miss a Sunday,” one of the members said later. Hate had not won.
Jesus Christ had won. One of the favorite hymns of this congregation is “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” written by Charles Wesley in 1739. Sung by A.M.E. churches since before the end of slavery, this hymn speaks about sin and sorrow, about fears and broken hearts. But the tone is one of joy and new life based on redemptive love.
He speaks, and, listening to his voice,
New life the dead receive,
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.
Hear him, ye deaf, ye voiceless ones,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a senior fellow of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. Carolyn McKinstry’s experience of the 1963 bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is recounted in her book While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement (Tyndale: 2011).