On Sept. 15, 1963, four young girls were killed in a church bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. On June 17, 2015, nine worshippers were gunned down at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. More than 50 years passed between these two tragedies. Why was the second one allowed to happen?
In 1963, four girls, in the basement putting on choir robes, were killed. A fifth girl lost an eye, and many others were injured. Two young black men were shot and killed in the mayhem that followed. The day after the bombing, President John F. Kennedy said, "If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken … this entire nation to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late …” The Birmingham bombing provoked wide outrage and is considered an impetus for the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Fast forward 52 years to Charleston, S.C., when 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered a church, shooting and killing nine members, including the pastor leading the meeting. When 26-year-old parishioner Tywanza Sanders tried to talk him down, the shooter responded, "I have to do it. You rape our women, and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."
Like Kennedy before him, our first African-American president, Barack Obama, came to the podium on the day following the murders in Charleston to speak.
“This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked … The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today…indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome,” he said.
But 53 years, two black churches, one Civil Rights Act, 13 dead Christians, and one black president later, it seems that not enough has changed. The "old vestiges of hatred" President Obama referred to have not been erased.
What did the American church fail to do in the years between these two tragedies that allowed the second one to happen? Is there something the church, specifically, could have done to help rid the world of its Ku Klux Klans and Dylan Roofs? And what must the church do in these next 50 years to help prevent another act of hate within a place where Christians worship?
It is easy to dismiss those who commit murder as outliers. Perhaps they are mentally ill or survivors of abuse. Or maybe they are acting under the influence of spiritual evil. But 16th Street Baptist and Mother Emmanuel show us a clear picture: Systemic anti-black racism exists in and around the church, and it is deadly.
In the past 50 years, the church has fallen from its place of importance in society, but American Christianity is still a dominant force in the United States. During these 50 years, a divide between mainline denominations and evangelical Christians has developed. While some churches do have a serious commitment to social justice, many have attempted to "stay in their lane," spreading the Gospel and leading people to salvation. (This reticence was apparent in the negative responses activist Michelle Higgins received while urging evangelicals to support Black Lives Matter at InterVarsity’s Urbana conference in late 2015.)
Yet I cannot imagine a group of racially diverse Christians who do not see these issues as supremely Christian. While the Jews of Jesus' time were abused and crucified at the hands of a empire, Jesus spoke out against these systems. Why then is it difficult and controversial for the church to fully embrace justice matters that seem to have very little gray area? Hate is bad. Murder is bad. Love is good. Sounds easy enough to me.
But just because a church is full of Christians doesn’t mean it isn’t full of flawed people. My podcast partner Karen recently said that some Christians diminish the existence of systemic racism by saying, “There is no black and no white, there are just people and sin.” I agree that race is a construct and that hate is a sin. But I believe that willful ignorance is also a sin, and it is the willful ignorance of the systemic racism in our country that is indeed sinful. This willful blindness is where the church failed both the four little girls and the Charleston Nine.
The church has taken strong social positions over the years. Many churches are vocally anti-abortion, anti-birth control, and anti-marriage equality. People like Kim Davis, who famously refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, have had no fear standing up for their social stances based on their interpretation of Christian belief.
Why then is there reluctance in the church to stand up against racism and racialized violence?
Speaking up is necessary to free American Christianity from the golden calf that has distracted it for centuries — placing whiteness, nation and social comfort above Jesus and the gospel.
Until this call for justice is embraced by a greater number of white Christians, we are not able to offer the protection that our Christian fellows like the Charleston Nine deserved. Talking about race is uncomfortable and controversial. Most people do not wake up on Sunday morning to be uncomfortable, or hear controversial remarks. But the one we gather to praise on Sundays preached a gospel of love and justice, and he was not afraid to speak in ways that caused discomfort. The Gospel, while prolific, was not usually comfortable. From Samaritan women to outcast lepers to criminals bleeding next to Jesus, it was not a warm, fuzzy, or homogenous landscape.
My prayer for the next 50 years is that the church can find the Gospel and put it first — ahead of race, class, nationalism, gun rights, and any other worldly divisions that place God's people in danger; and to recognize that apathy toward any of God’s people is a sin. As Christians, we owe it to the four Birmingham girls and the Charleston Nine to band together, to fight against allowing another hate crime within the walls of a holy space again.