Do you remember where you were four years ago when you heard the news of the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.? I didn’t hear the horrific news until the next morning on June 18 when I arrived at Sojourners’ annual Summit. In the morning plenary session, 300 participants looked shell shocked, still processing the surreal and heart-wrenching news. The organizers decided to pause the planned program and enter into a time of fervent prayer and lament for the families of the nine people who were executed, for Charleston, and for our nation in our ongoing struggle to conquer the demons of hatred and white supremacy.
Last night I had the privilege of giving introductory remarks before a showing of the movie Emanuel at one of the more than 1,000 premiere screenings that took place across the country. Community of Hope Church in Temple Hills., Md., which organized this viewing, rented out a theater to screen the film. This was my fifth time seeing it, and each time I am moved to tears by the raw emotion and profound power of the film. Sojourners has been privileged to partner with Emanuel, creating an official discussion guide to accompany the film, designed to equip pastors and community leaders to foster dialogue around the themes of forgiveness, repentance, and ultimately, the ever-present and costly demands of racial justice.
The documentary honors the lives and legacy of the Emanuel Nine by sharing their stories through the voices of their beloved relatives, who help to ensure that their memories endure and their executions will not be in vain. This courageous witness has the power to transform hearts and minds and catalyze greater urgency and commitment behind repairing the breach caused by racism and hatred in our country — which, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued, wounds and imprisons both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Emanuel is a film that every American must see. I envision and pray for churches uniting across racial lines to watch it together and churches encouraging their members to see the film when it has its anticipated commercial release. There are three reasons I believe that every person of faith and conscience should not only see the Emanuel movie but strongly encourage their friends, coworkers, and family to also see it.
1. Emanuel shines a spotlight on the original sin of racism and the alarming resurgence of white supremacy.
As the film points out, it was not a coincidence that Dylann Roof marked the Mother Emanuel AME Church for terrorism. We can’t fully appreciate the symbolism of Mother Emanuel without understanding racial terror in the South, which spans from slavery to the post-Reconstruction era through Jim Crow segregation and to our present-day struggles with mass incarceration and racialized violence by police. The symbolism of Emanuel is tied to the history and importance of the black church as a source of liberation and a refuge from oppression and violence. The African Methodist Episcopal Church in particular was founded as an anti-slavery church. And Mother Emanuel represented the first freestanding black church in the South, an icon for the AME Church nationally and internationally.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Roof, who admitted that he was trying to incite a race war with the massacre, was often referred to by police and the media as the killer but almost never as a domestic terrorist. The rising threat of domestic terrorism is being underplayed or ignored by far too many political leaders, including President Donald Trump. The Anti-Defamation League reported that, in the United States, “right-wing extremists collectively have been responsible for more than 70 percent of the 427 extremist-related killings over the past 10 years, far outnumbering those committed by left-wing extremists or domestic Islamist extremists—even with the sharp rise of Islamist-extremist killings in the past five years.” Tragically, the New Zealand white power killer — a 28-year-old white Australian man who fatally shot 50 Muslims while they were worshipping and injured 50 more, cited Roof as an inspiration.
From Oklahoma City to Charleston, Charlottesville to Pittsburgh, New Zealand to Norway and other locations in Europe, white nationalism and white supremacy represent a growing movement that we can’t afford to ignore. This movement is unified by fear that white people’s power and superiority is being taken away by the growth of more diverse and inclusive democracies. The changing racial demographics of the U.S. — in which the Census Bureau estimates that, around the year 2045, white people will no longer be a majority — have also fueled increasingly public white nationalist politics and policies.
2. Emanuel captures the transformative power of forgiveness.
You may remember that just 48 hours after the massacre, Roof appeared in court at a bond hearing showing no visible remorse. In an unusual move, the judge asked whether family members of the victim wanted to address Roof. Many family members were moved to publicly forgive him, even praying that he comes to know Christ’s love and salvific mercy. This radical act of grace, which almost no one saw coming, went viral and reverberated around the globe, offering a powerful Christ-like witness that helped to defuse tensions and the risk of violent protest. But the film doesn’t shy away from exploring the criticism of some activists that this act neutralized people’s outrage, which could have been channeled to seek systemic change.
Forgiveness is a consistent and dominant theme of scripture that is often hard to fully embrace. I can only imagine the spiritual fortitude and courage it would take to forgive the seemingly unforgivable. But Jesus called on his followers to “Love your enemies ... bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Peter goes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but 77 times.” (Matthew 18:21-22). Forgiveness lies at the very heart of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples, instructing them to ask that God “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sins against us” (Matthew 6:12). This is a tall order but one that can release us from pain and resentment, breaking the vicious cycle of vengeance and retribution that often begets greater enmity or violence. Dr. King warned against the destructive dangers of hate: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate,” he said, “adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
3. Emanuel lends greater urgency and purposes behind the ongoing fight for racial justice.
As AME pastor Joseph Darby says so aptly in the film, “Racism is as American as apple pie.” In fact, racism is the nation’s “original sin.” Racism is much more than individual hateful attitudes. Racism is also deeply systemic, embedded in almost every facet and major institution of American society, and while much has changed in large measure due to the gains of the civil rights movement, much remains the same or has become worse. Deep inequities and disparities of income, wealth, education, housing, the criminal justice system, and infant and maternal mortality are just a few areas in which we see racism persist in insidious ways.
Just two months before the Emanuel massacre, Walter Scott — an unarmed black man — was shot in the back five times and killed by a white police officer in North Charleston, a moment visualized in the film. The shooting was captured on a bystander’s cell phone. The killing was added to a long and tragic list of high-profile examples of racialized policing and violence, from Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland to Tamir Rice and Eric Garner. Sadly, the controversy surrounding the Trayvon Martin case inspired Dylan Roof to start searching the internet, where he found white supremacist and neo-Nazi content.
If we are to achieve real and lasting racial justice and reconciliation, we must move beyond forgiveness for heinous acts of violence and hate and look for ways to dismantle structures of racial inequity and affirmations of racism. Biblical justice requires a commitment to addressing root causes, which often include a combination of unjust domination, violence, exploitation, and exclusion. True restoration requires a both/and approach of reconciling broken relationships and dismantling the systems, laws, policies, and attitudes that inflict harm and cause subordination — including attitudes of superiority and hatred. We must change the structures of American society at every level, so they no longer pathologize and demonize black people, treating them as threats rather than as children of God made in God’s image.
Honoring the memory of the Emanuel Nine requires us to work on both interpersonal and systemic levels. The true meaning of repentance is important to understand in this context. Repentance is much more than saying sorry or feeling deep regret or sadness. True repentance means turning around and going in a new direction. As individuals and a society, this is what we need to do. We owe it to the Emanuel Nine and so many others.
Will Emanuel be just another film that generates a fleeting sense of outrage and urgency, or will it be a catalyst that accelerates and deepens our individual and collective pursuit of racial reconciliation and justice? The answer is in the hands of those who are able to see and support the film. While there is no single remedy to combat racism and prevent more acts of racial violence, every courageous conversation, every act of solidarity, and each changed mind and heart puts an important dent in the walls of racism. You can start with the places close to you — your church, community, city, etc. — by closing the moral distance between yourself and people from another race. You can use the power of your voice and vote to support candidates and policies that will advance racial justice and reconciliation.