Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the Charleston massacre — a moment that shocked the nation into considering our collective complicity in a culture of white supremacy and its continuing violence against people of color. The anniversary stands in the wake of another massacre, this time in Orlando, this time targeting the LGBTQ community. For people of faith in particular, this is a moment to consider our complicity in a culture that otherizes a whole swath of our society. It’s appropriate that we apply some theology to these tragedies.
We have all seen the incredible depths of love that human beings are capable of. Beyond mere attraction and affection, we’ve seen love go so deep into unconditional commitment to those we love, amazing service to those who need our love, and even heroic self-sacrificial love to others — sometimes to strangers who need the protection of love. “God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4:16b) I believe that is true whether those who love are religious or not, or even have rejected religion for its sometimes painful absence of love.
We have also seen the appalling and frightening depths of hate that human beings can descend into. Far beyond disagreement, debate, and opposition to one another’s ideas or behaviors, hate degenerates into vicious attack, verbal abuse, and physical violence against other human beings. Ultimately, the violence of hate is the denial of the image of God in the other human beings we have decided to use, abuse, and even kill. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Hate is not only the anti-thesis of love; hate is the anti-thesis of God.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof, filled with the hate that he’d been taught, entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Mother Emanuel) in downtown Charleston, S.C. He went to the basement of the church where a weekly Bible study and prayer service was taking place. Invited to join by members of the church, the young man sat at the table during the Bible study then pulled out an semi-automatic handgun and killed nine Christians as they started to pray, including the senior pastor, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney. Roof later confessed that he committed the murders with the hopes of igniting a race war; but he also admitted he almost didn’t go through with the shooting because the church members were so nice to him. When one tried to talk him down before he began shooting, Roof replied, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Those killed were shot multiple times at close range while Roof shouted racial epithets at his victims.
Such a horribly direct, personal, and hateful act immediately stunned the country and the world. After Charleston, every African-American I spoke with concluded that black people are still not safe anywhere in America — even in their own most sacred and safe places.
Hate always creates fear.
But at the legal hearing for the killer two days later, both survivors and relatives of five victims spoke to Dylann Roof directly. They told the young white supremacist who killed their families and friends that they forgave him and were “praying for his soul.” The nation was stunned again with the totally unexpected power of love and forgiveness. Both the appalling crime and the loving response to it from African-American Christians began changing hearts and minds across the country. As the new pastor now at Mother Emanuel Rev. Dr. Betty Deas-Clark says, forgiveness is a theological decision following the way that God changes the world.
Love always reveals the face of God.
But Deas-Clark goes on to say and forgiveness does not preclude feeling anger, which is justified, and it certainly does not remove the requirements of justice. The memorial services for the Charleston massacre will be a critical moment for reflection of where we are now in the American struggle for racial justice and reconciliation in a nation where a presidential election is focused on issues of racial bigotry.
But less than a week before the Charleston memorial services were to take place, another massacre occurred — this time in Orlando, Fla. A single gunman, named Omar Mateen, entered a gay club and, using a semi-automatic assault-style rifle, shot and killed 49 people and wounded at least 53 others. He attacked the Pulse Nightclub on Latin night; most of the victims were Latino/a. The 29-year-old shooter seems to have been a mentally unstable and violent man who shouted his allegiance to ISIS as he murdered one person after another — part of the new pattern of lone-wolf terrorism. Again the nation was stunned by this brutal act of both terror and hate — this time aimed directly at LGBTQ people, during Pride month and almost a year to the date after celebrating a civil rights victory in the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Just as black Americans felt unsafe after Charleston, LBGTQ Americans are feeling unsafe now. The club served as a safe space for an LGBTQ community that too often feels unwelcome in our pews. It is important for Christians, evangelical Christians in particular, to stand up for the safety, humanity, and dignity of LBGTQ people — human beings bearing the image of God. This should wake us all up and cause a re-examination of Christian conscience and compassion in our treatment of all LBGTQ people.
Also fearful are American Muslims who feel attacked by the language of many people — even the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Since the Orlando attack, Donald Trump has renewed his call for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, and extended it to suspend immigration from all areas of the world “where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States.” Suggesting the incident resulted because the American-born shooter’s family is from Afghanistan, Trump is laying blame at the feet of the entire American Muslim community. He even went so far as to imply that our sitting president is sympathetic to the agenda of “radical Islam” and that he may support the terrorist’s agenda more that protecting the people of the United States — frankly, suggesting that our president is guilty of treason. Trump has now transferred his campaign of incoherent lies and racial bigotry into a campaign of hate – against the rule of law and, certainly, the antithesis of Christian values and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Hate always creates fear.
Only bold acts of love can overcome violent acts of hate. Acts of love look like the Orthodox Jewish congregation that went to a gay bar to show solidarity and mourn with the LGBT community — embracing those in the club and offering prayers. Bold acts of love. This is indeed about our theology, our faith, our spirituality.
Love always reveals the face of God.
This is much more than politics; it is about the kind of country we choose. The moral choice is between love and hate.