Today we are all Charlestonians. As the people of the Holy City grapple with the senselessness of what happened at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the rest of us struggle along with them to make sense of the tragic murder of nine souls in a place where they fully expected to be safe from the worst of the world just outside its doors.
Today, the name Dylann Roof is synonymous with everything we want to believe we can somehow secure ourselves against, and Emanuel A.M.E. is synonymous with our deepest vulnerability in the face of it.
In the interim, there are so many questions that will get posed, pondered and discussed. Will America ever truly overcome its ugly racial history? Will hate founded on race ever be a thing of the past? Can we ever hope to prevent tragedies of this magnitude from happening?
In the midst of all this, God is with us. And in the end, God will be with us. God was with the people of Emanuel A.M.E. when Dylann opened fire, just as God was with them beforehand and is with them now.
God is just as much with the survivors of the tragedy, and with those who love and pray for them, as God is with those around Dylann Roof who are asking themselves — and probably asking God — what they could have done to read the signs, to somehow prevent the tragedy from happening in the first place.
In the meantime, the most important commandment we can bear in mind is the Golden Rule: To love our neighbor as ourselves. Which really means: Focus on your own relationship with God, and leave everyone else to God, and in the interim love them just as God does.
Lunatics like Dylann Roof will always be with us. They always have, They kill in the name of prejudices that are ultimately just a means to an end. But the prejudices they embrace are nonetheless a window into our collective psyche. If race hadn’t been the fuel for Dylann Roof’s rage, something else would have: Anti-feminism, anti-Semitism, anti-Islam, homophobia, transphobia.
So as we pray and grieve for the innocents slain in Charleston, I hope we are also praying for an end to the -isms that surface when a maniac commits a heinous act in their name. And that’s a personal quest; it begins in that relationship we have between ourselves and God. We will never be rid of maniacs. But when they do harm, we cannot honestly tell ourselves that the -isms that surface as having poisoned their minds aren’t real on some level — that they don’t exist in our society on a macro level, not just in the minds of a few tortured souls.
The essence of Christianity is this: We believe that the kingdom is at hand, that the room Jesus is preparing for us in God’s house is just around the corner. But we don’t know exactly how many steps there are between us and that corner. And we’ve practiced our faith in this gap for two millennia.
In the meantime, terrible things happen. Horrible things. Grievous things. And we have to figure out how, with God’s help, to live in a world where they will continue to happen. We can’t stop them from happening. But we can practice love in the face of them. We can be with those who suffer — and God is right there with us — and we can love our neighbor as ourselves. And we can do what we can to heal an incredibly broken, sometimes utterly heart-broken, world.
Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church and Editor-in-Chief of Whosoever, Rev. Paul M. Turner (he/him) grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He was called to Atlanta in 1994 to pastor All Saints MCC. Five years later he founded Gentle Spirit Christian Church. He lives in Decatur with his husband Bill, who he met in 1982 while living and working in Ohio and legally married in 2015.