A church is often called a sanctuary. A sanctuary is defined as a place of refuge and safety. This past Wednesday, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC was anything but a place of refuge and safety when a 21-year-old man, a self-described white supremacist and racist, entered their doors under the deceptive pretense of attending their Bible study. After an hour of sitting under the Biblical teaching of the minister, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and sharing in the collective spiritual acumens alongside Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson, the perpetrator drew his gun and opened fire on them. He reloaded his weapon and continued to shoot these victims until he ran out of bullets.
This horrific nature of this racially motivated shooting is compounded by the fact that it happened in a church – a house of worship – a place that is presumed to be a refuge, a place of safety, a gathering place for spiritual strengthening. Evil entered the doors of Emanuel AME Church last Wednesday. It could have happened anywhere, in any of our churches, synagogues and mosques. It has happened in too many churches, synagogues and mosques.
The shooter is believed to be “lone wolf”, acting on his own and not a part of an organized hate group. Whether he was a lone wolf or not, hatred – more specifically racial hatred – is still very much alive in our country and the world. And it is evil.
This raises for me two questions, “How do you recognize Evil when it enters your door?” and “What should you do when it does?” This young seemingly demure 21-year-old was really a wolf in sheep’s clothing. By his own admission, he hoped to start a race war by killing black people. There is much discussion in the media and among people about what signs were present, the failures to see them and what could have been done to prevent is tragedy. We have heard these discussions before.
Discussing the systemic issues this tragedy raises can overwhelm people and move them to hopelessness and inaction, but on a personal level, I believe people of faith and good will know there are many others like this perpetrator in our midst – “wolves”, who are not hiding in sheep’s clothing at all. We know who they are because we are subjected to their racial jokes at social gatherings and sometimes across our dinner tables; we read in disbelief their hatred and insults online in response to news articles and blogs; we hear their outrageous commentaries on television and radio programs and so on. They are the wolves in plain sight and they “howl” to attract the attention of others like themselves – their pack. Their voices are loud and dominate, full of hatred and violence. So what are we to do?
Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (I’ll add, people) to do nothing.” It is well that we remind ourselves that good people have voices, and we too must speak up (howl) at times like these. It is not an option for people of faith to be silent while evil works to triumph in our midst and on our watch. It is not an option to step aside at a time when we should step up.
Our faith compels us to step up and speak up when any form of oppression threatens our neighbor. This means the privileged and the under privileged; blacks, whites, browns and all shades of humanity in-between, collectively must say, “Not on my watch”. Raising our collective voices wherever we may be can work to encourage other people of faith, who have been too silent, too long – themselves perhaps feeling like lone wolves in the fight for justice and peace.
So together, let us stand up, step up and speak up against acts of racial hatred and violence. Join with other people of goodwill in working for justice and peace for all. And when evil enters your door, even if it looks like your family member or friend, business associate, or next-door neighbor, summon the faith and truth within you to say, “Not on my watch”. Let us work in concert to break down the walls that separate us, especially the wall of silence. Working together and doing our part, we can create places of safety for all. We are stronger together than we are apart.