Some things are beyond my ability to get my mind around. They’re just too horrible, too egregious, too unbearable to absorb. My first knowledge that something horrific had happened in Charleston, SC, came from my son-in-law’s Facebook post: “God be with the devastated people of Charleston. Kyrie eleison.” To be honest, I wondered if I had missed the news of an approaching hurricane or maybe there had been some kind of building collapse or terrible traffic accident.
The story was much more ghastly. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, had gunned down nine African-American worshippers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church. The prayer meeting attendees had welcomed Roof into their circle and treated him with kindness, and he still fulfilled his intention by methodically shooting them one by one. Unfathomable! The troubled loner, described as being adrift, had reportedly been radicalized by online hate groups.
It feels better somehow if this shooter had been mentally ill like the men at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Aurora Theater. Obviously, the result for the victims’ families is still devastating, but being prompted by a broken brain is a bit more understandable than acting in pure hate. When an action is so unbelievable, it helps a bit to find some reason behind it. Maybe individuals and society can learn to better identify and help those who are mentally and emotionally disturbed, or at least to better protect others from their out-of-my-mind actions. Dylann Roof’s unmitigated act of terrorism is simply beyond belief.
How do I deal with sheer, unadulterated evil? With the corruption fueled by “bad part of the Internet” as Roof’s relative described it? These questions reflect the collision of the eternal tension between good and evil with the availability of modern technology that fuels evil, along with the cultural systems that tolerate it.
Evil can be present in more benign ways than executing a bloodbath in an unsuspecting church. I am ashamed to identify the inferred racism of my upbringing and my privileged culture. Why is it that people with dark skin are typically first identified as “black” regardless of the context, while people with white skin are almost never described by their color? How did I miss the implied racism in off-hand comments about a black person who had achieved some accomplishment or acquired something expensive, as if that was somehow surprising? Why does a portion of the culture, including the one in which I was raised, embrace the so-called historical significance of the Confederate flag and ignore the unspeakable atrocities that were inherent in that way of life?
I have been especially oblivious to the white privilege I enjoy. It simply never occurred to me that my white skin was my perception of normal, much less that my skin color provided me invisible advantages. I will never forget the first time I was aware of my oblivion about being part of a majority culture. Years ago I was invited to speak at a women’s conference at a large African-American church, and when I stepped up to the podium and faced the audience, I was shocked to realize mine was the only white face among hundreds in the room. Suddenly I had an unexpected picture of what many black people experience on a daily basis.
I recognize this topic may seem out of place among my typical messages about recovery and healthy living, yet I think it hits at the core of the message of transformation from slavery into freedom. None of us can change the fundamental aspects of our being or experience: the color of our skin, the tragedies that have been inflicted upon us that are outside our control, the pervasive evil in the world or the culture that too often ignores these issues. What we can change is our attitude about these matters, our intentional engagement with them, and the way we respond when we are personally affected.
How did the worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church respond to the realities of their skin color and the culture of an (at best) unrecognized assertion of white privilege? They welcomed an unusual stranger into their group, they interacted with him kindly and respectfully, and they desperately tried to reason with his hatred and protect each other from his bullets.
What is more unbelievable is how these victims’ families are responding to this atrocity. In the face of unspeakable shock and overwhelming grief, they offer forgiveness to a hate-filled bigot. They speak of God’s unfaltering love for him despite his despicable actions. They affirm their belief that God forgives his massacre and they pledge to make the conscious choice to do the same.
They are living out God’s redemptive truth that love wins!
I am tempted and honestly inclined to believe there is nothing I can do to positively influence the racial problems in America. As Peggy McIntosh explains in her late 1980s essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” If white readers are willing to expose your unacknowledged assumptions and ignorance, engage your open mind and read McIntosh’s list of 50 ways a person’s race impacts his or her everyday experiences in the U.S. http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html
As a white person of privilege, I truly cannot put myself in the shoes of someone who still suffers from the history of racial hatred in our country and its continued systemic propagation. I can relate much less to someone who is the victim of overt acts of racially motivated violence, whether it is at the hands of a zealous bigot or a police officer bearing sanctioned power. Without a doubt I cannot picture myself reacting with broken-hearted, but clear forgiveness for someone who has committed such a heinous act against me. I confess I am much more of a fighter than a forgiver.
What does it mean to take winning actions of love in relation to intractable problems? Whatever your skin color, ask God to reveal your ignorance, prejudices, resentment and desire to respond to hatred with hatred. Add your respectful, humble, inquisitive voice to the conversation about the real racial tensions in America. Seek to understand others’ experiences and perspective. Join people across the nation who are intentionally gathering across racial, ethnic and religious divisions to pray and worship in unity. Be convicted by the example of the worshipers at a church in Charleston.
In the human realm, love wins one attitude, one action, one voice at a time.
Marnie C. Ferree