Calvary in Charleston: How forgiveness overcame guns, flags and hate

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

The name Emanuel means “God is with us”. And as if one needed any more evidence that God is with the grieving survivors of Dylann Roof’s rampage at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the tear-stained forgiveness exhibited by the families of the victims at Roof’s bond hearing is just that, to a factor of seventy times seven.

“I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you,” Nadine Collier, a daughter of Ethel Lance, one of Dylann Roof’s victims, said to him at the hearing. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

Right now the people of Emanuel A.M.E. are so mighty, and by comparison the rest of us are just so small.

We are small because we won’t stand up to the disingenuousness of every self-styled protector of the Confederate flag everywhere. We are small because we won’t stand up to the misinterpreters of the Second Amendment. We are small because we will spend trillions of dollars and destabilize sovereign nations in the name of a “war on terror”, but we won’t fight with a fraction of the same intensity against the domestic terror of homegrown hate.

We are small because we don’t make a sincere effort to drown our petty prejudices in love, or at least understanding — or at the very least, tolerance. We are small because we forget that we have not been commanded by God to like one another — rather, we’ve been commanded to love one another. There’s a big difference there. Think about it. Pray about it.

No child is born hating. Hate is taught, hate is learned. Hate is what happens when people like Dylann Roof shine our everyday prejudices through the magnifying glass of a cold heart, of a twisted mind. South Carolina is awash in what comedian Jon Stewart rightly called “racist wallpaper” — things like roadways named for Confederate figures, or a Confederate flag waving on the state Capitol lawn that mechanically can’t fly at anything but full height unless it’s taken down.

So clearly, it’s time to take it down.

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” (MLK)

It’s time to take down our anti-feminism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, fat-shaming, mean-girling and social-media trolling.

It’s also time to take down the weapons-industrial complex whose gun lobby waves a gross misinterpretation of the Second Amendment around every mealy-mouthed legislator whose brain they can possibly paralyze with gobs of cash and an irrational fear of political ruin.

In my own church we were forced to adopt a firearms policy a year ago because the state Legislature voted to expand the list of places where people may carry guns to include churches, schools, bars, and some government buildings.

So perhaps you can understand even more of my sadness and anger right now, because we as a people stick our heads in the sand and pass idiotic legislation like this, and we act as though we don’t understand the kind of culture we’re creating.

But I understand it completely: It’s a culture that says guns belong everywhere, that there are no safe spaces, that guns should be readily accessible and ubiquitous. The result being that we live in a nation where gun violence is equally ubiquitous.

“The choice is not between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.” (MLK)

Thanks to my own experience with law enforcement (the old-school serve-and-protect type, that is), I can assure you there’s one thing that gun ownership absolutely guarantees: Gun use. It’s human nature: If you have something, you’ll use it. Watch how people behave with their smartphones; it’s the same thing. So it’s understandable that we should find ourselves deeply uncomfortable when a man saunters around the world’s busiest airport with an AR-15 assault rifle fully loaded with a 100-round drum strapped across his chest.

This is not okay. It’s not okay. It’s just not.

So can you understand how for me, all of this has been like watching a train wreck happen in excruciating slow motion? It’s almost mathematical how we’ve built up to this day. I used to think it was sad, but now it’s officially tragic. We are now living with tragic stupidity — what the Rev. Jeremiah Wright called being “stuck on stupid”.

Jesus forgave his executioners because he knew that without his forgiveness, there could be no resurrection. The people of Emanuel A.M.E., with whom God is clearly very much present, have paved the way for our own resurrection — indeed, our rescue — from a horribly broken culture and into a way of being that paves the way for love over hate.

But we have to accept the challenge. We have to let God in, all the way in. If we let love rule our hearts, really rule them, we have a shot at living in a much better kind of world. And if we’re doing it right, we should feel heaven at hand. Because the alternative, right now, feels to me an awful lot like hell.

God Bless.

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