Charleston Murders Call for Deep Change in the Hearts of Christians

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As we mourn the Charleston murders, as we forgive, and as we seek justice, let’s be honest with ourselves. In light of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church, we must recognize our culture’s ongoing failure. Let us keep shining the light on the deep racism that is too easily hidden by manners and passive aggression.

America has a problem with racism. American churches have a problem with racism.

Deep problems like racism call for deep change. In his book by the same name, Robert Quinn writes, “Deep change means surrendering control … This is usually a terrifying choice, often involving a ‘dark night of the soul.’ It is therefore natural for each of us to deny that there is any need for deep change.”

Deep Change Requires Risk and Fearless Honesty

Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was not afraid of deep change. After yellow fever swept through Philadelphia in 1793, he gathered people from his congregation and ministered to the dead and dying who had been abandoned in their homes. He and members of his church entered boarded up homes without fear for their own safety. In fact, Allen contracted yellow fever himself but did not die. Later he wrote, “The Lord was pleased to strengthen us and remove all fear from us, and disposed our hearts to be as useful as possible.”

Readers, can we say that prayer again together? Talking honestly about racism in our country requires us to set our fear aside. We will need to enter the boarded up conversations and address taboo subjects.

Some of us are in denial that racism is still a problem in our country. Others are quick to polarize race issues into “us” vs. “them.” Many minimize the real cultural differences that may exist between people of different races. A few people openly accept the value of other cultures. And fewer people can adapt their own behavior to engage with cultures different from their own.

Honestly, too many of us slide up and down the intercultural continuum—shifting between denial, polarization, minimization, acceptance, and adaptation—more often than we would like to admit.

We don’t want to confess any failings in these areas because we can’t handle the implication: racism may be simmering in our own hearts.

We believe all racists are extreme characters burning crosses and wearing white hoods. No one I know cares to empathize with the Ku Klux Klan or identify with them in anyway. So we minimize our own racism, dismiss it as something less than the sins of past eras, and so avoid acknowledging our own sins.

Racist Thoughts and Words Are Murder in the Heart

Recently, I was talking with a college student who worked in his school’s library. He joked about the “Mexican study hour” every Thursday night when a large group of Hispanic students came to the library to study together.

I was horrified. “I’ll bet the white students have study hours with their friends too,” I said. “You just don’t notice when they show up together because they look like you.”

I hope the college student understood the implications of my words—that he was being racially prejudiced toward the Hispanic students at his school.

The student’s bad racist joke may seem like a far cry from race-motivated murder. But the jokes we tell and the language we use to label others reveal something important about the state of our hearts.

Jesus himself said it even more strongly. In his sermon on the mount, Christ extrapolates from anger to murder and ultimately connects hateful language and divine judgment: “If you curse someone,” he warns, “you are in danger of the fires of hell.”

Jesus isn’t messing around about the words his children say.

John’s first epistle repeats the warning: “Anyone who hates another brother or sister is really a murderer at heart.”

Make no mistake. This is a hard statement. In today’s context this drives home the seriousness of hate speech, hate crimes, and racist language. If you hate your brother or sister because of their race—through your language, your symbols, or your jokes—in your heart you are no better than someone who murders a brother or sister because of their race.

Racism is a demon in the world, and we cannot afford to give it so much as a breadcrumb to sustain itself. Tolerating racist jokes in person tacitly supports those who tell such hateful jokes themselves.

We Need to Talk Openly About Racism in America

When I first read about Charleston, I was tempted to distance myself from it. Culturally, Charleston is different from Kerrville, Texas, where I live. Culturally, Emanuel AME Church is different from my church, First Presbyterian.

When the team here at The High Calling talked about this article, I told them I couldn’t do it. “Don’t make me write it,” I said. As a white dude in small town Texas, I did not feel I could accept any authority in this conversation.

Instead, I found people who were different from me and told them I loved them. It was a nice gesture, but it dodged the real issue.

Part of me still wants to avoid a frank and honest conversation about the real issue. I would rather just sit in the same room with people who are feeling this tragedy the most. This feels like a time not to say much. Job’s friends, at their best, sat with him in silence. I would like to sit with my friends in silence.

But my silence minimizes the problem of racism in our culture.

“Sometimes,” explains Robert Quinn, “we need to develop new theories about ourselves and our surrounding environment. When this need emerges, we try to deny and resist it.”

No more. It is time to enter the boarded up conversations. Empathy requires we mourn with our brothers and sisters, and be ready to listen to them with open hearts. Empathy requires we refute racist jokes and racist language whenever we hear them—no matter what race they target.

Confronting our friends about racism is no small matter. It is a serious accusation that needs to be delivered clearly, carefully, and sensitively if we hope for it to be received. Peter suggests we prepare an answer in advance for those who ask us about the gospel, and his advice is no less important for us in reforming the way we talk about each other. Prepare an answer in advance for the time when you will hear someone tell a joke or use racist language. What will you say? How will you love another even as you hold them accountable to keep their own language more loving?

I don’t know, but I can have the faith of Richard Allen. By God’s grace may He be pleased to strengthen us and remove all fear from us and dispose our words to be as useful as possible.