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Reflections On the Charleston Church Shootings — an ON Scripture Feature

After the June 17, 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, several of our ON Scripture writers took a few moments to reflect upon what they would preach about the incident. To continue the conversation, join us on Twitter at #ONScripture.

Rev. Eric D. Barreto, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary: St Paul, MN

The call to preach is daunting in weeks like these. What can you say to help guide people in the maelstrom of grief and even hopelessness? How can God speak through the preacher to communities largely unfazed by these events? Like Ferguson and Baltimore and too many other events over the last year, these national tragedies open deep scars for some of us while merely, slightly troubling others. Preaching can help fill that gap by giving voice to the agony some of us feel in our bones while drawing the rest of us to be witnesses of that anguish and prophets of God’s justice.

Perhaps this is where I would start a sermon this Sunday. Charleston is not about the perpetrator, whom I will not name. The shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church are about us, about this culture, about the theologies we embody and practice. Why are we enthralled by violence? Why does our daily existence depend on racist structures that are evident to the marginalized but invisible to the powerful? How is it that so many of us engage in the relentless denial of both these realities? Perhaps most importantly: why do so many of us practice a willful ignorance of the pain of our black sisters and brothers? 

My exhortation would be to listen carefully today and tomorrow and the next day. Listen and don’t seek to provide pat answers about the grief and rage and weariness that is engulfing so many of us. The easy political answer is a cheap insult. The easy ideological answer is vapid theory. The easy theological answer is destructive and an affront to “the Lord [who] is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9).

Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, Ph.D.

Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church: New York, NY

Creating The World We Want

Monday night , as a straight Black ally, I attended a United4Marriage equality rally in Times Square anticipating the Supreme Court hearings Tuesday. Before I spoke, a religious leader hissed, "Read your Bible!" I said, "I read my Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and in English!"

Why is that the question?

While the list of dead bodies — black and brown female, male, trans and gay bodies — lie dead in our streets; while Baltimore burns in the fires where racism, desperation and violence converge; while we wonder if SCOTUS will scuttle gay marriage, the burning question for me is "What are people of faith going to do about it?"

Are we to be paralyzed by these things? Or are we, as my Bible says, "able to do more than we can ask or imagine through the power at work within us" and create the world we want?

My favorite text in scripture is:

God is love, and those who live in God live in love and love lives in them (1 John 4:16).

Love is the power with which we can do more than we can even imagine.I am counting on people of faith to put Love-In-Action. Do something, do one thing today, to right a wrong, to communicate a kindness, to create the world we want. A just world. A world in which Black Lives Matter. A world in which gay love is sacred. A world in which every life is precious.

Recently my Muslim sister, Linda Sarsour, organized and marched with the New York Justice League from New York City to Washington D.C. to protest police brutality. Love and a vision for a just society put her faith in the line and her feet on the ground.

What can you do? What will you do?

If we each do something because love abides in us, we can create the world we want. We can create The Beloved Community, right here on earth, as it is in heaven.

Rev. Greg Carey, Ph.D.

Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary: Lancaster, PA

As we struggle to understand the horrific mass murder in Charleston, one temptation is too focus on the individual shooter. We individualize him and try to assign him a pathology. What was wrong with HIM that led him to sit in Bible study and prayer with people, then voice horrific charges against them, and finally to take the lives of nine of those same people who had welcomed him?

Instead of individualizing the shooter, I think of the demon-possessed man in Mark 5:1-20. His problems seemed his own. When Jesus demanded a name, however, the demons named a social and political plague: "Legion." Roman domination.

Charleston's murderer acted alone, but he is possessed by our national demon: racism. If we don't call its name, we will never find freedom.

A vigil was held for the victims of the Charleston Shooting in Union Square, NYC.

Rev. Matthew L. Skinner, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary: St Paul, MN

The slaughter of nine saints in Charleston’s Emanuel Church doesn’t allow us to preach answers or sensible explanations. There are none. Psalm 130, whose prayer arises “out of the depths” of chaos and destruction, simply assumes that God hears and that overwhelming despair won’t render our sobbing prayers inaudible. The psalm encourages us to wait on God with hope, and not to lower our expectations, because God is a lover and a redeemer. 

Make no mistake: we are in the depths. We are stuck there. Shackled to the bedrock by hate. For this is hardly the first time that a murderer chose a so-called sanctuary as the setting for terror. Ask those who knew the four young girls killed and others maimed by white supremacy in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Ask those who witnessed Óscar Romero killed at the altar by assassins from his own government. The forces of hate make their point clearly: we are never safe from evil and violence.

I need to remember that Christian hospitality can have lethal consequences when hate comes to visit. I need to remember, even as I lament. As a white man, I need to listen to my neighbors describe living in this lack of security, because some neighbors have been singled out as special targets. Racism fuels the violence, even as it makes others casually dismiss its severity.

And so the worship service I would design, the worship service I need to attend, has to have one additional movement beyond the cries of Psalm 130. It needs to show me that these depths engulfing us are not just about the bad things that happen to me and to my neighbor. Society’s chaos draws increased energy from the faulty presumptions that enable and excuse the world’s evils. When the prophet speaks in Jeremiah 7:1-11, he warns those in Jerusalem against falsely presuming that the presence of “the temple of the LORD” guarantees their safety from the Babylonian army. They neglect their vocation to pursue God’s justice because their sense of privilege has made them comfortable, self-satisfied, and oblivious to the plights of others.

Not only were the privileged people of ancient Jerusalem also in an unsafe place, Jeremiah says they helped make it so. When we hear God calling them to repent and amend their ways, will we listen? What will I do? Therein lies not the answer to Charleston but a small step forward in faith.

Lynn R. Huber, Ph.D.

Associate Professor & Chair of Religious Studies, Elon University: Elon, NC

Revelation 6:9-11

In the Book of Revelation, John offers his audience a vision of the universe from God’s perspective. Lifted into the heavenly throne-room, John reports out to his audience all the things he sees, both in heaven and on earth. In a scene that eerily anticipates the recent violence done against God’s faithful in Charleston, John describes a group of souls who have been slaughtered on account of their witness calling out from under the altar for God’s justice (6:9-11). Although God eventually brings an end to the oppression of the faithful according to Revelation, at this moment God’s response is somewhat brusque. Rather than responding to the request for justice, each of the souls is given a white robe and told to “rest a little longer.” While this may be read as an image of God’s care for those who have been victimized, reading the text in light of the racial basis and hate that fueled the violence in Charleston, along with the violence against men and women of color throughout history, is frustrating. Perhaps the divine’s response to the souls is due to the fact that they have suffered enough. Perhaps, this should be the cue for the faithful who are not the victims of violence, those who have some privilege, to answer the call for justice. Whether or not this was John’s intention, this is my hope—that those of who move easily in the world because of race will respond hastily and decidedly to the cries of those under the altar.

Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School: Fort Worth, TX

After Charleston

What one preaches in the aftermath of the Charleston murders will necessarily vary by context. While some of our churches are (lightly) integrated, by and large our churches are still segregated in principle and by culture. We don’t all need to hear the same message this Sunday. We are not all in the same space. To a black congregation I might preach Isaiah 41:10:

Do not fear, for I am with you,

do not be afraid, for I am your God;

I will strengthen you, I will help you,

I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

A little girl told her pastor-father that she didn’t want him to go to work at the church. She was afraid he might be killed. Her fear is not unreasonable. The systematic murder of African American Christians at bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is not an isolated incident. The world is not a safe place. It is particularly unsafe for black folk in the United States. We are being slaughtered in the streets, in our homes in our churches and even in our own beds by our own police officers and fellow citizens. People are afraid. Children are afraid. Adults are afraid. We cannot tell them that they will be safe at work, in school, at home or even in church. Some of us have known this for a while; some are just coming to terms with it. What we can say is that if we live or die God is with us.

To a white congregation I might preach Amos 9:7:

Are you not like the Ethiopians (Nubians) to me,

O people of Israel?

Says the Holy One.

Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,

and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?

Racism is the original sin of the United States, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (where Native Americans are called “savage”), the intentional silence on and therefore endorsement of slavery in the Constitution and the valuation of black bodies as 3/5 person. Likewise the history of American Christianity is also soiled with slave-holding denominations, churches, pastors and Christians in every denomination, including those that subsequently changed their position. It is clear that black folk are not perceived as fundamentally equally human, equally children of God in how we are treated in this society and that includes in Christian spaces. 

In a biblical text in which the rhetoric of chosenness often dominates the way biblical Israel is framed, God tells them through the rhetoric of the prophet Amos that they are the same as the Africans who live in what we now know as Sudan. The Israelites weren’t even the only people God delivered through an Exodus. No one people is the center of God’s heart.

And though it may not be well heard from me and would be better heard from a white preacher, I would call the church to repentance for the ongoing sin of racism and acknowledgment of the many ways in which they benefit from it. 

Rev. Dirk G. Lange, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Worship, Luther Seminary: St. Paul, MN

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

The motive is hate. But let’s name it. This hate is not just that of one white man but one nurtured by countless “innocent” stories about a nation’s history, of open frontiers, of “chosen-ness,” of upward mobility. Myths are held deeply, creating identity, excluding identities. White people cling to these myths and when they don’t materialize, white rage finds causes and scape-goats. 

In an article in the Washington Post, Carol Jackson shows how white rage continually reasserts white supremacy through respectable, legal means (today for example through voter-suppression legislation). Racism is perpetuated by national myths that begin history from a white perspective. Now white rage has manifested itself blatantly.

Emanuel AME Church testifies to a counter-narrative. “Mother Emanuel” testifies to the Spirit working its own history of justice, of peace, of reconciliation for American people who have been ostracized, marginalized, treated as imposters who have no place in a mythical America. 

Scripture however attests to God’s work always from the outside, with those excluded from the story. Surprisingly, in God’s grammar, those who don’t fit, those considered imposters are those who show everyone else the way. With “truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness” Mother Emanuel, its pastors and its people, its prayer and its action, has shaped a vision of God’s righteousness that has space for all. But that openness is despised and rejected.

“There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.” And then a plea to a nation, to its history and its myths: “open wide your hearts also.”

Rev. Christopher W. Skinner, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Religion University of Mount Olive: Mount Olive, North Carolina

When I first heard about the Charleston massacre I was enraged. My rage soon gave way to grief, which gave way to a spirit of hopelessness. If I’m being completely honest, that hopelessness is sitting here with me as I write. As I thought about what I might say in the pulpit this Sunday, how I might address this evil and speak its name, I actually stood in my kitchen and wept. I asked the question that bedevils us all in the face of evil—WHY GOD? We search the Scriptures intently for an answer to the problem of evil but that answer eludes us. Nevertheless, the impulse to ask “why” remains. Habakkuk felt this impulse. He recognized that those living in the Promised Land were supposed to reflect the goodness of God; their lives were to be characterized by justice, mercy, humility, and love for one another. But instead, unfettered violence was the norm and God’s intervention was nowhere to be seen. So, in his first complaint (1:2-4) Habakkuk cries out for relief. He openly longs for a perspective that will help him understand why God seems so far and he implicitly cries out for justice. When we look at the problems of gun violence and racial hatred in our country, we could repeat Habakkuk’s complaint verbatim. I want to resist the urge to provide a message of comfort this week. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. This is a time for lament, so let us also cry out with the prophet:

2 How long, O Lord, must I cry for help

    and you do not listen?

Or cry out to you, “Violence!”

    and you do not intervene?

3 Why do you let me see iniquity?

    why do you simply gaze at evil?

Destruction and violence are before me;

    there is strife and discord.

4 This is why the law is numb

    and justice never comes,

For the wicked surround the just;

    this is why justice comes forth perverted.

Rev. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Ph.D. 

Director of Theological Field Education, Chicago Theological Seminary: Chicago, IL

We Are Not Ashamed - Romans 1:16

As a New Testament scholar, I am intrigued that much of its literature is an epistle or let’s say, a letter. An individual writes to a community in response to some issue or crisis i.e. Paul to the church at Thessalonica. On occasion a person pens a letter to an individual i.e. Paul to Philemon. This epistolary exchange between individuals and community, community and individuals is pervasive. 

In this light, hear this response to 6-17-2015 in Charleston, South Carolina:

Dear Young Man,

No need to call your name. You know who you are and why you did this. Yet, allow us, the Emanuel Nine to say, “Thank You.” We dare not say God orchestrated any of this vile. Yet, from our home on high, we say “Thank you.” “Thank you”--because of your heinous, hateful crime millions will now know the legacy of Denmark Vesey. His revolutionary blood still runs in our church veins. “Thank you”--because what a bullet tried to silence now speaks forever on a national stage. People will never forget that lack of gun control killed yet another group of innocent people. “Thank you”--because the world must not forget that African Americans are still  in peril---at the pool, playing on the playground or praying to our Creator. We are not safe, period. “Thank you”--because you did for us in our death what could not have been done in life. This nation will be reminded that faith is a dangerous exercise. Nevertheless, we are not afraid. More so, we are not ashamed of the gospel. We are not ashamed in life. We are not ashamed in death. “We are not ashamed...for we have everlasting life.”

In Life Everlasting,

The Martyred at Emanuel

Rev. Karoline Lewis, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching and The Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Homiletics at Luther Seminary: St Paul, MN

There are many horrors of the shooting in Charleston. We can name them all – every single one of them. But the one that presses in upon me most in light of the story of the sea crossing in Mark’s gospel lesson for this Sunday (Mark 4:35-41) is the horror of sanctuary lost. The primal human need for security and safety experiences few, if any, certain places anymore. Nowhere is safe - not a boat, not a school, not a church.  Even the places where God is supposed to be. Even the spaces where God is actually with us. 

It seems the disciples are quite aware of this truth. They knew the boat was in peril of capsizing. They knew the boat was not secure enough to carry them safely to the other side. They knew that in the face of a squall such as this their modest sea voyaging vessel could be overturned. Which is why they call out to Jesus. They called out. They called out. Because they knew they could.

Perhaps that's all we can do. Call out. Even in the places we thought could be safe. Even in the spaces we thought we were safe. We call out. Why? Because in the end we know we are not alone. Not ever. The truth of Charleston is that evil finds its way in, no matter what. But our truth is that God found God’s way out. God ripped apart the heavens. God slashed to shreds the temple curtain. Why? So that even those places and spaces we assumed were safe would actually be – a security known only because of the promise of God’s presence.

Lisa W. Davison, Ph.D.

Johnnie Eargle Cadieux Professor of Hebrew Bible, Phillips Theological Seminary: Tulsa, OK

The story of Rizpah (2 Sam 21:1-14) is a powerful scene within the metanarrative of David’s reign in Israel.  Her 2 sons were impaled by the Gibeonites as a repayment for something their father (King Saul) had done, and their bodies left out in the elements, because of the David’s refusal to give them a proper burial.  In the face of obscene violence and complete lack of concern for human life, Rizpah is moved to action.  As the childless concubine of the former king, she had neither access to King David nor authority to stop the executions and desecration of the bodies.  Rizpah decided to protest the injustice through actions.  For five months, she protected the dead bodies from animal attacks.  She was a witness to the violence and a reminder that such actions were not what the Holy required. 

Some of us may feel grief-stricken and unable to decide how to respond to the shootings in Charleston, SC.  For many, being a voice of protest comes naturally, but others have no words or feel unqualified to speak at this point.  How can we be in solidarity with our neighbors and honor the pain of the victims of this violence motivated by racism – by hate?  How can we be reminders that things do not have to be as they are?  We yearn to do something, but what that might be is beyond our imaginings.  Rizpah provides an unforgettable image of what can be done when one feels powerless to act.    

Rev. Karyn L. Wiseman, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Homiletics and Director of United Methodist Studies at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia: Philadelphia, PA

Mark 4: 35-41

I am using the lectionary this weekend so I am preaching the story of Jesus calming the storm. And we are definitely living in the midst of a storm at this moment. The mass shooting at “Mother Emmanuel” in Charleston is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. However, it is not the fist act of violence to hit American houses of worship. There have been at least 6 such shooting incidents in just the past seven years. They are all part of a storm of violence and hate that has permeated our society - and the church has not been left unscathed.

In the lectionary text for this week, Jesus is sleeping in the back of a boat while the storm rages. When his disciples fear for their lives, he is awakened and he calms the storm. At times like this we pray for a calming of the storms around us. We pray for Jesus to raise his hands and end the racist and violent acts that are occurring all too regularly in our society.

Jesus shows his divine power by calming the storm. His power to calm the storms in our own lives is vividly paralleled. 

We are appalled by this act of hatred. But we are also called to act to end gun violence in our society. We are called to stop the prevalence of racist acts that this is likely part of. We are called to trust Jesus in the midst of these storms.

When so much feels out of our control and feels like a raging storm, this is the time to awaken our trust in Jesus to calm the storms. But we also have to work for justice and an end to these senseless and tragic storms.

Charleston Mass Killing Reflections

Billy Michael Honor/ Pulse Church

Being Black in America is exhausting.  Constantly having to navigate the perils of the color line and having to live within a system that repeatedly reminds you of your contested existence is beyond burdensome.  And if this reality weren’t enough, imagine being a black preacher with the dual responsibility of having to speak life to hurting people while you too wrestle with finding meaning in the midst of social misery.

Far too often this has been my dilemma as a preacher of African descent in the United States of America.  Yet, in the wake of the racist terroristic mass killing at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, I find myself in this undesirable sermonic position once again.

This time the message is clear and simple.  It’s time to watch and pray.  In the gospel as Luke records it, chapter 21 verse 36, Jesus admonishes his followers to “be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen…”  

Given the reality that black life seems to be under attack in this country and the powers that be appear to be unable or unwilling to do much about it, we are left with few options other than to seek God, be on guard and find ways to protect ourselves.  As Jesus says, in times of peril and persecution “be on watch.”  In other words, find ways to protect yourself and pray that your vigilance will be able to keep you from the works of evil.  

This is my message to the people and the words of comfort I speak to my own soul.                  

John Arthur Nunes, Ph.D.

Emil and Elfriede Jochum Chair, Valparaiso University: Valparaiso, IN

Peace in Terroristic Times

Mark 4:35-41

When terror strikes, it overwhelms, even devastates us. Especially when our commitment to God’s work seemingly offers no insulation. These Jesus-followers were doing God’s business, obeying the command to cross over to “the other side,” to be with others unlike them; then, without warning, a vicious storm breaks out. Some storms are natural; others are humanly manufactured, like the wickedness we witnessed in Charleston this week.

Where is Jesus? Asleep in the back of the boat? Once awakened he challenges the disciples, “Why are you afraid?” I hear him saying: “Don’t let any terror take away your faith, your commitment to go over to the other side.” 

Jesus speaks commandingly, directly to the storm: “Peace! Be still!” Peace is never passive, never merely an absence of conflict. It is the presence of the Spirit who charges us, despite storms: “Pursue peace with everyone!” (Hebrews 12:14). The Greek verb here means to aggressively go after something deeply cherished.

Humans must practice a peace that’s more than a status quo calm. God’s peace speaks into the epicenter of the old habits, old hatreds, and old fears that eat our best intentions for lunch; including the old racism re-building the dividing walls that Jesus demolished with his death and resurrection.

Once they saw what only Jesus could do, they feared with a new fear. Not horror, not terror, not trepidation, but an eye-opening awareness of God’s utter awesomeness. God’s miracle-working, storm-calming, fear-dispelling, peace-telling, humble-walking, terror-routing, hater-outing, mercy-loving, cross-bearing, salvation-securing, Spirit-giving, love-living, sinner-forgiving, saint-motivating for justice-doing, Jesus.

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