Monday, June 22, 2015

Charleston: Forgiveness, Truth, Reconciliation, and Change

On the evening of June 17th at a Bible study group in Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in the United States, nine people were shot and killed.  It is important to know and say their names.  They were:  Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Vance, Daniel L. Simmons, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson.  They were gunned down by a 21 year old man obsessed by race and by hatred.  The names of the nine dead have been added to the roster of those sacrificed to racism and white supremacy in America.  And the community is once again asked to forgive.
Forgive whom?  Forgive what?
Once again, the Christian doctrine of forgiveness is invoked.  That doctrine, however, speaks of forgiving those who express sorrow for their actions and ask for forgiveness.  This expectation is related to, but different from the expectation that we love one another without exception, including those who have wronged us and not asked for forgiveness.  That is the situation with Dylan Roof.  That is the work of truth and reconciliation at the individual level.  And yet there is more to the tragedy in Charleston.
The shooter may have pulled the trigger nine times, but his actions were just the latest shock and awe manifestation of the racism that is endemic to this nation. The events of June 17th call forth memories of the bombing death of Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins and Denise a church in Birmingham, Alabama; the murder of 14 year old Emmet Till in Money, Mississippi; the murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, the deaths of….the list is too long for this writing.  Each of these deaths was a personal act with a victim and perpetrator and each was much more than that.  Each of those acts along with the ones that we continue to be witness in this ongoing American holocaust have at its root the toxic system of racism and white supremacy.  This system permeates our culture, our history, our politics, our economics—the fabric of our lives.  How does one forgive a system? How does one forgive the cultural manifestations of this disease that afflicts every community? How does one forgive the structures that support it?  One cannot.
When will that truth be acknowledged so that we can begin the work of reconciliation and move forward to change?