Words fail me as I contemplate the news of the tragic shooting of 9 black men and women at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
It has been many years since I have been to Charleston — many more since I have have lived there. Yet in some sense I still claim it as a “home”, insofar as I have any “hometown” other than Toronto these days. I hurt to think of the pain and the grief sweeping over that city this morning in light of this senseless act of violence.
At the same time, I must admit much of that grief is not mine to share. It is the grief of the black community in Charleston — indeed, the black community across the United States — seeing yet one more example of the violence enacted against their lives and their bodies. In a statement reprinted in the New York Times, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said, “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” The truth is … we do know what motivated this man, especially when he is quoted as declaring to his victims: “You rape our women. You’re taking over our country. You have to go.” Even without his own condemning words, we know what motivated this white man to enter one of the most historically prominent black churches in South Carolina and take nine lives. We do nothing less than perpetuate the ongoing violence against black Americans if we refuse to see and name this racist act for what it is.
For a white Christian such as myself, that means taking a long hard look at at the incredibly self-segregated North Charleston high school I attended, where every lunch period the cafeteria divided neatly along racial lines. It means taking a long hard look at all the honours and AP classes I was able to take — and realizing there were very few non-white faces present in them. It means recognizing that there are so many subtle, hardly perceptible ways the culture around me shapes the idea that non-white persons are of less value than my white person. That is not ok. And we need to name it.
The Gospel of Mark (5:1-17) records a story of Jesus casting out a host of demons, sending them into a herd of pigs. Before he does so, he asks the demon its name, and it is only then that he eradicates their presence from the man they possessed. Names are important. Labels are important. Knowing the sins of this world is important if we are to confront them in the name of the Gospel.
As a white Christian — particularly a white person of some socio-economic privilege — it is not just my responsibility but my duty to name and condemn the systemic racism that continues to perpetuate violence against black and brown individuals. And to acknowledge that I have benefitted from such systemic racism. It’s not about feeling guilty as a white person. It’s not about trying to make apologies on behalf of my race. But it is about looking with open and honest eyes at the reality of racial dynamics and white supremacy that mark our world.
Even more importantly, it is imperative that white Christians stand up and join our brothers and sister is affirming that #BlackLivesMatter. Because the fact is there are far too many people in this world who still fail to grasp that fundamental truth. And we are called to recognize that while there is a time for peace and reconciliation, there is also a time for lamentation and for anger from those communities who have faced a history of oppression.
I am mindful that I make these observations as we come to the end of the #22Days between the Aboriginal Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Aboriginal Day of Prayer here in Canada. Let us be mindful of the over 1,000 indigenous women missing or murdered just in my lifetime. And the thousands of aboriginal children cast into unmarked graves as a result of the residential school system.
I am mindful as well that just today Toronto Major John Tory to postpone his pledge to end the practice of “carding”–which disproportionately impacts non-white men–and remove all records collected from the police database. As we condemn the mounting instances of violence against black lives happening to our south, we must also be willing to name the systemic oppression that exists in our own communities. We are none of us immune.
Naming these systems of oppression for what they are is certainly not the end of story for combating racism. But it is a necessary first step, without which we can never hope to see the justice of God’s Heavenly Kingdom reflected here on earth.
How long, O Lord … How long …