Like many of you, I woke up this morning to news of the terrible tragedy in Charleston. My heart is broken, and like many of you I am sending heavy-laden prayers to the families and the Charleston community. But I also spent time this morning with heavy-laden prayers for our country. I am frustrated, angry, impatient, deeply grieved, disgusted, and quite honestly, scared. The ghost of American racism, always haunting us, has been in the process of putting on skin, transforming from a whisper to a shout. Little by little, the wisps of racism, always circling through the airways of institutional structures, always threatening to entangle the feet of those who seek justice, always leaving lies in the minds of those who do nothing more sinister than simply leave space for it, have become bolder, stronger, and more violent.
I am terrified that we still do not seem to be listening. Worse, I am terrified (bordering on rage, and sometimes deep-soul screaming) that I continue to read and hear people respond as if what we are dealing with is an isolated event, a misunderstanding, an issue of manners.
I do not know how many “isolated instances” it will take before we admit to a pattern, and a shared underlying cause. A misunderstanding is what we call it when we meet someone at the wrong Starbucks, not the killing of a human person. And unless you believe we should begin shooting people for not saying “thank you” or “please” or “yes sir,” please, for the love of all things, stop attempting to justify the killing of a human person because of your own views about ETIQUETTE.
No. What we are dealing with is deadly, and corrosive, and it will spread to every healthy cell of this country like wildfire unless we take rapid, aggressive steps to eradicate it. What we are dealing with is a cancer.
And friends, we are not in stage one anymore. When six people are murdered inside the walls of a church by a young man who was welcomed into their prayer meeting, we are battling nothing short of a terminal cancer. There is no more time for “wait and see” or “let’s try this first” or “let’s do some research and come back in a month and see where we are.” It is time to act. It is time to have immediate surgery and cut this malignant growth out of our nation’s body.
So yes, let’s pray. Let’s pray like we do when loved ones are in grave danger, because that is the truth of the matter here. Let’s pray like we are facing down a terminal diagnosis, because that is where we are. But let’s not only pray. Let’s not only mourn. We have to change.
The first step to change is to admit that racism is a real and deadly problem, and that we are complicit in it. Every last one of us. No more excuses. To deny we play a part in this is as preposterous as one cell in the body saying it is impervious to cancer. We are living in a system that is sick, and we are all carrying the symptoms in one way or another. In 2013 The Atlantic reprinted the speech of Birmingham lawyer Charles Morgan, Jr., written the day after the Birmingham church bombings. It pains me to the core that it is as prescient now as it was then. He began,
“A mad, remorseful worried community asks, ‘Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?’ The answer should be, ‘We all did it.'”
We all did it. This is the hard truth of Christian responsibility. Because we seek justice, because we seek peace, because we seek the Reign of God in which we can appropriately claim Jesus as Lord, we have to be brutally, tirelessly honest with ourselves and about ourselves. We have to stare hard into that mirror and see the things we don’t want to see. We have to ask to be healed, even though we know it will be hard, and likely hurt like hell, and probably also get worse before it gets better. This is the ugly truth of transformation. I doubt Paul wanted those scales to fall from his eyes ever again, or that light to blind him on the road. I’m sure he was glad for the transformation, but not the process itself. Transformation is not immediate, or easy. But it is worth it. If we care at all about the health of our bodies and souls, it is also absolutely necessary, no matter the cost.
Racism is killing us. That is not merely a metaphorical truth. It is also a literal one.
When are we going to do something about it?