Who are we?

June 18, 2015

As I awoke this morning I learned about the shooting that killed 9 people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC last night. Although there are many other things on my to-do list for the day, I couldn’t get my mind off this tragic event. As I sat with Facebook in front of me, I posted these words:

Surreace Cox, of North Charleston, S.C., holds a sign during a prayer vigil down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015, following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

AP Photo/David Goldman

There are so many things about the shootings in Charleston last night that are troubling, infuriating, heartbreaking…demoralizing. This kind of hate is learned behavior, which means someone, many I’m afraid, are still teaching it. It’s a perpetuation of learned ignorance that is reprehensible! There are many who don’t want to talk about these types of issues.


AP Photo/David Goldman

There are many who don’t want to talk about these types of issues. They see these acts of violence as isolated incidents that don’t reflect the broader reality. They want to hold onto the belief that “we have come so far.” But, to look at this incident and not see how far yet we still have to go, is to walk around in denial. Hate breeds hate; fear breeds fear… and it’s not what we are called to as having been made in God’s image.

Today we pray and mourn, but, if tomorrow we do not act, then who are we?


Shortly after posting this, I turned on the news and learned that they had caught the suspect: Dylann Storm Roof, a 21 year old white man. Dylann-Roof-351x254Twenty-one – a time in life when one’s convictions are untouchable and impulse control is weak. Yet, it seems there may have been points along the way when these convictions could have been assuaged.

One online article said that according to a high school classmate, Roof didn’t “make a habit of spouting racist messages.”

“I never heard him say anything, but just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs,” he said. “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.”

But now, “the things he said were kind of not joking,” Mullins added (1)

dylann18-facebookjpg.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxSo I wonder if instead of just shrugging off racial jokes, someone in Dylann’s life would have actually said something about it to him – told him it was wrong… would it have made a difference?

It’s easy to quickly assume “No, it wouldn’t have mattered.  He still would have done it. This isn’t about racist jokes.” And perhaps by the time he was 21, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. By then, the seed of hatred, revealed in part through those racial jokes, had very strong, deep roots. It’s sad that this young man grew up in an environment that taught hate and fear. These aren’t inborn traits, but learned behaviors.

What’s more, our core values are set by the time we are 10 years old, and in the years that follow we start working them out more fully. So, knowing this, what impact can we have on the lives of others, especially the lives of the youngest in our midst. How can we teach them to choose compassion over hate; acceptance and hospitality over fear and intolerance?

I think that the first step is to live that way ourselves – to demonstrate those traits in our life. Even if we don’t say a word, kids notice what we do. They can tell when we say one thing and do another. They also see the consequences of our actions.

So, if in response to this tragedy we do nothing and say nothing, what message does that send? What values will they learn? Won’t it perpetuate a culture where we don’t talk about or deal with conflict – especially racial conflict? Will it engender the notion that if we don’t say anything, it will all go away in a news-cycle or two and we can go back to thinking the world is okay? 

Well, it isn’t okay. Hate and fear-based violence is happening too often in this country. And if we don’t acknowledge it and make room for candid conversation about it, how will our children and teenagers learn from it? How will WE learn from it?

IMG_2301For those who think that things have changed, that we’ve come so far, I contend there is still so far yet to go. In his speech today, it seemed apropos for President Obama to draw from the words of Martin Luther King. He quoted a portion of the eulogy given almost 52 years ago for the four young black girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I just visited this church last month, taking a dozen teens, mostly white, to hear its story.

ema2And so again, last night we have another prominent black church in the South; one integral and instrumental to the work of freedom and liberation for African Americans from slavery, oppression and segregation. This church fell under attack at the purposeful hands of a calculating white man. He was armed with hate and a .45 caliber pistol. He murdered 9 innocent people – three men and six women. He was driven by a fear of loss – loss of a self-imposed and systemically-imposed power and authority based solely on the color of his skin. And he killed 9 innocent people based solely on the color of their skin.

And so, with the similarity starkly in view, the words of this eulogy remain appropriate and give us work to do:

IMG_2299[These innocent victims] say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.

And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil… (2)


Which brings to mind another familiar MLK quote:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

So I repeat the question from my FB post: Today we pray and mourn, but if tomorrow we do not act, who are we?

If you’re not sure what to do, a good place to start is to engage in constructive, compassion-based conversations about the race issues that exist – conversations matter; solidarity matters; ALL lives matter.

And as you pray for the families of those who died, as you pray for the congregation of Emanuel AME, the city of Charleston, the broader AME community, and all affected by this tragedy, also pray for Dylann Roof. Just send the name to God. God can handle it from there.



(1) Katie Zavadski, “Everything Known About Charleston Shooting Suspect Dylann Roof,” The Daily Beast, 06/18/15,11:19 AM ET; http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/18/everything-known-about-charleston-church-shooting-suspect-dylann-roof.html?via=desktop&source=facebook, Accessed 6/18/2015.

(2) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Eulogy For The Young Victims Of The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing,” delivered September 18, 1963, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Source: http://www.drmartinlutherkingjr.com/birminghamchurchbombingeulogy.htm, Accessed 6/18/2015.

4 Responses to “Who are we?”

  1. Alex Labry said

    “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”
    Bertrand Russell

  2. Jim Greenwood said

    Powerful. Beautiful. Love, Dad >

  3. Walt said

    Wow Jody! Well thought and well said! Very moving! Thank you for taking your own advice and doing something.
    Love to you, Walt

  4. Kathy said

    So well said. Reading the NYT today, I was struck and moved to tears by this quote: “I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of one of the victims, DePayne Middleton-Doctor. But “she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.”

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