I learned of the dreadful massacre at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina while lying on a sleeping bag on the floor of my empty apartment. This is the very church of Denmark Vesey (1767-1822), a former slave who bought his freedom. He attempted to organize what might have become one of the largest slave revolts of the U.S. antebellum era. Those who recruited black soldiers to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War invoked the name of Denmark Vesey.
Dylann Storm Roof, the alleged gunman who was apprehended less than an hour prior to this rather hurried reflection, walked into the church during the Wednesday night Bible study and killed six women and three men. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor, a South Carolina senator, “the moral conscience of the general assembly,” was confirmed among the dead. Several others have been wounded.
Roof is reported to have said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” A five year old girl played dead to escape the slaughter. One woman was spared so that she could tell the story.
Dylan’s own uncle, who identified him, called him a monster. This bears further reflection. In the days ahead, people of goodwill will attempt to deal with this tragedy as if they were isolating and destroying a single cancer cell in an effort to save a larger body–a noble effort, but ultimately ineffectual so long as the causes of the body’s disease are ignored. Much will be said about the need for better mental health care, all of which is true. But those who are vulnerable mentally are barometers of existing tensions in a community, often uncanny in their accuracy.
This raises the question, “What are we to make of this monster–or as I prefer–this monstrous deed?” Monster is a word with a storied history. It evolved from the Latin, monere, which means “to warn, to portend, to show.” Monere gave us such common words as “demonstrate,” “remonstrate,” and, for the churchier of the beasts of the field which the Lord God created, “monstrance.”
This is a monstrous deed. But it is by no means so far removed from the realm of history that it is wholly incomprehensible. Deadening familiarity is the source of its monstrosity: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
What, then, will we make of this monstrous deed? Will we be content to isolate and destroy a single monster, deluding ourselves into thinking we have solved a problem while we slowly devour ourselves as a nation? Or will we look squarely at the monster–and live?
We owe the dead nothing less. God rest their souls.