I wrote these words when it came time to return to the University of Chicago Divinity School to think more deeply about religion and violence. The year was 2002 and the last time I had pulled the box of candles off the shelf in my office in Memorial Church was the evening of September 11, 2001.
During my final year at Stanford, our newly appointed police chief died suddenly and without warning. Chief Marvin Moore was the first African American to hold the position. I found the officers devastated when I went to visit the department and offered whatever help I could. It had been their good fortune that they never lost a serving officer in or out of the line of duty for as long as anyone could remember.
One of the reasons I have not said more about last week’s carnage is that, at the moment, my most charitable response is restraint. You see, a few weeks ago, when I finally got the physical strength to visit my ailing father in the nursing home in Cleveland, I was stopped by a police officer for no apparent reason–other than perhaps a Soundex algorithm gone awry. (Google it.) I pulled up into a gas station so that he would not have to stand in traffic and rolled down the window. He yelled, at the top of his lungs, “ARE YOU DRUNK? SHOW ME YOUR LICENSE AND PROOF OF INSURANCE. WHERE ARE YOU GOING?”
After expressions of forgiveness from the families of “The Beautiful Nine,” a few articles have been written that counter the dominant media narratives focusing on the beauty of the unconditional forgiveness offered Dylann Roof contrasted with the hatred and terror wrought on the community. As I mentioned earlier, I laud the family members for opening themselves to such extraordinary grace, particularly during a moment when the temptation to lash out with hatred and vengeance must have been barely resistible.
Now that the perpetrator of the Emanuel Church massacre has been apprehended and charged, the media is ablaze with heart rending images of family members struggling through their grief to offer forgiveness to Dylann Storm Roof. Many colleagues in ministry, most of whom are faithful allies in mainline churches like my own, the Episcopal Church, where people of color are few and far between, are waxing poetic about the power of forgiveness. I do not doubt the sincerity of my friends and colleagues. But I have to admit, even as a man who works so hard to lead with thoughtful compassion and introspection–much to the consternation of my more pointed and eloquent black colleagues–the readiness to laud forgiveness too early and too often horrifies me.
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.
My father laid bricks long before he became a Baptist minister. He used to tell the story of how, at the beginning of a building project, the mayor, the city council, business leaders, and the foreman would show up with golden shovels for the ground breaking ceremony. A brass band would show up as well. At the appointed time after the speeches were made, the community leaders would force their shovels into the rocky ground and the band would strike up a merry tune.
In the film Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine one person, who we were told is not ready to speak publicly about Matt’s death, stood out. He is the admiring little brother, Logan, whose voice appears behind the home movie camera as he taunts his idol, Matt. I applaud his courage to claim his own space and open his heart in his own time, or not at all. Though we didn’t meet that night, I felt a special connection to him as well since I also lost an older brother in my teens whom I adored.
Tonight Cliff and I stole a few moments of recreation. We wondered whether seeing the documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine was the best way to spend them. After dealing with religion, race, and violence in the last two sermons and a book study, I had said to him earlier, “That’s it. No more violence. It is just too painful. I am worn out and I need a break.”
We saw it anyway. As fate would have it, writer and director Michele Josue, her co-producer Liam McNiff, and another of Matt’s friends were there for the showing. Afterwards we had a chance to linger over conversation in the cool Berkeley evening air. I am glad we went.
I cannot help but feel compassion for slain officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, and Shaneka Thompson, wounded ex-girlfriend of the murderer—that infamous murderer whose name I will not even glorify by mentioning—and their family members. I have just as much compassion for them as I feel for all those who have been the victims of domestic violence, community violence, police brutality, and state violence. I also pray for the Episcopal Bishops of New York, Long Island and environs, and for New York Mayor de Blasio, as they will undoubtedly have to reckon with a church and a city that likely is as divided about the matter as the proper course of action for moving forward.