There was a shooting in South Carolina. A young white man with a handgun killed nine congregants at a historic black church. He left behind photographs displaying his allegiance to symbols of white supremacy and words legitimizing his actions as part of a struggle on behalf of the white race. These pictures and words offered a painful comfort: the motive was clear. This was not inexplicable violence. It was violence with a reason, a history, a culture, maybe even a religion. There was already a movement against white supremacy gaining momentum across the country, animated by black death. Here were nine more.
This explanation, this logic, is disconcerting because it is the same reasoning that would condemn Islam as a religion of violence, motivating organized and lone wolf killers around the world. They are not the same, Islam and white supremacy, but why not? We desire cause and effect, belief system that motivates action, but humans are more complex. The world is more complex. There is also painful comfort in abandoning reason, in proclaiming the inexplicable. The world is too complex. Horrific violence is part of the world that is incomprehensible, alien, or demonic. But we do discern, explain, and judge, whether we like it or not. The challenge, both deeply human and deeply theological, is to balance our desire to neatly make sense of the world with the world’s resistance to all explanations.
White supremacy is an evil that must be condemned. It shapes American culture, institutions, and lives. It sanctions the brutal domination of black bodies and minds. It decimates black health and black wealth, it puts more than a million black men and women in “correctional” cages, it humiliates millions more through police harassment, and it crushes black dreams. The souls of whites it deforms. White supremacy deformed the soul of Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter, as it deforms the soul of every white American. But we must resist the painful comfort of treating white supremacy as a full explanation, just as Islamophobia does not explain Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway and psychosis does not explain James Holmes’s shooting in Colorado. Why do we want an explanation in the first place? For our comfort. Because facing tragedy directly is too hard. But it is confronting directly the force of tragedy that allows us to see the world rightly, and to act rightly.
Tragedies are political opportunities, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. It is how politics is played. (It should not be how ethics is played; ethics should be lived, not played.) The Confederate flag came down from the South Carolina state capitol, and the continuing legacy of the Confederacy provoked national—read: white Northern liberal—concern. The danger is that the meaning of white supremacy, and with it anti-blackness, will narrow to that flag and to an extremist fringe. The grassroots organizing provoked by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and others was beginning to demonstrate how mainstream anti-blackness, and so white supremacy, had become: if the white liberal elite did not quite implicate itself, at least its police officer cousin was implicated. The challenge of responding politically, and theologically, to Charleston is twofold: first, to make the connections between racial extremists, state violence, and white liberals so invested in their innocence; and second, to find a language that broadens and strengthens the power of grassroots black organizing.
The seemingly too-quick professions of forgiveness offered to Dylann Roof by family members of those killed in Charleston provoked some commentators to condone black anger. Given the myriad indignities of black life in America, is not anger the appropriate response to the spilling of black blood yet another time? Does not the glee with which those quick professions of forgiveness were reported in the white media suggest just how politically and theologically impotent they must be? But perhaps another way of reading the forgiveness spoken by victims’ families is as a refusal of easy explanations and so as a natural, profound acknowledgment of the mysterious complexity of the human person, of this human person, Dylann Roof. Such forgiveness would be ethical, not political. It would mark the need to live in community with those who sin badly and often, which is all of us. We live in community with human beings, not with ideologies. Ideologies distort community and conceal humanity—and conceal divinity. Ideologies conceal the interests of the white, the wealthy, and the powerful, both in the extremist rants of Dylann Roof and in the sonorous sounds of white media, the public radio announcer’s ostensible neutrality in reporting from both the police and the black protesters, both the Israelis and the Palestinians, both the International Monetary Fund economist and the unemployed Greeks. This should make us angry. This should make us fight. This should make us organize. This, ideology, is unforgiveable: it is worshipping graven images and forsaking the goodness of God.