This week the last of the nine people killed in the Charleston AME church shooting are being laid to rest. The background of the situation is not much disputed. A young man who regularly spewed hatred towards African Americans online attended a Bible study at the AME church. He was welcomed in as one of the pastors taught those gathered about the Bible. Instead of listening, Dylan Roof was waiting for what he considered the right moment to pull out a gun and begin shooting. He taunted the congregation verbally as the bullets flew.
It’s difficult to understand the kind of hatred which drives a person to such violent actions. But his actions are rooted in his belief that those who are different from him pose a threat to him. To be honest, that kind of thinking has been pervasive in human history. Groups of people have been fighting other groups of people for millennia because they see the other groups as a threat to their survival. There are plenty of people who read certain passages of the Old Testament in that manner. Israel was constantly under threat from neighboring nations who wanted to attack Israel and put Israel under their rule. But that is only one way of reading the Bible, and one which often results in people denying the value of other people. If I believe that another group of people is a threat to me, then they become disposable in my mind.
But the thrust of the Bible is honestly in a different direction, especially in the New Testament. When Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies and bless those who curse them, a fair question to ask is, is the concept of having an enemy really valid anymore in terms of our faith? If you’re following Jesus’ command to love them, are they really your enemy? In most of the New Testament the authors are so sure of eternal life with Christ that the idea of someone being a personal threat had to be re-examined. Jesus did not once see his detractors and his persecutors as a threat to him. His life was lived according to God’s purpose, and he was convinced no one really posed a threat to God’s purpose in his life, even when he was hanging on a cross.
That feeling of being threatened is at the heart of the racism which clouded the judgment of Dylan Roof and still clouds the minds of so many others today. People feel that something is being taken away from them, whether it’s their money or their way of life or their culture. They feel that people who are different from them are to blame because they are different. But as we read the eulogies of those who were killed, it’s clear that Dylan Roof could not have been more wrong about the people he murdered. Whatever racism he learned, whether it was from family or friends or racist websites, it caused him to see a threat where there was none. It drove him to deny the God-given dignity and goodness of people who were kind enough to welcome someone different into their Bible study.
While this act was completely senseless, we are reminded again of the importance of affirming the goodness of others. Even those we perceive as a threat. In God’s kingdom that whole concept has to be re-examined.