A Response to the Charleston Shootings

Do you have any response to the shootings in Charleston?

Rev. David Marion Clark preached a message on Mark 4:14-20 entitled, "The Good Soil of Mother Emanuel," which we believe is an excellent and godly response to this tragedy.

The Text:

Mark 4:14-20 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

There is a church in Charleston, SC that is worshiping this morning. They are missing their Senior Pastor Clementa Pinckney, two associate pastors - Sharonda Singleton and Daniel Simmons, and members Cynthia Hurd, Suzy Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, and Myra Thompson. These nine followers of Christ were concluding a Bible study when they were gunned down by a late-comer who had joined them for the study. He had traveled from Columbia, SC to carry out his carefully planned action. Through research he had chosen that particular church in that particular city. He believed his evil action in such a significant African-American church in a southern city would ignite a racial war. With the growing tension in our country over the controversial deaths of African-American men by police officers, such a ghastly deed would be sure to setoff black violence. There had been, after all, the incident of an officer shooting an unarmed black man in the back just three months earlier. Surely violence would ignite further violence. Surely monstrous hate would be met with reciprocating hate. The evil that this young white man believed existed in the hearts of black people would pour out when he unleashed his murderous assault.

He was successful in carrying out his plan, but only with great effort. Indeed, he almost failed. No, it was not the church's security system. It was not because he was suspected and the church ministers and members were put on guard. It was their love that almost undid him. If he had walked in and immediately begun shooting, the mission would have been easy. But the Bible study group warmly welcomed him, even though he was a stranger and clearly out of place. So he sat down and joined in the study for an hour. He was treated so nicely that he almost changed his mind about them. It was only as the study was wrapping up that he collected himself and carried out his evil plan.

He did it! He completed his violent mission. Now he would see the wide-spread violence he desired. But something went wrong - dreadfully wrong. No violence, no riots, no hatred spilling over, no racial war. As Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley observed, "This hateful person came into this community with some crazy idea he would be able to divide, and all he did was make us more united and love each other even more."

But how? Dylann Storm Roof may have been crazy, but his idea was logical. Tensions in our nation are growing, not diminishing. Perhaps the idea of a war was over-blown, but surely it was expected that some kind of violence would occur. The Scripture text of the Bible study that this young killer sat in on gives the answer. The group was studying Mark 4:14-20, the parable of sowing seed on the four soils. In their text, Jesus explained that the seed represented the "word," i.e. the word of God. Some seed fall on hard soil, some on rocky soil, and some on soil choked with thorns. The result in all three is that the seed of God's word does not flourish and comes to nothing. But other seed fall on good, rich soil, where the word of God takes strong root and grows into flourishing plants yielding fruit well beyond what is ordinary.

The point of the story is that just as seed needs the right soil in which to flourish, so the word of God flourishes only in the heart that has good soil. We can hear the word, but we cannot benefit from it if our hearts remain hardened or filled with fears, lusts, and hatred.

Dylann Roof had walked into a church of good soil filled with followers of Jesus Christ who had heard the gospel word, had accepted it, and was bearing the fruit of the gospel. The killer thought he had chosen the right church; he thought he understood why it had become the significant church that it is. But if he had bothered to look at the church's home page on its website, he did not understand the significance of the quote by Sister Jean German Ortiz on that page:

Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be as passionate.

Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church is not a lukewarm church. Her people believe - they believe - that Jesus Christ died on the cross for their sins; that he died out of passionate love for them, and so they then must love him passionately. They know that loving him means loving everyone - everyone. They know his words:

You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:43-45).

They know that these words depict Jesus' mission, his crazy idea. Through his death, he would give life; through his sacrifice, he would provide forgiveness; through his brokenness, he would bring healing; through his work of salvation, he would unite those who were divided from one another.

As we grieve, as we stagger from the horror of what seems to be senseless tragedy, let us listen and learn from our brothers and sisters of Mother Emanuel. Hear their words spoken to the killer of their loved one at his court hearing.

The New York Times, reporting on the words of the family members, noted:

It was as if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims' family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief. They urged him to repent, confess his sins and turn to God.

Nadine Collier (daughter of Ethel Lance):

I just want everybody to know - I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you, and I forgive you.
Anthony Thompson (husband of Myra Thompson):
I forgive you, my family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most - Christ. So that He can change it, can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you'll be okay. Do that and you will be better off than you are right now.
Felicia Sanders (mother of Tywanza Sanders):
We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts . . . and I'll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. But, as we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.
Wanda Simmons (granddaughter of Daniel Simmons):
Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof - everyone's plea for your soul is proof - they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won't win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn't win.
Bethane Middleton-Brown (sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor):
That was my sister, and I'd like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I'm a work in progress and I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray to God for your soul.
The PBS NewsHour interviewed a trustee of the church, and Hari Sreenivasan asked his reaction to these members' comments.

Hari Sreenivasan:

Yesterday one of the most moving things I think for anyone watching in the country was listening to the audio of family members looking at the person or the suspect who could have taken the lives of their family members and forgiving them. I mean, just the power of witnessing and hearing someone forgive. What went through your mind? These are - these are fellow parishioners and members of your community.
William Dudley Gregorie:
And I was not shocked at all because Mother Emanuel AME Church is a forgiving body. We know early on that if you fight hate with hate, then you also have failed. You have to fight hate with love. You have to fight hate with forgiveness.

One of the mantras of our church is about hope. We clearly feel that living without hope is like living in continuous darkness. But hope will peer through the darkness, see the light, and wait until morning. This is morning for Emanuel AME Church. The sacrifice of nine members of our church will not go in vain.

No, indeed, the sacrifice of the nine members are bearing fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold for their Savior. Their grace to the killer who sat down with them, and the grace of their families and of their church have foiled the great evil that was intended for our country. Their forgiveness has shamed the wrath we would have wanted to unleash. Their grace, which is but a reflection of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and empowered by his Holy Spirit - that grace has furthered the crazy mission of their Lord - to bring healing and peace.

And so hear once more the words of Anthony Thompson that he said to his wife's killer, and would want every sinner (which is all of us) to hear: "Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most - Christ. So that He can change it, can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and youll be okay."

Answer by D. Marion Clark

Teaching Elder, Executive Minister, 10th Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA