Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
(Romans 12:12, NRSV)
The news from Charleston, South Carolina has been deeply shocking and faith-challenging to many. After so many accounts of African-Americans suffering violence in our streets, to have people gathered in their own church—supposedly a place of safety, refuge, sanctuary—gunned down while in prayer and Bible study seems to empty the spirit of hope for healing and reconciliation in our nation.
The shooting at Emanuel AME Church brings up many serious matters that are deeply wrong in our society, especially the acceptance and glorification of violence (and gun violence, above all). While the facts of this particular case are still unclear, the results are immediately obvious: people have died, others grieve losses that can never be restored or made sense of, and a community—and by extension, our nation—is further fragmented and cast into fear and the temptation of hopelessness.
There will be many inquiries into the specifics of the Charleston church shooting, and there will be yet more calls for gun control, racial justice, and mental health reform in our nation coming out of this terrible event. But one of the other issues of great significance is the question of whether or not we can be a people of hope in the face of evil and the seemingly endless parade of human wrong.
A people without hope is a people paralyzed. The creativity and determination it takes to seek solutions and bring people together becomes impossible when we do not have a sense of hope. The loss of hope makes yet more such acts not only inevitable, but almost expected and therefore tolerated. No civil society can endure such a condition.
Some have voiced the view that a loving God would never have allowed such a violent act to happen to people studying Holy Scripture. On the face, it seems like a reasonable statement. But, for anyone taking the Christian life seriously, we know such thinking is skewed and deeply flawed.
Jesus Christ never teaches that those of us who follow him will be spared the woes and struggles of this life. In fact, he explicitly tells us that we will endure persecution, suffering, exclusion, and even death in order to be part of the birth-giving of God's Kingdom (e.g. Matthew 24:9, Mark 10:30). Our faith is not an escape from the evil of this world, but an ultimately victorious encounter with evil in the strength of God. So, the Christian must be prepared to meet evil at home, at work, on our journeys, in our minds, in relationships, and even at church.
In fact, one of the most counter-worldly things we can do—and perhaps one of the greatest threats to the established order of this broken world—is to be faithful and committed to the study of the Scriptures as a community, taking in the Spirit’s power and direction to live out the Gospel of peace, truth, and divine justice in the face of human and spiritual fallenness. To gather in study, praise, and prayer is a radical rejection of the norms and preoccupations of a consumerized and morally stricken society. In this sense, the people of Emanuel AME Church were doing work that put them at additional risk. They were gathered for nourishment in hope and power, in direct opposition to a world urging us to become angry without action, fearful without freedom, and despairing without direction.
The Bible teaches us to live otherwise. In Christ, we are active, free, and directed towards the truth. Above this, we are a people of hope under all circumstances. St. Paul, in writing to the Church in Rome, shared what he considered to the be marks of authentic, world-challenging (and world-changing) Christian faith: genuine love, no compromise with evil, a tenacious hold on the good.
He also made clear the necessity for hope even while enduring suffering. Only such a way of life can continue to confront evil, refusing to submit to it. He then wrote that such faith will persevere in prayer—which is exactly what the brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME Church were doing. They were living out the duty each person of Christian faith has to be actively growing in living out the Gospel, and they died in the line of that duty. They must be honored for a kind of simple, unsung heroism that is often taken for granted: the heroic, daily commitment to being light in darkness, life in the midst of death.
Each church community in our nation needs to respond to this event in prayer, and by doing so, to discern how God is calling us to act in Spirit-led and responsible ways to confront this and other present evils from a place of strength and moral courage, so that these good people’s witness will not be forgotten or offered in vain.
As we reel from the terrible news of yet more hateful, racially-motivated gun violence in this nation, it is essential that we heed what St. Paul taught and practiced about hope. We must hate the evil and hold fast to the good. We need to reach out in showing honor to those under threat in our community. But perhaps first and foremost, we need to rejoice—yes, rejoice—for the hope that is in us, hard as that may be.
This hope must never be given up or laid aside, for it is like precious water in a vast desert. For hope alone allows us to look through the gloom, tears, and sorrow of today into Jesus’ promised tomorrow as revealed in the Holy Gospel—a world where his prayer “thy will be done” overcomes the hate, selfishness, and cynicism around us through the collective will, actions, and prayer of a hopeful, determined people.