Solange Knowles posted the following on Twitter today:
“Was already weary. Was already heavy hearted. Was already tired. Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?”
Where can we be black?
It used to be that we could be Black in our churches. While ebony-hued people were wronged on Wednesday, terrorized on Thursday, frightened on Friday, and stressed on Saturday, they could find solace on Sunday. The church was one of the few places in the community in which Black people could congregate in relative safety. It was a place where common and not-so-common experiences were shared and stories were exchanged. It was the place for the Black community to build itself up in a world intent on tearing it down individually and collectively. It served as respite from daily harassment, intimidation, and the very real ravages of racism. It was an oasis at the beginning of the week. It served the dual-role of house of God and house of the civil rights movement. When it was fatal to be Black outside of church, we used to be able to be Black inside of church.
That seemed to have been called in question this past Wednesday night.
Now it seems that it is fatal to be Black both outside and inside of church.
I’ve been to my fair share of Wednesday night prayer meetings. Visitors are common. Visitors are welcome. This was probably the case at the Charleston, South Carolina AME church. True to their character, they probably welcomed and invited this strange stranger and treated him as their own.
And yet, in a bizarre marriage of madness, evil and betrayal, the infiltrator opened fire, mercilessly slaughtering the attendants, including the pastor, and sparing three, including a little 5 year old girl who played dead to avoid being killed.
By shooting and killing these nine people, the perpetrator sullied the most sacred pillar of the Black community – the church.
Growing up, I was taught that there would come a time when prayer would be perilous. I never thought that day would come so soon.
I suppose there is no nobler position in which to lose your life than while striking a posture of prayer. Consider the juxtaposition: the shooter acted from a place of hate while the worshippers were involved in a spiritual act of intimacy and love.
That said, I never thought that I could potentially be shot while praying in church. After all, is this not North America? Doesn’t this only happen in “other” places? I suppose that yesterday the narrative has changed.
Before anybody in Canada starts to “tut tut” our neighbours to the South, need I remind you that something similar had already taken place here. Oh how our collective memories are short.
While the world reels in pain, some are calling for Black people to shoot back. Under the hashtag #wewillshootback, people are calling for the right to self-defense and retaliation.
What will shooting back do? How would it solve anything?
When the one place you thought was safe has become desecrated, when yet another Black person is senselessly killed, when Black people are massacred while praying, I can understand the temptation to want to fight back and defend oneself. There exists the propensity to want the sheer frustration, the utter humiliation and the bitter pain to manifest as bullets instead of boycotts, as pellets and not protests. However, I’d like to remind everyone of the time-tested truth that violence seldom does more than perpetuate further violence and justify the initial violence of the oppressor.
Like Solange, I’m tired in more ways than one. I think we all are. Earlier today I had no words to convey the mixed bag of emotions I felt. So I went to my bookshelf and pulled out A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and started to leaf through its storied pages of wisdom and relevance. We often ask WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do?), but at that moment in time, I wanted to know what would MLK say? How would he respond?
Instead of trying to find words – because there really are none that adequately encapsulate the moral malady in which our society is ensconced — I’ll let someone else do the talking for me. The stirring words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seem quite fitting since he addressed a similar incident (read: hate crime) in his eulogy for the four murdered girls of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. One would have hoped that his words would have become obsolescent by 2015, remnants of a dark period of history where people were far more primitive and ignorant than we are now. But on the contrary – they ring with more pertinence and truth than ever before.
Regarding the nine who lost their lives while praying this week:
“… [I]n a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician [Audience:] (Yeah) who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats (Yeah) and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. (Speak) They have something to say to every Negro (Yeah) who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice… They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.” — Eulogy, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, September 18, 1963
He went on to say in a sermon two years later:
“…I believe firmly: that in seeking to make the dream a reality we must use and adopt a proper method. I’m more convinced than ever before that nonviolence is the way. I’m more convinced than ever before that violence is impractical as well as immoral. If we are to build right here a better America, we have a method (Yes, sir) as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi. We need not hate; we need not use violence. We can stand up before our most violent opponent and say: We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. (Make it plain) Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail. (Make it plain) We will go in those jails and transform them from dungeons of shame to havens of freedom and human dignity. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. (Amen) Somehow go around the country and use your propaganda agents to make it appear that we are not fit culturally, morally, or otherwise for integration, and we will still love you. (Yes) Threaten our children and bomb our homes, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. (Yeah)
“But be assured that we will ride you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we will win our freedom, but we will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process.” And our victory will be a double victory.
“Oh yes, love is the way. (Yes) Love is the only absolute. More and more I see this. I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate myself; hate is too great a burden to bear. (You bet, Yes) I’ve seen it on the faces of too many sheriffs of the South—I’ve seen hate. In the faces and even the walk of too many Klansmen of the South, I’ve seen hate. Hate distorts the personality. Hate does something to the soul that causes one to lose his objectivity. The man who hates can’t think straight; (Amen) the man who hates can’t reason right; the man who hates can’t see right; the man who hates can’t walk right. (Yeah) And I know now that Jesus is right, (Yeah) that love is the way. And this is why John said, “God is love,” (Yes, sir) so that he who hates does not know God, but he who loves (get in the door) at that moment has the key that opens the door (Yeah) to the meaning of ultimate reality. So this morning there is so much that we have to offer to the world.” – “The American Dream,” Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta Georgia, 4 July 1965
Nonviolence is the way. Nonviolence has typically been the best way. We descend to the same morally depraved and despicable plane of our assailants when we respond in kind.
Despite its perceived impotence, I still do believe prayer is powerful. I still believe that the prayers of the righteous avail much. This act of violence took place in an atmosphere of prayer, and it is best addressed by the very same means. Why? Because prayer is a far more accurate and effective weapon than a beretta ever will be. And we will also pray for the intruder/murderer. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies”: “You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.” Right now, the assailant probably seems like one of the worst people we’ve ever seen, but he too needs our prayers, as do the rest of us. The Christian knows that this is not merely an earthly battle. Like soldiers in war, we fight on our knees.
I also know that faith without works is dead. When the civil rights movement was in full swing in the 1960s, the Black church was at the forefront. Today, the church seems to have taken a back seat – or should I say pew. Why has the church remained silent while many of its members continue to get gunned down and locked up?
“The church,” King declares, “must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state…If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.” – “A Knock at Midnight”, originally published in Strength to Love, 1963, excerpted from A Knock at Midnight.
We have a precedent for fighting against racially-based terrorism. We can help organize our members for nonviolent resistance. We can host honest conversations on race. We can provide comfort and strength to those who are grieving. We have a critical mass and we can do something with that collective power. The fact of the matter is that we must do something. The fact is that we must act. We cannot be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Our life on earth is a dress rehearsal for heaven. We need to try to get along here before we try to bring our mess through the pearly gates. I’m pretty sure that God would not have it any other way.
And so, moving forward:
We will pray.
We will act.
We will continue to go to church.
We will not shoot back.
This Sunday (or Sabbath if you’re a Sabbatarian) and for the weeks thereafter we will fill our pews as acts of resistance. We will continue to go to prayer meeting. We will continue to go to Bible study. We will continue to welcome visitors. There will be no chilling effect. God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, love and a sound mind. We may not yet get to be Black on the streets, but we will be Black in our churches. Best believe.
 I refuse to mention his name. He’s gotten enough publicity already.
Photo credit: Syndicate Literary Journal