Charleston, Confederacy, & Guns
In November 2008, I attended a church security conference in San Antonio. Boy, were my eyes opened! I had heard of church violence, but they had always been very random, very isolated incidents. When I was 10, a small rural church on the Tennesee-Alabama line was held up at gunpoint as soon as the collection had been taken up. Church shootings at various places in the U.S. were also fresh on my mind. At the conference, I learned about very detailed measures churches can take to protect themselves in the case of an attack. Living in Texas, it's just a part of our culture that certain people come to church "packing" (i.e. concealed carry). While eating lunch with one of the young men at church recently, we laughed about which little old ladies were most likely carrying pistols in their purses on the Lord's Day.
I grew up in Mississippi, and I have a great-great-great-great-grandfather who was wounded for the Confederacy at Gettysburg. The Stars & Bars trigger mixed emotions in my soul. I'm proud of my Southern heritage, and it is certainly true that the flag stands for much, much more than a racist past.
That said, the fact remains that it stands primarily for racism, and as a child of Mississippi, I've seen enough racism (in the church and out) to last me a lifetime. While preaching near Philadelphia, Mississippi in the mid-90s (the same Philadelphia where three civil rights workers were murdered in the 1960s), my dad had a visitation group each Sunday night before services. An older couple named Sam and Betty, very prominent in that church, refused to visit anyone who was black. In fact, they would specifically ask if their assigned visit was white. I'm not sure I ever saw my dad filled with more righteous indignation.
Since the horrible tragedy at Charleston, I've heard the conversation move from gun control to the need for more security in our churches to the need to retire permanently the Confederate flag. My thoughts are that more gun control would not have prevented the Charleston tragedy, and I'm all for churches looking for ways to make their assemblies safer. I'm also in favor of permanently retiring the Confederate flag though I still swell with pride when I see it fly.
But none of those issues inspire me to write today so much as all of them collectively. It has saddened me that there has been so much talk about gun control, church security, and the Confederate flag has eclipsed the real message of Charleston: A group of people devout in their faith refused to respond to evil and hate with more evil and hate. Rather, they chose to forgive their oppressor and, in front of a captivated national audience, pled with the accused to repent and turn to Christ. In response to such a remarkable demonstration of grace, one avowed atheist, Charles C. W. Cooke of the National Review, said on Twitter, "I am a non-Christian, and I must say: This is a remarkable advertisement for Christianity."
One of the greatest threats to the church, one living in a hostile culture, is the temptation to care about issues that have little or nothing to do with the purposes of the Gospel. What does gun control have to do with the Gospel? Nothing. What does defending the Confederate flag have to do with the Gospel? Nothing.
Let's not fall for media hype or cultural's shifting definition of political correctness. Let's make "the story" of this tragedy not one of guns or hate or racism, but of the Gospel's power to forgive wickedness and transform bitterness into blessing. Let's not allow the evil of others, nor our own petty preferences, to have the last word. Rather, let us ask, "How can we glorify God in this tragedy."
In that, the members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston have set an example we all should follow.
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