Charleston: A Diary of Death In My Hometown

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DDAgain, bad news has shaped the mourning and pain of a community.

Again, bullets have found innocent targets, shredded bodies and left them lifeless.

Once more, something has entered our personal and collective consciousness that is beyond our understanding. Just as something scary, fearful, and evil entered quiet lives gathered in faith and destroyed them, leaving the blood of nine worshipers who were family and friends drying thickly on a church basement floor where before the hour of fate they faithfully stood and prayed.

Their church, Emanuel AME, known as Mother Emanuel, is now a killing zone. It has been gathering the faithful for worship for hundreds of years and had seen its share of troubles. In 1822, it was burned under another name. It was closed until after the civil war, and reopened one hundred and fifty years ago. Through it all, the church praised and glorified the spilled blood of Christ. They believe its sacrifice can redeem life. They believed that the blood of Christ marked a divine path, for living and for a life to be entered into after death. For the church and its members, Christ’s blood was a sign of salvation, a icon that urged believers to “get right” and be guided by a love that stripped away sorrow and slights. Now, their own drying blood is a silent, saved witness of their faith and evidence of a horrific crime.

Again, this was serial murder. This time the number killed was nine. The nine murders were committed by one man. His image from the church’s surveillance camera over the entering door showed him to be young, clean cut; his hair bowl cut with a thick rear wedge. Somehow, we want our serial killers to look like gargoyles or grotesque animals. Too often, they look normal. Too normal. Normal is now becoming something to fear. Normal is now a part of the unknown well from which our ugliest violence springs. And after it springs, we declare normal to be “insane.”

But nine dead in a church after a prayer meeting, at nine o’clock on a Wednesday night, is the insanity. Nine dead, bleeding on the floor of a church, home to a 200 year old congregation of African-Americans with Charleston names―is not normal. Killing people with a .45 caliber hand gun and reloading as they pray and worship and ask for mercy is not normal. A five year old playing pretend—pretending to be dead―is not normal. Especially when it allows the five year-old to survive being shot and remain alive surrounded by the bodies of nine dead adults who were pillars of the child’s world of peace

“Unfathomable and unspeakable,” Charleston’s Mayor described the act that took the lives of church members in worship. “Unfathomable” also describes the skill of a child to turn in an instant, as bullets are flying, their noise exploding in his ears, who decides at a grandmother’s urging to “pretend” die.

For those who believe the mysteries and presence of God is no more than make-believe, a myth, a fantasy and fairy tale of the unknown, the witness of each of the families for forgiveness and mercy for the one who is surely the killer is a display of unbelievable divine strength. That blessing of forgiveness on the murderer who entered the temple of worship to kill their family and friends as they prayed was sincere and as heart-felt as the grief felt in their trembling voices, in the broken notes sounded as they spoke. The bullets shattered their lives, but not their faith.


Drawing by Madeleine, age 7.

The veneer of civility over America’s racial hostility is starting to crack. Unemployed, living in a rural community, how does a 9th grade drop out follow a trial in which a white man in another state kills a black youth only to be acquitted turn to a website that insists blacks are murdering whites, raping women, and taking over the country—when this youth has blacks his age he speaks to and hangs out with as friends?

The veneer of civility over hate masks a deeper disconnect. Wound like the double helix of DNA, two twisted strands climb and descend in parallel, yet fail to join in community, fail to bind experience and reality. Something about the strands negates the fundamental American idea that we are all equal, one out of many. Humanity, not race, carries the original sin, but somehow this theological idea of human shortcomings and faults and differences gets reassigned and is voided of forgiveness, and is interpreted and trumpeted as a threat assigned by race. The killer reports no personal experience of harm or injustice with African-Americans. He writes in his manifesto, that African-Americans think about race all the time even when whites are not thinking about race.

But when he walked into the church last Wednesday evening, its members were not thinking about race. They welcomed him. It was he who was thinking about race. He had before him and around him direct experience that contradicted his distorted claims. Like others before him, he had taken on the identity of the other and stripped himself of the love and humanity he had taken away from his victims before and after their death. When he walked through the church’s doors, he was a hour away from becoming one of the sources of his anger, a murderer of innocent victims.

Police reports after the slaying the nine members of Emanuel say during his final contact with African-Americans, he told police he  almost didn’t go through with it because “everyone was so nice” to him, but he decided he had to “go through with his mission.”

When did killing become a mission? How did it become a relentless American delusion seize the mind of a 9th grade drop-out?

The next day, my daughter held a workday prayer call-in, online. She drew this distinction between evil and hate: “Hate makes you angry. Evil makes you recoil.”

Most of us recoiled. Others denied the facts. They separated the DNA, focused on derangement or religion and claimed his own self-described mission of “doing something about” information gleaned from a web-site by executing an attack on blacks to serve notice of a race war had “nothing” to do with race.

Last Wednesday night, the young man we know only by video killed the grandson of the brother of my best childhood friend.  Tywanza Sanders was the young man who appealed to him to end the killing, saying “you don’t have to do this.” He killed Tywanza, the young college graduate, the youngest of his victims, and he killed his aunt who he was shielding, the oldest victim. Tywanza’s mother survived as did her grandchild by playing dead.

Those who say it was a religious incident because it happened in a church after a prayer meeting isolate the incident from what the Church teaches about this particular form of temptation, especially this form of strategy, what Howard Thurman calls “a scheme of affairs” that from revolt and outrage seeks to establish authority and advantage within society as a reflection of human will and perception. The parable of the third temptation of Christ, when Christ (already divine!) was tempted with such authority, makes clear: the sought after victory is a human illusion; Thurman points out, it requires that “you must give up initiative over your own life.” Relinquished for the illusion of a deeper ideal. But that ideal is not God’s. Hence, it abandons the choice of right. The very act brings its own fall.

Only the family of Mother Emanuel has understood and demonstrated the trust of knowing this simple dilemma behind every temptation. It is a story written and spoken and repeated in all the cultures of the world, except in America’s modern media. Safety is not in the NRA blame of conceal carry. Deranged or no, the killer has followed a familiar, well-worn path; in his need for identity and purpose, for reward, he tried to alter the world with violence against life, ignoring binding ties, severing relations–to gain peace of mind. Often in distress, we forget that if we can not understand others, we cannot understand ourselves (the second lesson of the third parable). His own delinquency made he fail to love his neighbors.

But to the end, he could not make the faithful abandon the source and ground of their faith. And today a nation and community have stood up and are exercising one of the greatest of God’s gifts: the ability to know and do the things which are right.

My friend reported a great media stake-out in front of their modest home by the networks with their dish trunks. They were ready to broadcast should his mother, one of two adult survivors, who had the blood of family and friends splattered on her clothes, be ready to speak.

The same attorney representing the cop who killed Walter Scott is representing the family. Unusual? Nor for Charleston. The attorney is well-known as a honest and vigorous representative of those who are swamped by bad circumstances, some by their own making, some made by others. In this cause, stopped by him, corporate media, waited to magnify the words of remembrance and grief of a woman who helplessly watched in a frozen instant her son appeal to the killer, and in a brief dialogue, heard the killer say no, followed by the explosion of gunshots killing her son and his aunt.

One of the media companies had brought in a craft truck for the family and reporters.

The community outpouring has been tremendous. Lots of wisdom and common sense has been mixed in. Progress requires tension, a clear division between good and evil, a stark contrast between their differences, a clear understanding of why right actions are being taken. The justifications of those that deny the madness was race-directed are a part of the madness. They are a fringe group demanding control of the narrative, despite its disputed holes. Those who deny really give permission. They refuse to hold the actors aligned with their views accountable. They refuse to take any responsibility for their influence on actors who use their ideas as a platform. They unstring and unwind causes; man, madness only—not gun, hate. Religion, not race–sullying both. They replace the facts so each new killer off the production line comes with a similar disclaimer even as he or she (mainly he) does deeper damage. They increase the separation and never close the gap. The call the killer insane, say they had no influence on him, yet claim he had “legitimate grievances.” All three times, they are wrong.

The double consciousness of race has two functions, two coordinate points for its reality in America. The first is race―race as the direct object, the target of attack, the end goal. The second reality is race as instrument, the agent that used to justify the attack when its real causes lie elsewhere, despite race being its target. In Charleston, in the mind of the young man who traveled over 120 miles to Emanuel to kill the members of its prayer and bible study, race doubled in both roles.

Despite loud denials on Fox, race determined the shooter’s targets. But race also was a ready and waiting justification, easily lifted from a website, easily graphed onto a disturbed mind, an all-American produced catalyst of hate and denigration, the instrument that directed the attack. But we understand white supremacists. We exorcise our shame when we call them crazy, keeping our own hate in reserve.

In New York Times comments, I addressed those who dissect and cut race out of the shooter’s mental state, severing the connection with race that is both target and agent:

Stop excusing “madmen” whose “maniac rantings” are tied to race and acted upon according to race. However “incomprehensible” and disordered, he is seeing race in his looking glass. His logic faults and fantasies don’t change that race is in the center of his madness–and determined his selection of targets and motivated his acts–by his own words–against people who “treated him nice,” but imbued with symbols, country names, and other paraphernalia of white supremacy, the mad man carried at his self-appointed racial mission.

His was not a garden variety schizophrenia. It glammed on to race. It followed through according to race.

Is their another mental illness by which people look at the facts and shift to auxiliary points, vehemently denying basic truth? It is as much a concern as madness that uses race (or religion) as a template for justifying murder and seeking fame for a “mission.”

Madness seeks a cause; in this and many cases, America’s history has provided a ready-made template of hate and stereotypes, misappropriated facts, and violent symbols (in the last election, lynching empty chairs!) tied to race.

No one expects hate to be neat and ordered, nor its cause excused because it isn’t.

I also wrote in the Times:

Race-directed violence persists, in many forms. After the civil war, lynching increased; SC governors Ben Tillman and Cole Blease supported it; Blease once buried the severed finger of a man who had been lynched. Racial violence continued after lynching was outlawed; Emmett Till being a well-known case, later the Birmingham church bombing that killed three young girls attending Sunday, and the assassination of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Houses were burned; a slate of black churches were burned in the 1990s.

This latest round of harsh racial violence is the instrument of both benefit and blame.

Ferguson was about benefit, the city’s budget; the police went too far. New York is a policing institution that is skewered and protected, as is Baltimore–both target/ed blacks for benefit (high arrest numbers) and blame (criminals all).

Add the felt loss of white privilege (after the killings, seeing Attorney Loretta Lynch sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Frederick Douglass’ Bible) and increasingly globally alienated youth affirmed by simplistic templates of hate from the internet and we get the murders at Emanuel (I have attended and worshiped in that prayer meeting and bible study!), where a young man who says “they were so nice to me, I almost changed my mind,” still kills nine, reloading in a blood letting that brings together several strands of America’s darkest values and history.

While I am able to no longer blame hate, my heart still recoils. And I am unable to rise to the example of the greatest Christian witness this nation as ever seen: the family members of the nine murdered, their voices breaking in grief, one by one, declaring their forgiveness, to bring no hate to their loss as they honor those they loved; as they rose, their feet firmly fixed on the path of salvation, the lessons and answers of prayer, letting no one and nothing turn them around. Not the evil that sat down beside their beloved or the way it used race to reject an admonition of mercy with a no and a bullet. I remember the lyrics to a spiritual I learned in Camden, SC years ago, and remember its simple lesson of humility and how, along our path, we are tasked with the enormous burdens of love, and must draw the strength not to falter, even as living goes on: “Mother gone, father gone, I’m just trying to make it in; I’m pressing on. Just a few more burdens to bear, just a few more days to care; a few more miles to tread, a few more tears to shed; I’m pressing on.”

I think of the families. Theirs is no doubt the most moving and magnificent example of divine strength and faith I will witness in my life time. I am blessed by their grace.


Illinois 18th Congressional Candidates Support Climate Action in Democratic Debate

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WillinoisThe two Democrats running to replace Aaron Schock in Illinois’ 18th Congressional district supported action on climate change in a recent debate sponsored by several news organizations.  Both candidates mentioned a letter from Pope Francis calling on Catholics to make combating climate change a top priority. Less than a week after being issued, the pope’s encyclical is already having an impact in a Congressional district with a significant Catholic population.

In a question that sounded like it came from a coal industry lobbyist, the candidates were asked if they support boosting Illinois coal production.

Candidate Rob Mellon immediately moved the conversation to where it belongs. “We have to realize that climate change is real and there’s no debate about that.” He took on the latest dodge of climate deniers who claim it’s happening due to natural cycles, not man-made pollutants. “The overwhelming majority of scientists are clear about that. That humans play a role.”

Mellon, who teaches at Quincy High School, says he agrees with Pope Francis and pointed out that climate change disproportionately hurts the poor. “Individual politicians have to step up to the plate. We have to remove our focus on fossil fuels. These are finite resources, and if we continue to put our resources into drilling, fracking, and pipelines, we’re doubling down on a failed policy.” He believes energy policy can include coal but should focus on clean renewable energy.

Springfield school board member Adam Lopez responded by talking about the number of people who work in coal power plants and said, “clean coal is what we need to look at.” He agrees that climate change is real and renewable energy will move the nation forward. Lopez also mentioned Pope Francis and says getting away from foreign oil will be a big focus for him in Congress.

Unions who represent workers at the coal power plants Lopez mentioned are often effective at pressuring Illinois politicians to oppose environmental safeguards that impact plant operators. Many central Illinois Democrats try to have it both ways by supporting action on climate change and promoting so-called clean coal.

Support for failed clean coal projects has been a policy disaster. Two versions of FutureGen, the Taylorville Tenaska plant, Power Holdings and other clean coal pork projects all failed after wasting millions in state, local, and federal tax dollars. That money could have been spent creating real clean energy jobs instead of the fool’s errand of keeping a dying coal industry on life support.

It’s significant that both candidates want strong action on climate change in one of the few areas where coal still has political influence. Democrats have two candidates with reality-based positions that recognize the scientific consensus.

Rob Mellon’s bold pledge to move away from fossil fuels contrasts with Lopez’s support for clean coal. Lopez’s interest in moving away from foreign oil is the same promise made by candidates who want more domestic drilling. Mellon sounds enthusiastic about tackling climate change, while Lopez sounds like a candidate nervously attempting to appease interests on every side of the issue.

Based on this debate, Rob Mellon is the clear winner for climate change voters. Primary election day is Tuesday, July 7.

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