“How Long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” the Psalmist asks. African Americans ask this question in the wake of the murder of nine Christians at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina during a Wednesday night Bible study by a white shooter. I ask this too, as I look at the sin of racism that continues to plague our nation. This was a hate crime, racially motivated.
Not only was this hate crime racially motivated, but it was also historically situated. It’s eerily reminiscent of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, where four little girls were murdered when Klansmen bombed their church during Sunday School. The effects of this bombing linger decades later for survivors.
As a white Baptist, my own spiritual history has often been complicit with racism. The Cooperative Baptists Fellowship’s beginnings were in the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention’s very name signifies its support of slavery and segregation prior to the Civil War, which led it to break away from its northern brethren. While the first African American to graduate with a PhD from Southern Baptist Seminary was Garland Offutt in 1944, and the seminary even invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak in 1961 and address racial tensions, this was not without agitators, security concerns, and a loss of funding to the seminary.
As we know too well, racism did not end after the Civil Rights era. Rather, it became more subtle, in the forms of income inequality or the war on drugs. More recently, police violence against African Americans, including traffic stops of African Americans at a significantly higher rate than white persons, has been highlighted by the media. Most racism, however, goes unnoticed, and perhaps even encouraged, by white persons.
I’m reminded that theology and our faith are about life or death. Thus, our faith and our theology must speak to not only this tragedy in Charleston, S.C., but the ingrained racial violence that continues to plague our entire country. This violence is both overt in the form of racial slurs, or the display of the Confederate flag for the sake of “heritage,” to more covert manifestations, such as labeling only African Americans as “thugs” or not questioning de facto segregated housing and schooling.
If we fail to address racism as sin in our own lives and in our nation, if we remain silent in our homes, our pews, and our world, we do nothing to prevent acts of violence like this from happening. If we as white Baptists don’t confess and repent of racism within our own lives, we end up passing down apathy or overt attitudes of racism. We also fail to love those who Christ loves. Further, in our silence, we deny that African Americans are created in the image of the Triune God.
King, in his address to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961, offers some words for those of us who have been silently complicit with racism:
“They must go into this…age with a sense of penitence….they must search their souls and remove every vestige of prejudice and bigotry….If they fail to do this, many tragedies will occur and the new age which is emerging will have many problems to solve in future years.”
His words proved too true.
I offer this prayer to address the racism in our hearts and our churches. It’s imperfect, and it’s only a beginning to address such a large-scale tragedy:
We pray for Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
We pray for the families and friends of the victims who mourn the murder of their loved ones.
We are reminded that you mourn with those who mourn.
We pray for the victims by name:
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton,
Depayne Middleton Doctor
Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
We pray for Emanuel AME Church as it gathers for worship on Sunday and the following Sundays.
We acknowledge that the racism of our country’s past continues to rear its ugly head today.
We confess that too often, we’ve remained silent out of fear or indifference.
Let us listen deeply to the pain of Black Americans who mourn not only this tragedy, but who have suffered under racism their entire lives.
Help us not be afraid, like the prophets who were not afraid, like the disciples were told not to be afraid, to speak and act against all manifestations of racism.
Let us be the presence of your Son in this time, whose love is more powerful than any act of evil.
And in whose resurrection we hope.
By the power of the Holy Spirit,