Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).
When the German theologian, pastor, and eventual martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, took a brief appointment at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, white students, faculty, and clergy disappointed him with their lukewarm, casual attitude toward Christian conviction and discipleship. He found his church home in Harlem among African-American worshippers at Abyssinian Baptist Church, teaching Sunday School and later taking back to Germany tapes of sermons to eagerly share with his friends.[i]
The contrast between that scene and the one in Charleston last week at Emmanuel AME Zion Church feels almost too sordid to mention, but I must. As you undoubtedly know, a young white man attended a Bible study there as a new guest, accepted the church’s hospitality, participated in the class, then gunned down nine of God’s children who welcomed him there.
Now white people like me see what Bonhoeffer saw and perhaps much more. For the bereaved family members came out quickly with forgiveness addressed to the assailant. As quoted in Peggy Noonan’s blog, the mother of Tywanza Sanders said, “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms…Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. . . . Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.”[ii]
Such grace germinates and grows in the soil of adversity. That church weathered many attacks through their storied history, but obviously they kept studying scripture, praying, and carrying God’s bottomless mercy into the world. Last week the cameras happened to be on.
Before beginning this blog almost a year ago, I studied the Beatitudes and wrote a manuscript on them for about four years. With this blessing of peacemakers, people of color provided all my sources: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and more. I did not consciously select only people of color as my teachers. One day I sat back from my reading, stretched, and looked at the pile of books. I saw it then. I saw that as a white man I must learn peace from those whom I persecuted.
I was a little boy during the Civil Rights movement, and my mother made sure I got the point of it. But I am guilty of this crime in Charleston nevertheless because by too seldom speaking up against the mass incarceration of black men, by carelessly resigning to Sunday morning as the most segregated time in America, by grabbing up my opportunities and giving the lack of opportunity for people of color an afterthought, and by countless more sins of omission, I helped form the twisted mind set it took to enter sacred space and gun down saints because of their race.
So I ask the good people of Emmanuel AME Zion Church, please teach me how the granddaughter of slain Daniel Simmons Sr., came to say, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof—everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So, hate won’t win. . . .”[iii] I want that kind of faith, that kind of life.
Teach me, Emmanuel AME Zion Church, how to make peace like you do, not just write about it or feel good about it but live it. As you forgive the assailant, forgive me. Forgive my silence amid unjust structures that keep you vulnerable. Thank you for reaching out from your place of vulnerability to make peace with me in my place of privilege. Have mercy on me. I am listening.
Teach Me, Emmanuel AME Zion Church
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