Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21, NRSV).
Like many of you, I have been angered and heartbroken by the events of June 17, when a young man murdered nine people in a Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. By the shooters own admission, the motivation was racial hatred. He was hoping to incite a racial civil war. We should be clear, even though this happened in a church, the nine who were slain did not die because they were Christians; they were killed because they were black. But the fact that they were Christians made all the difference in the world.
That Wednesday night, I was at Bates Memorial Baptist Church in Louisville as the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, a pastor from my Disciples of Christ tradition, preached a powerful message about strengthening the family. I was worshiping with my daughter, who leaned over to me during the sermon and said, “Daddy, she’s good!” I agreed.
Towards the end of the sermon, the preacher called us all to the altar. We were told to take the hand of someone, even if it was a stranger, and look into her or his eyes. We sang:
I’ll pray for you, you pray for me/
I love you; I need you to survive/
I won’t harm you with words from my mouth/
I love you; I need you to survive.
It was a very powerful moment. Bates Memorial is an African-American Baptist church, and I was moved to experience this transcendental moment of unity, despite the historical sins of racism that have left open wounds even to this day. We cried and embraced each other. “I love you; I need you to survive.” Little did any of us know at that moment of unity and love, shots were ringing out at “Mother” Emanuel in Charleston.
When the details that began to unfold, the image that would not leave my mind was that of those 13 people—the shooter and 12 disciples of Jesus—sitting in a Bible study together for an hour. An hour with the one who would kill them. Can you imagine? Let me tell you a secret about us ministers, we can feel when things aren’t quite right. Being around people all the time, especially in vulnerable moments, makes us sensitive to the atmosphere in a room and to human distress. There were four ordained ministers in that Bible study. I’m certain they could feel that something was not quite right. And yet, they sat with him for an hour. A full hour, studying the Bible. Perhaps they knew the power of love in God’s Word to overcome evil. In fact, in the confession that followed, it is reported that the killer “almost changed his mind” because the people were so kind to him in the Bible study.
That hour was powerful. Perhaps more powerful than we can fathom. That hour almost melted the hardness of a murder’s heart. That hour was a testament to a true Christian’s commitment to sit patiently, with hope and with love, among those who are different than us, who may seek to do us harm. That hour foreshadowed statement after statement of forgiveness on behalf of the families of the slain, offered to that young man. That hour oozed of love. That hour at Emanuel A.M.E. recalled when Jesus sat at the table with Judas who would betray him, Peter who would deny him, and 10 other disciples who would abandon him in his hour of need, and rather than run them off as unworthy, rather than attack them as traitors, he offered them his very body and blood as the atoning sacrifice for their sins.
It was the power of love in that hour, and the testimony of faith that it declared, that I believe makes a path forward possible. Because this is not only about what happened, but about what we as citizens do in response. And our response is best shaped by the nonviolent love of that hour. Violence justifies violence, but committed, principled nonviolence delegitimizes evil and invites the infinitely creative capacity of God’s love to carve a new way. The Christians in that Bible study might have been unable in that hour to prevent a young man from becoming a murderer, but the work they started in that hour of prayer and study, if we are as committed to the love of Jesus as those nine people were, might just change the world.