On Charleston: Will we answer forgiveness with repentance?

“I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved.” – Bryan Stevenson

I've been having a couple of weeks of mixed emotions. When I heard the Supreme Court had finally decided that gay and lesbian couples can marry, my heart leapt with joy. It's personal for me. Though I'm married to a man, I'm bisexual, and it means a lot to me that if I had a lifelong partner who was a woman, I could have married her. Now my son can marry whomever he loves. 

But the joy that I felt at this decision was muted because I am still grieving the deaths of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clemanta Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Depyane Middleton Doctor, Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson, all killed in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina by Dylann Roof on June 18th in an act of terror.  

White silence feeds racism, photo by Adrian SeltzerI am stunned at the family members' ability to forgive so quickly the man who took the life of their beloveds. That act is full of grace. But I wonder whether the forgiveness they have offered will be accompanied by the repentance of a society built from the lie of racism. Will we go back to the numbness that makes white privilege so dangerous? Will we close our hearts again to the pain of others? Or will this be the moment when we stand up, face the truth of our history, and say, "No more!"

The signs are already not promising. Eight black churches have burned in the South since June 18th. Since taking the Confederate flag down from the South Carolina state house, sales of Confederate flags on Amazon have skyrocketed. It isn't really surprising - when white supremacy is challenged, it fights back and fights back hard. The huge support offered the black community, the persistent Black Lives Matter movement, and the revelations exposing racism and our habit of white domination are challenging some of the core assumptions on which this country is founded. What will it take to choose love instead of power and control?  

I read a moving testimony this week by Kiese Laymon (please read it, it's powerful) which described a conversation he had with his grandmother after the Charleston massacre. She described getting up early on Sunday as a child to wash the clothes of the family they worked for while the white children would point and laugh at them through the windows of their great big house. When his grandmother and her family were walking back to their house to put on their church clothes, the white folks would drive by on their way to church, slow down, and laugh and point at them.  

Black/Brown liberation frees us all by Lucy Duncan

Kiese's grandmother said, "Church don’t mean nothing to these folks, Kie. Nobody in they cars, or on they buses told them to stop laughing. Do you hear me? They love to watch the devil. If church meant something to them, they would have made them stop laughing. They would have paid us right. They wouldn’t be throwing us off in jail for doing the same thing they do. The education would be different, too. That boy over in Charleston, he wouldn’t walk up in no church and killed those folks either if they believed in church. They just wouldn’t treat us like they do."

Kiese replies with a long moving response that includes, “What I do know is that love reckons with the past, and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do. At my worst, I know that I’ve wanted the people that I’ve hurt to look forward, imagining all that I can be and forgetting the contours of who I have been to them.”

That's made me think a lot. Really slavery did not end; it's just mutated into different forms since 1865. The root never has been addressed. How is the promise of progress keeping us from acknowledging what we have done and standing up to say, "No more!" today? Through our continued unwillingness to repent, we have broken and betrayed our relationship with Spirit and with one another. What if we understood that ending racism saves our own souls as white folks as much as it relieves the oppression of people of color? What if we were unwilling to continue to collude with a system built out of the suffering of so many, that twists the hearts and minds of so many children with hate? What if we understood that black and brown liberation frees us all?  

"Justice is what love looks like in public" - Cornel West, photo by Sarah R. Bloom (sarahrbloom.com)

There may be a lesson in the movement for gay marriage. It seems the engine of that movement was the courage of so many queer people to tell their truth to their families, their co-workers, and their friends. One by one, LGBTQ folks took the risk to tell their truth. When they did, sometimes they were brutally hurt. But often their loved ones chose to love them standing right in front of them instead of holding onto their ideology of hate.  

I have a white friend who posits that if one quarter of the white people who find racism abhorrent spoke up and acted up against it in collaboration with and led by people of color, we could end it. She's been leading small actions where we write with sidewalk chalk in public spaces. We have written, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes," and "White silence feeds racism," "Get Woke, Stay Woke," and, "When black lives matter, then all lives will matter." People come up to us and talk with us and for a brief moment, white silence is interrupted.  

What would happen if white people were willing to speak up and act on our love for black and brown people; to tell our stories and engage openly and persistently with white people we love who don't see what we see; to testify and stand in the way of acts of racism with our bodies, our voices, and our lives?  

What does Dylann Roof's act call you to do? What do the fires set aflame by white supremacy in the South ask of you? It's long past time for us to reckon with our history and the current injustice that grows from that root. I believe repentance can repair the deep divides, heal us, and lead us to right relationship. Will you join me in that project?

Read more:

Read AFSC's statement on Charleston: Arresting hate throughout our culture

Letter from a Birmingham Jail: What would King say today?

Black Power's challenge to Quaker Power by Barrington Dunbar

More Acting in Faith posts on Undoing Racism