As I write this, details are still coming in about Dylann Roof, the young white man who killed nine of God’s children at a Wednesday night prayer meeting in one of the oldest African-American churches in the country. The pastor was among the slain. Reverend Clementa Pinckney was a civil rights leader in Charleston, and one of the youngest people ever to be elected to the South Carolina senate.
From the start, investigators labeled this a hate crime. This clearly was different from similar tragedies like the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado for which the murderer is currently on trial. Without all of the evidence, though, it is hard to say what investigators are thinking.
The news came across my smartphone late on Wednesday night. It was without detail, only reporting that there had been a shooting at a Charleston church. My heart stopped because, for two decades, I pastored a church that was threatened by hate constantly. We eventually hired uniformed police officers to be present at every worship service. I resisted that idea for a long time because I believe that church literally should be a sanctuary from the hate and violence and despair by which we are surrounded.
I don’t know why the violence happened in Charleston, but I know for a fact that it was a crime of hate. The members of Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church gathered for their midweek Bible study. These gentle souls welcomed a stranger into their midst, into their home, and, after spending an hour as their guests, he took out a gun that our society has made more sacred than the Bible and murdered nine of his hosts. THAT is a hate crime, regardless of what his motive was.
I believe our racist, gun-violent society is the greatest hate crime of all, and, while the murderer needs to be arrested and brought to justice, there will be no real justice until America, as a society, repents and changes its ways.
During the height of the AIDS crisis, we said “Silence=Death.” When we tolerate any expression of racism, or remain silent in a country in which it is easier to buy a gun than vote, then we are all complicit. Let us be the voices of the slain crying out for this to stop.
Rev. Michael Piazza