God and Dylann Roof: Beyond Strength and Weakness

God and Dylann Roof: Beyond Strength and Weakness June 20, 2015

Dylann Roof, who has confessed to gunning down the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church along with eight parishioners, wavered at the last moment. Sources have told NBC News that Roof “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.” In this case, “it” refers to his plans to stage a massacre that friends say he hoped would start a race war.

Today in The Nation, Dani McClain, who is African American, adds some context to the niceness. Parishioners, McClain writes, “were not naive in their willingness to sit alongside [Roof].” Rather, “they were engaged in a survival tactic as old as the black American experience: a refusal to let one’s heart harden or one’s joy fade in the face of the irrational, deadly actions that white supremacy can generate.”

Christianity is good for the soul, in other words. There you have it, in The Nation, of all places.

This pressing need for spiritual survival and the tactics aimed at ensuring it date back to the days when Africans were enslaved. This background alone would make them suspect in the eyes of those who value pugnacity for its own sake. In fact, “slave-morality” was the name Nietzsche coined for any value system that praises softheartedness, including pity, kindness, and altruism. In Nietzsche’s view, “slave-morality” creates the labels “good” and “evil” in order to subvert “master-morality,” which exalts pride, bravery and the pursuit of power while scorning weakness. In “On the Geneology of Morality,” he indicts both Judaism and Christianity for turning master-morality on its head, and for inventing the notion of hell to offer resentful slaves a thinly-veiled fantasy of revenge against their masters.

I could be reaching here, but it seems to me that Roof was operating, or striving to operate, under a master-morality. In the presence of the AME parishioners, he felt goodness – it made him feel, to his own surprise, good. But rather than surrender to this fellow-feeling, he wrote it off as so much weakness and, squashing it, went for his pistol.

If Christianity overthrew that master-morality, it did so by borrowing the pagan definitions of strength and weakness, tweaking them, and praising the first over the second as vigorously as the pagans did. In the Christian view, strength is good when it leads to self-mastery or an ability to bear suffering. Thomas Aquinas believed that people who shy away from effort, or who are too fond of pleasure, are marred by mollities – “effeminacy,” or more generally, “softness.” Christian writing abounds with martial imagery, but – revealing its Roman heritage – it tends to evoke a regular army, where soldiers must submit to authority. In a Christian centuria, Nietzsche’s Viking warrior, who brags that Wotan has given him a hard heart, would probably be judged a pushover to the sin of pride, lashed to a cart’s wheel, and flogged to within an inch of his barbarian life.

Keeping the heart soft takes a will of iron – that would make a great paradox, except the equation is not that simple. In the Christian view, there is another vital ingredient. In his famous essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin demonstrates how living at the wrong end of a racial hierarchy can break anyone’s self-mastery. For an example of a spiritual casualty, he offers his father, a clergyman whose “intolerable bitterness of spirit” alienated everyone he came across, including his family. Moving from Harlem to southern New Jersey to work in arms factories, Baldwin encounters discrimination for the first time, and before long feels “a pounding in the skull and a fire in the bowels” – symptoms of a rage that, he says, infects all black people from time to time.

After suffering one slight too many, he feels “like a physical sensation, a click at the nape of my neck, as though some interior string connecting my head to my body had been cut.” In this dissociative state, he walks into a diner, and on being refused service because of his color, hurls a coffee mug at his waitress. Shortly afterward, Baldwin’s father dies, and a race riot erupts in Harlem. Hearing his father eulogized, Baldwin notes the charity shown him by the minister and reflects that charity “was perhaps the last thing human beings could give each other and it was what they demanded, after all, of the Lord.”

Outside, seeing the debris left by the riot, which had been confined to places where blacks lived, Baldwin recalls Joshua 24:15, which ends with the words “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Between them, the verse and the scene of desolation prompt him toward a decision. “This bitterness was folly,” Baldwin resolves. “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.”

Baldwin – who remained as crusty a character as ever butted heads with Norman Mailer, and never sang a note of “Kumbaya” in his life – doesn’t speak explicitly of Grace, so I’m presuming again. But as I re-read his essay, it seems to me that Grace is exactly the force he felt during his father’s eulogy, and which carried him through to his final resolution. It was the same Grace that Dylann Roof felt when confronted with Christian hospitality. Grace helped Baldwin succeed at suppressing bitterness when willpower gave out. It could have turned Roof away from murder, but Roof ignored it to exercise his own will, and the world is reeling with horror because he did.

Strength is good. Without it, we couldn’t get by for long. But if it’s all we’ve got — and all we rely on — we’re in trouble, though it may be very slavish of me to say so.

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