In Charleston: AME Martyrs of Charity

In Charleston: AME Martyrs of Charity June 18, 2015

Earlier today, someone set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, in Israel’s Galilee region. Found scrawled in red paint on one of the church’s outside walls was part of a Hebrew prayer calling for an end to idol worship. No suspects have been named, but the crime bears a close resemblance to other acts of vandalism and arson carried out by Jewish West Bank settlers.

Whoever wants to call that an anti-Christian hate crime has the beginning of a pretty good case.

The same can’t be said for Reverend A.W. Jackson. In an appearance on Fox and Friends, Jackson suggested that the mass murder at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina might have been one man’s expression of “a rising hostility against Christians across this country.”

The Reverend may have spoken before all the facts had emerged, but this is still transparent nonsense. Dylan Storm Roof, the suspect – now in custody – is white and has posed for photographs wearing a jacket decorated with the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, whose white settler minority also claimed a monopoly on political power. All of his alleged victims were black. Their church, roundly described as a “historically black,” might more justly be called “historical and black” – its founder, Denmark Vesey, was a slave who bought his freedom, and later helped organize a revolt to free blacks who remained enslaved. According to survivors, Roof told his victims, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you’ll have to go.”

The preponderance of the evidence suggests Roof didn’t have Christians in mind when he spoke of “You.” On that, I think, everyone can agree.

In Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that we should regard Roof’s rampage as an instance of domestic terrorism – specifically, right-wing domestic terrorism of the Timothy McVeigh type. Given what we know about Roof, that sounds fair enough. If we need to have a national conversation – or a debate, or a series of j’accuses – about anti-black hostility on certain segments of the Right, let’s have it. If some opinion-makers need to go to the dock for “creating a climate,” fine. Away with them. And may God have mercy on their souls.

But while all of this is taking place, let’s not lose sight of an important fact. Roof’s alleged victims were Christians, even if their faith had no bearing on his decision to massacre them. Not only that, they were active Christians. When Roof found them, they were at a prayer meeting, not a bingo game. What’s more, they behaved in a distinctly Christian fashion toward Roof himself, accepting him into their circle and praying with him for over an hour.

There’s every chance that the surly-looking white kid with the Emo Phillips haircut set off alarm bells in some minds. Not long beforehand, in nearby industrial North Charleston, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man named Walter Scott. Tensions, as they say, were running high. The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of Roof’s victims, who had been a state senator as well as Emanuel AME’s pastor, had thrown his weight behind a bill helping police obtain body cameras. Nevertheless, everyone seems to have followed the prescription from Deuteronomy: “Love ye therefore the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

I don’t claim to know a thing about AME traditions. But the Catholic Church uses the unofficial title “martyr of charity” for people who died while performing a charitable act. This distinguishes them from martyrs of the faith, who died because someone hated Christianity. Pace Reverend Jackson, the slain in this case weren’t martyrs of the faith, but, given the established facts, they look a lot like martyrs of charity.

Make no mistake. The point here is not to blunt anyone’s rage or massage away anyone’s determination to see justice done on earth. Martyrs go to heaven; on the makers of martyrs, it’s open season. The title “martyr of charity” was coined by Pope Paul VI when he beatified Maximiliian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who volunteered to take a married man’s place in a Nazi starvation bunker. Paul, who was in Rome when the Germans occupied it, would never have denied that the Nazis had earned a good clobbering.

Instead, my point is to remind people that Roof’s alleged victims, by virtue of their faith and the charity through which they expressed it, are something more than victims. This world, though its importance is beyond question, is not the only one. Reverend Pinckney and the others believed this, or they would have found something else to do with themselves on a weeknight.

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