“Lord, How Long?” (Habakkuk 1:2): Praying Through Grief While Confronting a Hate Crime

“Lord, How Long?” (Habakkuk 1:2): Praying Through Grief While Confronting a Hate Crime June 20, 2015

shutterstock_137438477Rev. Clementa Pinckney and his parishioners attended a Wednesday night Bible study in a church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white man could walk through the doors of their spiritual home and be welcomed with open arms. They did not turn this stranger away. They did not treat him with the same indignity so many black people in America have endured. The gunman, now suspected to be Dylann Storm Roof, sat next to Rev. Pinckney. He listened to the insights shared by those who pondered the lessons that can be gleaned from Scripture. They allowed Roof to disagree with the observations presented by those in attendance as they engaged in the Bible study (Nick CorasanitiRichard Pérez-Peña and Lizette Alvarez New York Times, June 18, 2015). Indeed, the gunman felt comfortable enough to sit amongst those gathered “in the church for about an hour” (Claire Phipps, The Guardian, June 18 2015, 12:45) before he peppered the sanctuary with bullets and killed these very same beloved ones who had embraced him with the love of Jesus.

In accepting Roof into the House of the Lord, the beloved pastor and his parishioners of Emanuel AME Church lived out the greatest and second commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39 NRSV).

The followers of Jesus who attended the Emanuel AME Church Bible study welcomed a stranger with the love of Jesus. They welcomed the gunman as a neighbor. They loved him as themselves. They were – are – ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21 NRSV). Today, nine people are dead and three survived the latest racial massacre and hate crime in Charleston, South Carolina.

In the midst of the atrocity, and while living out the nightmare of being trapped in a church where a lone gunman took the lives of human beings without mercy, stood a young black man, Tywanza Sanders. He was 26 years old. His family upheld him as the peacemaker in the family. Tywanza talked tenderly to the gunman, trying to calm the situation. In piecing together the events surrounding Sanders’ death, his cousin, Kristen Washington, shared with New York Times reporters the testimonies of family members who survived the shooting. She maintained that Tywanza told the gunman, “You don’t have to do this.” She continued, “The gunman replied, ‘Yes. You are raping our women and taking over the country’” (Nick CorasanitiRichard Pérez-Peña and Lizette Alvarez New York Times, June 18, 2015). The gunman pointed his gun at Sanders’ 87 year-old-aunt, Susie Jackson. Tywanza tried to save his beloved elder and “told the man to point the gun at him instead” (ibid). The gunman shot Tywanza as he “dived in front of his aunt” to save her life. The gunman proceeded to shoot others in the room. Tywanza’s cousin, Kristen Washington, shared that his “mother, Felicia, and his niece, lay motionless on the floor, playing dead, and were not shot” (ibid). They lay “dead” together and survived.

While loved ones mourn those who died, the “Confederate flag still flies in the grounds of the state building” in South Carolina (Matthew Weaver The Guardian June 18 2015). Noting the presence of racist symbols in America, “Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”, identifies the Confederate flag as the “flag of division, the flag of hate, [and] the flag of white supremacy” (Oliver Laughland, The Guardian, April 11, 2015). His view aligns with those of author and poet Maya Angelou who asserts that

Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good. Our greed, fear and lasciviousness have enabled us to murder our poets, who are ourselves, to castigate our priests, who are ourselves. The lists of our subversions of the good stretch from before recorded history to this moment. We drop our eyes at the mention of the bloody, torturous Inquisition. Our shoulders sag at the thoughts of African slaves lying spoon-­fashion in the filthy hatches of slave-ships, and the subsequent auction blocks upon which were built great fortunes in our country. We turn our heads in bitter shame at the remembrance of Dachau and the other gas ovens, where millions of ourselves were murdered by millions of ourselves. As soon as we are reminded of our actions, more often than not we spend incredible energy trying to forget what we’ve just been reminded of. – Maya Angelou

Keeping it real

Today, grief saturates the hearts, minds, souls, and lives of the families of the nine loved ones who died in a historically black church in South Carolina on June 17, 2015. This is a time to feel. We must feel the pain of loss. We must feel the rage of injustice. We must feel the silence of apathy. We must feel sorrow. We must rail against unchecked systematic discrimination. We must cry out against hate. We must cry out for the love that douses hate. Prayer rebuffs the denial of emotions and cries out against injustice.We must keep it real. We must speak the truth. The individual who spearheaded a massacre in South Carolina does not treasure human life or God. Black lives are precious to God. When individuals hate black people, they hate God. When they don’t love the human family, they don’t love God or themselves. So sacred is human life to God that he created the commandment “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13 NRSV).

God keeps it real. Scripture keeps it real. Our prayers must do the same. We can pray like the prophet Habakkuk who asks God:

Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen?
I cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you don’t deliver us.
Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish
so that devastation and violence are before me?
There is strife, and conflict abounds.
The Instruction is ineffective.
Justice does not endure
because the wicked surround the righteous.
Justice becomes warped (Habakkuk 1:2-4 CEB)

When Habakkuk brings his complaints to God, God never tells him to stop speaking and calm down, nor does God scold him for praying inappropriately. Like Jesus, we can cry and look into each other’s eyes and empathize with each other’s pain as we grieve the deaths of nine blessed members of the Church and human family (John 11:35 NRSV). Just as Jesus called Lazarus by name, we must call out the names of those who are no longer with us because they are victims of a hate crime, and we must call out the names of those whose hearts ache for their loved ones (John 11:1-44 NRSV). We can shout out our grief and anger to God – he can bear the weight of our anguish. We can barrage God with questions — he will not be overwhelmed. We can pepper our prayers with profanity — he will listen. We must lament. We must grieve. We must feel our hurt, our frustration, and our despair. We must hold one another and listen to each other. We must sob and wail. And, as the title of Brittini Alexandria’s poem asserts, “Just Cry” (You Tube).

Our emotions will be raw, messy, and unresolved because racial bigotry is nonsensical and racial injustice has yet to be resolved. And when we are stunned into silence, the “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26 NRSV). We don’t always have to be strong. We don’t always have to have all the answers. And yet, we must not allow anyone or anything to diminish our worth. We must follow the example of those slave ancestors who refused to believe they were not fully human. Throughout history, countless individuals, family members, friends, and communities did not stay silent when confronting injustice and did not allow others to define their existence.

We must pray and seek God’s counsel on how to address the inequities tearing our country apart. We must pray and ask God how we should respond to injustice. And we must pray and ask God how we can practically support the families and friends who are consumed by grief as they come to terms with the death of the nine precious loved ones who died in a church in South Carolina. Above all, we must “stay woke” to suffering and love.

Rest in peace:

The Reverend Honorable Clementa C. Pinckney

Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton

Ethel Lee Lance

Susie Jackson

Tywanza Sanders

Cynthia Hurd

Depayne Middleton-Doctor

Myra Thompson

Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr.

We thank God for your lives. We thank God for your witness of a life lived well for Jesus. We thank God for your service to others. We thank God for your love for humanity and Jesus. You will not be forgotten. Amen.

Image:  Shutterstock.com

Claudia-May-Professionl-Shot-208x300_optDr. Claudia May is a specialist in African American and Caribbean literature and popular culture, a spiritual writer, poet, and a spiritual director (see  http://www.claudiamay.org/ ). She is a visiting scholar in the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of the Pacific School of Religion President’s award. She is a passionate follower of Jesus, a woman of prayer, and a lover of biblical stories and wisdom. You can follow her on twitter  @ClaudiaMayPhD


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