Dylan Roof unleashed a torrent of bullets, point blank, on people who welcomed him into a bible study. He coldly and methodically murdered them because they were black and with a demonic dream to instigate a racial war. I think it would be imbecilic in our part to dismiss that as an impossibility. Not that we should lock up church doors and breath fear. Fear-mongering only douses oil into an already flammable situation. On the other hand, dismissing the danger of escalating racial conflict is cowardly, another form of giving into fear. Fear blinds us, makes us turn away. Hope gives us courage to see what is in front of us, because hope does not believe that what is in front of us is the final scene.
We assume that since we made so much progress in racial relations, we won’t slip back into the old days of lynching. We won’t go back to Jim Crow laws, as much as no one wants to go back to brick-size flip phones with the inconceivable conveniences of smart phones. But societal progress is not like technological progress. Tolerant societies can fall back into intolerance, especially in time of perceived scarcity. History is replete with societies that have rolled back on their progress. For all their sophisticated system of law and cultural transmission that seemed to guard the progress, societies have lost what was built on decades of slow hard work, often within a generation.
The Arabian Empire, with Islam as their uniting nuclear force, created an amazingly tolerant society that stretched from the border of China to Portugal. The society was more tolerant than the Christian Europe groping in the “Dark Ages.” Many Christians rejected the Pope and sought refuge under the Caliphate. In that diverse society a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim theologian would discuss Aristotle’s work in a local tavern. The western world owes much of its rational mode of conversation that set the ground for the scientific revolution to these open table conversations. Arabic words in our English language, such as “alebra” and “chemistry” are vestiges of that progressive society. But as Arabian Empire began to wane, they also waned in their toleration. Imams drinking coffee with a priest was an easy target for a mob. Today’s Muslim nations are dangerously intolerable.
The Western world has their own poster-child in Germany. Germany was producing some of the greatest minds of Europe whose works have become canon for Western education. But in less than 3 decades, the society devolved into a racist state.
We cannot sit on our progress, blinded by arrogance or fear, believing progress will protect us. Each generation must guard and advance toleration.
The church must take a lead on this by regaining its fundamental identity as a church of diversity.
When Constantine replaced the eagle with the cross, it wasn’t simply his personal statement of faith, putting a Christian bumper sticker on his shield as part of his witnessing. He saw the political advantages of the cross. Christianity was able to do what the Roman Empire could not do for centuries, unite the people under a single identity stronger than their linguistic and cultural differences. Rome controled the lands, but not the people of those lands. People gave their taxes and young men to conscription out of the fear of the sword. But Christ had the hearts of a Jew and a Gentile. Around the table of Christ sat masters and slaves, Africans and Gauls. People gave up their household gods and even the gods of their cities for Christ. Christ was the first universal God.
Constantine wanted that same unity-in-diversity community he saw in the church for the state. Sadly, once the church sidled up to the throne, she became protective of her new power. Ironically, the new wealth led to mentality of scarcity and the church began to discriminate. Arians got mobbed in the street for singing the wrong songs about Christ. The church fomented anti-semitism. Even wise Anselm promoted pogroms from the pulpit. The church thought the best way to honor their Jewish rabbi was by persecuting his people.
This contradiction finds its most ironic image in Luther who was the greatest mind to champion Paul, using Paul’s “justification by faith” to sever the chains of Rome. But he totally disregarded Paul’s love for the united church and created rhetoric to murder Jews which the Nazis used, centuries after him, to prop up their propaganda with glee.
When a church is divided, it cannot be the conscience of the society. It cannot speak of tolerance when its own congregations are not worshiping together with people unlike them. In the aftermath of the church shooting, it was good that different churches got together, and the pastors of black churches and white churches held hands in prayer. It is part of the healing, but it does not give hope. And I think we should bring down the confederate flag. But that action does not give hope either. It can backfire, giving us a false sense of progress and excuse us from the hard work of progress.
The church has to look to herself and repent of how she has become homogeneous and even more divided than the larger society. Dylan grew up in a Lutheran church and shot blacks in an African Episcopalian church. We have to stop making excuse for homogeneity in our congregation in the name of “evangelism and growth.” Last time I checked, cells that multiply without differentiating are deemed cancerous. We have to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood we worship in. Multi-cultural congregations are not PC initiatives. They are simply being the church. For they are taking the “mystery of the gospel” seriously, that the dividing walls were broken down and that Jew and Gentile is one family, and families should always eat together regularly, even after a spate, and not just meet for the occasional choir sharing.
The church can speak of a more tolerant society and be persuasive when it shows how it looks like in the life of its own congregation.