Grace, Race and Southern Heritage: A Response to the Charleston Shooting
Rick Barry is managing editor of The Body Politic. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and currently oversees communications for the Grace DC church network in Washington, DC.
Three months ago, on my honeymoon, I visited Charleston, SC, for the first time. My wife and I found a lot to enjoy there, and began making plans to return as soon as we left. The city has a colorful and exciting history, and many of the people we met took pride in their local heritage, which has yielded a thriving artistic culture and amazing food.
However, the events that took place in Charleston this week are also the product of Charleston’s local heritage. Like many cities in our country, Charleston was largely built on the backs of chattel slaves and rebuilt, at least in part, by the wealth those slaves generated for their owners, who used that wealth to purchase clemency for themselves after the Civil War.
The Bible calls us to recognize ourselves as part of historic familial and cultural continuities. God didn’t just introduce himself to Israel as the maker of Heaven and Earth—he introduced himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their forefathers. He promised to shower mercy and forgiveness down on his people generation by generation. Paul called those who believed in the power of the resurrected Christ heirs to the promises of Abraham.
But the Bible also warns us against looking to our heritage as an ultimate source of encouragement, identity or affirmation. It tells us to be skeptical of our heritage. Even as God introduces himself to Israel by pointing to their greatest ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he also reminds them of the fact that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not perfect people. They were cowardly in ways that had traumatic and even violent repercussions for those around them. They were greedy. They schemed and lied. God wanted his people to remember that they come from a heritage that is good but also deeply fallen.
We should be aware of our heritage, but we must not allow our heritage to define the way we understand ourselves. If we do that, it becomes extremely difficult to sift the good things from the bad things left for us by our ancestors, the helpful from the toxic. We begin to apologize for them, explain them away, instead of prayerfully learning from their successes and mistakes. When this happens, our ancestors’ sins and moral failings can easily live on in us and twist themselves into new, more dangerous shapes.
According to the reports I’ve read, it seems as though Dylann Roof, the suspect currently in custody for this week's shooting of nine people in a historic black church in Charleston, takes a level of pride in his white Southern heritage that is above and beyond the type of confidence the Bible calls us to take in our ancestry. I do not know him. I do not know his heart or his mind. But I’m comfortable tentatively pointing to his actions this week as an example of what can happen when we turn an imperfect heritage into an idol.
I believe that what it takes to enjoy what’s good about our cultural heritage without being dominated by what’s broken about it is a powerful experience of the gospel. When we know that we are heirs to the kingdom of God no matter what, we are freer to admit that some of the ancestors we revere and some of the institutions we love have done things that are unworthy of praise. When we know that our future is secure in Christ, we don’t need to be afraid to admit the sins of our past.
This blog is read throughout the country. That means that many of our readers, like me, were born, raised or came of age in the North. And it is likely that some of those Northerners are, like me, tempted to turn this violent, racist, hateful tragedy—the type of which happens with lamentable regularity in recent years—into a blanket condemnation of the South. Unfortunately, the gospel won’t let us do that. It forces us to confront the fact that all cultures, even our own, are fallen and in desperate need of redemption.
This weekend, please pray for healing. Pray for comfort for those who lost friends or family or a sense of security in the shooting—comfort that will likely only come slowly, fitfully and fleetingly. Pray that those who are tempted to anger and hatred by this event or by the way it is being discussed know that a loving and just God mourns with them, mourns for them and mourns for those they consider their enemies.
But while you do, don’t forget to thank God. Thank him for the heritage he has given you. Thank him for giving you a future that is greater even than what your heritage deserves—or a great future despite what your heritage deserves. And most of all, please thank God that there is grace for us. There is grace for Charleston. There is grace for the South and the North and the East and the West. Once God has taken hold of us, nothing—not death, nor life, nor anything—can separate us from his mercy. Pray that many, many people in this country feel that mercy for the first time this weekend, because in the wake of an event like this, we all need it.