The murders of nine people at a Charleston, S.C., church this week were a tragedy, but I’m just as appalled by the reaction to the shootings as I am by the murders themselves.
Nine peaceful human beings were worshipping and praying at Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston. They were joined by a young man named Dylann Storm Roof, who sat among them for some time before pulling out a gun and murdering almost all of them. This story would already be a horrendous tragedy, but it’s been turned intensely political by the fact that the victims were black and the murderer is a white man who hates black people.
Nobody on any political side has anything to say that would solve the problem of racial hatred or bring back the dead victims, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to prove themselves right by turning this into an excuse to push their existing political agendas.
I’ve seen some conservatives try to turn this into an argument in favor of having more people armed. Those people say that if the victims had armed themselves at their prayer meeting, someone would have pulled out a gun and shot Roof. I’ve also seen some conservatives who say that racism wasn’t an issue in the shootings, despite the fact that the murderer has made it very clear he hates black people and wants to start a race war.
I’ve seen some progressives try to turn this into a debate over the Confederate battle flag. Those people apparently believe that if that old symbol of the South didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be racists and the murders wouldn’t have happened. I’ve seen others — including both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — use the murders as an excuse to push their existing anti-gun agenda, apparently forgetting that those who want to murder people doesn’t necessarily need guns.
I don’t have a way to stop people from hating each other. I can’t prove it, but I suspect the tendency to hate is built into the DNA of what makes us human. If we were suddenly all one race and one religion, hateful people would find some other basis upon which to hate each other. Eye color? Attached or unattached ear lobe? Height? Hair color? I don’t know what they would choose, but there will always be something.
“Our” group will always be somehow better than “their” group in the minds of many people.
Racism is a horrible thing, even if we can’t necessarily agree what racism is. Some people claim that for something to be racist, it has to involve a majority group somehow abusing a minority group. I find that to be dishonest and politically motivated. Broadly speaking, racism is any way in which a person treats another person negatively because of differences in race.
I’ve known hateful white racists, but I’ve known just as many hateful black racists, especially when I worked in politics.
The fact that racism and other forms of hatred will probably always be with us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to deal with it, but when we find ourselves using other people’s tragedies to push our existing political agendas, we’re not trying to solve a problem. We’re simply applying our own political narratives to new situations. We’re try to prove we were right all along and that others should now agree with us. (And I’ve certainly been guilty of that at times.)
We have a serious problem with hatred in this world, but it’s not limited to race. I can’t say how to change the hate, but I know that love and forgiveness have something to do with it. I doubt anybody’s existing political agenda has anything to do with it.
The only people who have impressed me in this mess have been some of the families of the victims. When the murderer appeared in court Friday, some of the relatives of victims were allowed to speak.
“I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of murder victim Ethel Lance. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
Their willingness to forgive reminded me of the man who spoke out to forgive the murderer who shot up a theater in Aurora, Colo., three years ago. From his hospital bed, this man forgave James Holmes for putting three bullets into him.
Forgiving people doesn’t mean not holding them accountable for their actions. It doesn’t mean not stopping them from continuing to hurt people. Roof will pay a heavy price for his murders — and I doubt any among the victims’ families would object to that. Forgiving someone doesn’t necessarily mean you allow him to continue hurting you or others.
The murders in Charleston were committed by a racist man who I believe has mental issues. (I think mental issues are far more pervasive among humans — to one extent or another — than most want to admit.) Those murders were a horrible personal tragedy for the families and friends of the victims. They’re also a terrible national tragedy.
But using the murders as an excuse to push your political agenda oversimplifies a complex issue. I don’t have a solution to racism and I don’t have a way to make the world a safe place for everyone, but I’m appalled that so many people want to turn every tragedy into a partisan political platform.
My heart hurts for the families and friends of the victims of these murders.