A Lament for Charleston

Otis W. Pickett
 "Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" 
Esther 4:13-14

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, 

Please know that as I write this it is with an incredibly heavy heart and a heart still deep in mourning. Yesterday I spent the entire day in lament, with my brothers and sisters in Christ in prayer at a historic African American congregation in Jackson, MS (Mt. Helm Baptist Church) and then had a healing time processing these events with my brothers Carl Ellis, Mike Higgins and Jemar Tisby on the Reformed African American Network's podcast called Pass the Mic. You can check that out here.  

I was angry, I cried out to God with tears and mourning. I petitioned God to fix this and I ended the day with trust that God is sovereign, He is on His throne and that Jesus reigns. I trust that Satan will not have the day and that we, God's soldiers, are still waging war against hate, sin, racism and violence. We wage this war with love, hope, prayer, service, brotherhood and truth. While we wage this war we look symbolically to the East, as Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn looked for the first light on the third day in hopes of seeing Gandalf riding down the slopes of Rohan to their rescue at Helm's Deep. For we have one greater than Gandalf, a true hero, who is real, who will come and rescue us and ultimately remove evil and sin, death and destruction. As my friend the Rev. Curt Presley says "When death took on Jesus of Nazareth....He took on too much." This is what the Christian must cling to in the midst of these times. We must live as if this is true and "lean into" that truth as my brother Jemar Tisby is inclined to to say. We must hope for a day when we will see: 
"a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." Revelation 21: 1-4 
However, in the present, I feel that this lament will go on for a while. I don't think it is something I will ever forget in my lifetime. I will share with my children and grandchildren where I was and what I did on July 18, 2015. I am not writing this piece to "comment" on this situation or to offer any insight that hasn't already been offered. I am writing because I believe God has been preparing me for such a time as this. He has been preparing me from my childhood for days like yesterday. I am only deeply saddened that it is this event, this tragic, hate-filled, terrorist act that the Lord is using my experiences, studies and even my childhood to speak up. I am someone who is a white male, grew up in Charleston, became a Christian in an African American Baptist church in Charleston, who went to high school across the street from Emanuel AME, who went to graduate school (History M.A.) at the College of Charleston (again...across the street from Emanuel AME), who was a graduate assistant at the Avery Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston, who has a heart for racial reconciliation in Charleston, who knows and loves the history, the city and the people there, who studied the African American religious history  of Charleston, SC (at University of Mississippi) for his Ph.D and is now a member of a multiethnic PCA church in Jackson, MS. It has been pretty clear to me that God has called me not to be silent for such a time as this. Also, for me, writing is important in the process of lament. It is my hope that my words might provide some context, some hope, some encouragement, some hard truth and some vision for moving forward. 

I wish to follow in the great footsteps of the Rev. John B. Adger, the Rev. John Lafayette Girardeau, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, my grandfather Dr. Otis W. Pickett, Jr., The Honorable J. Waties Waring, Armand Derfner, Ted Stern, Jack Bass and other white friends and advocates for African Americans in the city of Charleston. All of these people have sacrificed something for the good of their African American brothers and sisters. All of those people have done far more than I have ever done or will ever do, but it is my hope that one day I will be counted among their number. It is my hope that white Christians in Charleston, across the South, and across the country would also want to stand up, speak, act and use whatever resources we have access to in order to be advocates for our African American brothers and sisters. I realize that there are also millions of interactions that go unseen. These are interactions that happen with teary-eyed hugs, moments of kindness, writing of checks, invitations into homes, holding hands in prayer and "behind closed door" kindness. These are the kind of actions that Christians are called to and I have witnessed them from white and African American Charlestonians for decades. Please know that there are many white Christians of good will in Charleston. However, many of these people and these interactions only God, and those involved in the interaction, will know about. Christian, do not expect the world to report on these events. You will not see them, but they are happening. I believe that there are hundreds of thousands of those kinds of interactions going on yesterday and today in Charleston. They will be happening over the next several weeks. I have hope that they will continue and will outnumber and overwhelm the actions of hate with actions of love. I also have hope that these lives will not be lost in vain and that God will use some good out of this action to continue to undo racism in our society.  

Yet, I must also speak of a harder history. For to only mention the former would be like describing heaven to someone without also describing hell. There is a history of whites in Charleston who have sought to dehumanize, kill, rape, injure, murder, pillage, defame, degrade and demean our African Americans brothers and sisters for centuries. This began when the first African American slaves entered the port of Charleston and would spend a lifetime in degrading slavery: a slavery that dehumanized people to property and to treatment like animals for multiple generations. There was never any hope of freedom for many of these slaves, only a lifetime of bondage and constant fear and suffering. Words cannot describe what hell this life must have been like. There is a history of whites in Charleston that hanged Denmark Vesey and thirty five other members of Emanuel AME church in a farce suspected of a slave insurrection in a farce of a trial and many of those whites in Charleston later burned Emanuel AME because they didn't want African Americans congregating autonomously in worship spaces. There is a history of whites in South Carolina who murdered six African Americans in 1876 in what was called the Hamburg Massacre. Those white men in Hamburg were charged, but never tried. In 1877, whites began systematically removing the vote from African Americans in South Carolina through violence and intimidation. In the late 1890s, South Carolinians began segregating schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, worship spaces and work spaces thus relegating African Americans to the lowest and meanest forms of labor. 

There is a history of whites in South Carolina, who participated in lynching of African Americans, and of whites in Charleston who sought to deny African Americans their constitutional rights to participate as first class citizens. There is a history of whites in South Carolina who murdered three young African Americans in 1968 in Orangeburg, SC, (in what is called the Orangeburg Massacre) injuring twenty eight others. Finally, as of June 17, 2015, we have added yet another massacre to the list: The Emanuel AME Massacre of 9 brothers and sisters in Christ. This is disturbing on many levels because it is not only a mass shooting (something we have grown too accustomed to in America over the last few decades), but also a targeted, racially driven attack on African Americans. On yet another level, this should also hit close to home for any Christian as we are now entering a time in Christendom across the world where Christians are being murdered, beheaded and slaughtered. This is disturbing on many, many levels. The only bible verse I can think to describe a reaction to this is John 11:35...."Jesus wept."   

I add the Emanuel AME massacre to the history because it is a terrorist crime of hate specifically targeting African Americans. I remember giving a tour one day at the Avery Center for African American History and Culture and I was talking about the center's historical display interpreting violence, through the institution of slavery, against African Americans in South Carolina. One older African American gentleman in the group stopped me and he said something I will never forget. He said, "Otis, I want you to know that terrorism against this country and its citizens did not start on September 11, 2001. It started in the murder and lynching of my African American relatives who were American citizens in the 1890s." He was absolutely right. 

We must not, as white Charlestonians, South Carolinians, Americans and Christians, explain away Dylann Roof as a lone, crazy, mentally disturbed individual on drugs. As Christians, we must see this as evil. It is hate, it is evil and all people, because they are sinners, are capable of such evil. There is real evil and sin in this world and it manifested itself on June 17, 2015. One of my African American pastor friends asked this question, which I think really touches on this issue. He asked "Just asking: Why don't we Americans say Arab suicide bombers must've had mental illness issues when they terrorized a community?"[1] Or why is it that ISIS is evil and white, racist terrorists are mentally unstable? How else, but through racial hatred, can one describe shooting nine people, with heads bowed in prayer and letting a woman live so she could hear him say "Yes. You are raping our women and taking over the country." Dylan Roof then "took aim at the oldest person present, Susie Jackson, 87" and according to Mr. Sanders's aunt, "Mr. Sanders told the man to point the gun at him instead, but the man said, 'It doesn't matter. I'm going to shoot all of you'."

As Americans, South Carolinians and Charlestonians, we have to realize that this evil started somewhere, was cultivated somewhere and was supported by people in Dylann Roof's life. Yes, Dylann is a sinner and capable of this and it started in his heart ("The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Genesis 6:5), that is clear. What is unclear is how the structures in place around him (parents, family networks, schools, government institutions, and culture, media, peer networks and symbols) allowed a sinful disposition of racism to grow and cultivate in his heart to the point that he became determined to kill African Americans in prayer. In order to understand how this hatred was promoted, we must recognize that this young man grew up in a state with a history of racial violence and with a history of racism. If we recognize this then we must also know that in some way this culture and history contributed to a cultivation and refinement of racism and violence in his heart and mind. I say refinement because he was able to make connections between the confederate flag license plate on his car to apartheid flags of South Africa and Rhodesia. For those that are not aware, many southern segregationists, like South Carolinian and former Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond, talked openly about supporting Rhodesia.

Indeed, there are structures still in place in the State of South Carolina that augment and buttress the opinions of individuals with racist views. When young children grow up in South Carolina and are not taught about the history of the flag, what it stood for during the Lost Cause era and during the Civil Rights movement, then they do not realize that for the last one hundred and fifty years that flag stood for individuals who supported slavery, segregation, racism and hatred. If parents or teachers do not correctly provide the frameworks and context for children to understand what these images mean then children end up accepting the message of these images along the lines of how their community, family and friends interpret the flag. Many times you hear things like, "This is our heritage. No Yankee (and a Yankee can be anyone who is non-white and not from that person's particular hometown. I have heard of Charlestonians referring to North Carolinians as Yankees and people from one county in Pickens, SC calling people over in Oconee, SC county a Yankee. Anyone determined by a small group of people to be an "other," in any way can be a Yankee) is going to come down here and tell me I can't fly this flag." This kind of attitude and speech can send the wrong signals to white children who trust their family and peer networks deeply and sometimes see teachers, professors, African Americans and non-South Carolinians as liberal outsiders who want to "defeat" them by taking away their beloved images. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that Dylann Roof may have heard utterances like the ones I mentioned above. If you grow up in South Carolina....you hear stuff like that and there are images and vestiges of this all over the place including Confederate flags, streets and buildings named after segregationists.

Worse, this culture can begin to captivate the church and biblical doctrine into what Dr. Carl Ellis calls "Christianity-ism" or "anti-Christian institutions couched it in Christian terminology." The KKK is famous for this as is the Lost Cause movement and segregationists in the 1950s and 60s who used biblical terminology to defend segregation, intermarriage between African Americans and whites (then called amalgamation) and to prevent African Americans from joining white churches. Many hate groups today justify their activities and beliefs in abhorrent mis-interpretations of the bible and of Christian theology. Since Christianity is woven into the fabric of South Carolina culture it is impossible sometimes to separate the two. The culture informs the religion and sometimes the religion informs the culture. However, we must recognize that the institution of slavery and how white Christians dehumanized African Americans for centuries can color the lenses of how many Christians in America view race. We must understand that the church has been culturally captive and had lost its prophetic voice in the late eighteenth century to speak into how the culture at the time viewed African Americans. The church would continue to lose its prophetic voice to speak against slavery, segregation, violence and mistreatment of African Americans up until very recently. The church must regain its prophetic voice and Christians must speak into the culture declaring "African Americans are our brothers and sisters; they have value, dignity and their lives matter." We must do everything we can, especially in light of our failures in history, to do everything to ensure that society values our brothers and sisters and that we can make sure that institutions within our society not mistreat them in any way because of their race.        

Finally, the message this can also send to young South Carolinians, who might be developing racist views toward African Americans because of the images, structures and rhetoric surrounding them is that they can "make daddy (or whoever they are hearing racist language from) proud" and stand up to the perceived threat through displaying a "southern honor" by violence (If you haven't yet read Bertram Wyatt-Brown's wonderful history of this called Southern Honor then I would encourage you to do so). The father of Dylann Roof gave him a gun on his twenty first birthday after the young man had just been arrested. Is it too much of a leap to say that the culture of racism and violence surrounding him might have given him the worldview possible to begin down a long road of racist thoughts and hatred cultivated in his heart over time, which would ultimately lead to murder. 

Indeed, there is a long, long history of "honor" violence in South Carolina's history and much of that still runs in the culture and mannerisms of white "red faced, hot blooded and fire eating" South Carolinians. There is a reason why South Carolinians like Preston Brooks and Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman are the only legislators to have started fights on the floor of the U.S. Senate (Preston Brooks almost beat abolitionist Charles Sumner to death with a cane in 1856). There is a reason why South Carolina seceded first, wanted to secede in the 1830s over the Tariff of Abominations, why it was the first to fire shots on Union territory (Fort Sumter) in 1860 and why one state representative described it as a place "too small to be a republic and too big to be an insane asylum."  Violent honor culture is not only limited to South Carolina, but for decades South Carolina has defined it. Charlestonians and South Carolinians need to stop saying "this massacre doesn't reflect our state and our city" and own the fact that "we have a long history of racial violence, that we continue to facilitate racial violence by not removing symbols of hate and fail at appropriately educating our citizens to deal with and walk through our troubled past openly and honestly." It is time to just own it. 

In terms of moving forward, the state of Mississippi has been incredibly blessed by institutes working for Racial Reconciliation (http://winterinstitute.org), Mission Mississippi, the oldest organization working for Racial Reconciliation in the country (www.missionmississippi.net), and through the very powerful work of multiethnic churches like Voice of Calvary, Redeemer Jackson (PCA) and One Church. Mississippi still has a long way to go, but I believe it is much better equipped to deal with questions on race because they have been dealing with it for so long and have developed paid positions for people to think through these issues, provide resources to the state and its leaders in government and to push the conversation forward. I also cannot begin to say what a blessing being a member of a multi-ethnic church has been. I think we need to support the development of multi-ethnic churches, the support of education for African American teaching elders and to see multi-ethnicity as a biblical issue, not just a cultural one. 

May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have mercy on us and may our Lord and savior Jesus Christ shepherd us through this time and may we lean into the truth of Revelation 21 and actually live today like we believe it is true.  

Otis Pickett is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Mississippi College, Clinton, MS. You can follow him on Twitter @OtisWPickett


[1] Rev. C.J. Rhodes of Mt. Helm Baptist Church asked this question on social media.