By Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield
In order for me to share the impact of August 12, 2017, I need to go back in time first. It is June, 2015. I am in South Carolina, a state I called home for nearly 20 years. It is June, 2015 and I am living in Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital, the one where the Confederate flag flew defiantly on the state house grounds from 1961 until July of 2015. On June 18th I wake to the news of the shooting at the historic, Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The evening before, at Mother Emmanuel, nine people, including the pastor, had been murdered in cold blood while attending a Bible study, the shooter was a young man, a white supremacist, who wanted to start a race war, a young man, it will be revealed, who was raised in a white, mainline, Protestant church just down the road from mine. In other words, a white supremacist so virulent that he killed nine African American brothers and sisters in Christ, in a church, during a Bible study, after he was welcomed by them and sat beside them for an hour and waited until they bowed their heads in prayer to execute them. This man was raised in a church not unlike the one that raised me and not unlike the one I serve. How, I lamented, could this happen?
I grieved with my adopted state and wrapped in my protective white privilege, resting in the secure bubble of my white safety, wrapped in the rarified ignorance of my white obliviousness, I thought: This is an evil, horrendous, exceptional event.
Never mind that in that same state on the campus of the flagship public university sits the Strom Thurmond Fitness Center, a huge edifice on the corner of what the builder says is “the fourth most active intersection in South Carolina and not far from the state capital.” It opened not in the 1950’s or 60’s or 70’s or 80’s or 90’s but was dedicated in 2003.
Never mind that during the transatlantic slave trade about 40 percent of enslaved Africans brought into the country passed through Charleston Harbor.
Never mind that when I asked my African American colleague in that wealthy, storied, Southern city to write something a year later, in the wake of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man, he said, “And just think - America and the world sat glued to the television in dismay again last night over yet another senseless death. My head and heart worked all night to keep the lid on my outrage as seemingly… the life and spirit of a black male has 0 value.”
Despite all of that and SO MUCH MORE, I was naïve enough, because I could be, to be surprised by racial prejudice, to be largely unaware of centuries of systemic and structural racism, and subsequently shocked by the insidious, ever present and growing white supremacy not only in this country but in white Christianity.
How utterly sinful of me. What an affront to the One Body of which I am a part, the Body that is to be so united and connected that it hurts when others hurt and weeps with those who weep.
Three years ago, I moved to Charlottesville and began to get acclimated: UVA has grounds, not a campus, Thomas Jefferson is everywhere, Vinegar Hill was once a thriving, predominately African-American neighborhood that was destroyed in the name of so-called urban renewal.
I followed the statue debate, heard the KKK was coming, got connected with the Charlottesville Clergy Collective and prepared for that mid-August weekend of two years ago.
As we met and made plans, I thought some of our group were alarmist about the potential for violence. How utterly sinful. What an affront to the One Body of which I profess to be a part, the Body that is supposed to be so connected that it knows intimately the pain of any member of it.
On August 12, I donned my stole and went to the sunrise worship service in this very space. I sang and prayed and was moved by the preachers and energized by the crowd and I marched and then took my place at First United Methodist and waited and watched and was shocked, sinfully shocked as the day unfolded, because I had the privilege of being shocked, the luxury of not subjected to the daily threat of violence or centuries long structural discrimination codified in policy and enforced by terror not only episodic but calculated, pervasive, systemic and baked into our infrastructure and institutions, all of them, including the one I serve.
God forgive me, It took the weekend of August 11 and 12th, in this historic, storied city from which liberty for all supposedly sprung, to remove the scales from my eyes, only then did I recognize that the tragedy at Mother Emmanuel was not a horrific outlier, it was emblematic of our past, representative of our present, and a loud bell weather of our future.
I owe an apology to my African American siblings and my Jewish, Muslim and Hispanic ones, too, because resting in my privilege, I not only allowed, but through my inaction and silence enabled and therefore participated in the hate that would erupt into deadly violence, again and again and again.
Historian of race and religion, Jemar Tisby, writing to white Christians, warns: “Sin in the form of white nationalism crouches at the door of every congregation.”
In the wake of August, 2017 and Pittsburgh and Poway, Christ Church and Gilroy and El Paso, I must confess that white nationalism does not only crouch at the doorway of every white congregation, but all too often worships in its pews and preaches from its pulpits.
It is not enough, however, to confess, I, and my fellow white Christians, must repent and repentance requires not just an openness to being transformed by God, but a willingness make tangible, earthly amends, to do all that is on our power to repair the damage our action and inaction have wrought.
My faith tradition is one in which we are taught that every person is a beloved child of God.
We are told that God desires life, and life abundant, for everyone.
We are reminded over and over again to work for justice and stand on the side of the oppressed.
We are admonished that God will judge us based on how we treat those being marginalized and hurt in our world.
We learn that the most basic and important tenet of our religion is love of God and neighbor…and yet…
All to often we, those like me, live as if our Lord came to bless our heritage, bolster our unearned benefits and baptize our entitlement rather than trouble the waters and upend all that robs others of their God-given dignity, humanity, and worth.
God forgive me, it took August 12, 2017 with torch carrying neo-Nazis and semi-automatic wielding militias and Confederate flag wagging white supremacists and van loads of organized, vitriolic slogan shouting alt-right nationalists to see, really see, the truth of not only our history, but of our present reality of hate against others who do not look like me, and therefore don’t have the luxury of my heretofore willful ignorance and deadly complicity.
I am truly sorry and I humbly repent and that means working for real change: personal, systemic, structural, in every arena of our life together, until that day when truly we are ONE beloved community, with liberty, justice and not just equality, but equity for ALL.