Bearing the Death of Jesus in Charleston, South Carolina

In his classic short story “Jesus Christ in Texas” (1920) W.E.B. DuBois explored what it might have looked like if Jesus had reappeared incarnate in the early twentieth century South. In the story a stranger, who a white pastor senses he has known long ago but can’t determine just where or when, secretly exchanges places and clothing with a black convict on the run from police. Falsely charged with attacking a white woman, the stranger is viciously lynched by a white mob.

DuBois describes the closing scene from the perspective of the white woman:

She shuddered as she heard the creaking of the limb where the body hung… she saw the dead man writhe. He stretched his arms out like a cross, looking upward. She gasped and clung to the window sill. Behind the swaying body, and down where the little, half-ruined cabin lay, a single flame flashed up amid the far-off shout and cry of the mob. A fierce joy sobbed up through the terror in her soul and then sank abashed as she watched the flame rise. Suddenly whirling into one great crimson column it shot to the top of the sky and threw great arms athwart the gloom until above the world and behind the roped and swaying form below hung quivering and burning a great crimson cross.

She hid her dizzy, aching head in an agony of tears, and dared not look, for she knew. Her dry lips moved: “Despised and rejected of men.”

She knew, and the very horror of it lifted her dull and shrinking eyelids. There, heaven-tall, earth-wide, hung the stranger on the crimson cross, riven and blood-stained, with thorn-crowned head and pierced hands. She stretched her arms and shrieked.

He did not hear. He did not see. His calm dark eyes, all sorrowful, were fastened on the writhing, twisting body of the thief, and a voice came out of the winds of the night, saying: “This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise!”

DuBois’s story is fiction, of course, albeit fiction that speaks a powerful truth. But in the events of this past week, beginning with the horrifying tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this story was played out in the truest way possible.

A deeply disturbed young man, filled with self-righteousness and hate, was determined to do what he could to spawn violence in return for perceived injustice. He was welcomed with open arms by Christians meeting for prayer. He was given the special seat just next to the pastor.

Near the end of the time of prayer he opened fire, murdering nine of the black worshipers in cold blood, and then turning his gun on himself. Only because his suicide attempt failed did he flee, to be captured later by police.

Those nine Christian women and men had taken up Christ’s story as their own, paying the ultimate price because they were willing to welcome a stranger. Like Jesus, they were betrayed by an enemy they had treated as a friend.

Immediately the national media and the politicians took up the appropriate battle cries, exploring the significance of the shooting for matters of race, gun control, or South Carolina’s Confederate flag. The public, liberals and conservatives alike, joined in the free for all on Facebook, Twitter, and other public fora. Evangelical leaders called for justice.

Some conservatives went so far as to bemoan the fact that the worshipers at Emanuel were not permitted to have and use guns to defend themselves. This is a completely understandable reaction. Jesus’ disciples also wanted to use the sword to defend their Lord when he was confronted by his enemies during that prayer meeting in Gethsemane. It is sobering that Jesus’ final act of healing before his death was in just this instance, on behalf of one of his enemies, a member of the armed mob who had been wounded due to Peter’s act of self-defense.

The family members of the victims at Emanuel also spurned the call to respond to hatred and violence with hatred and violence. They took up Jesus’ narrative further, speaking to the murderer himself in court:

Ethel Lance’s daughter:

I just want everyone to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never 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’ve hurt me. You’ve hurt a lot of people But God forgive you, and I forgive you.

Myra Thompson’s husband:

You know I forgive you and my family forgive you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it, can change your ways no matter what happened to you. And You’ll be OK.

Tywanza Sanders’s mother:

We welcomed you Wednesday night at our Bible Study with open arms. You have killed some of the most prettyfullest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same… But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.

How many of us would be capable of taking up Christ’s story in these ways? How many of us could offer such testimony and forgiveness?

Many of us are prepared to purchase a gun, to respond to hatred and violence with more violence, defending ourselves and the ones we love. And from an earthly standpoint the refusal to do defend oneself seems downright foolish. Jesus’ murderers laughed at him publicly because he claimed the power to defend himself but refused to do so. His response was simple: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

These brave Christian men and women of Charleston are enacting Jesus’ life and death in the most breathtaking way. Pray for them. Learn from them. This is the Gospel in action. This is Christian ethics in its purest form.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

 

 

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 22, 2015, in African Americans, Black Church, gun control, Racism, Sermon on the Mount and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Bearing the Death of Jesus in Charleston, South Carolina.

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