Among the nine innocents murdered at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston Carolina this past Wednesday was Pastor Clementa Pinckney. Reverend Pinckney is my cousin, and our parents lived just across the field growing up in Marion, South Carolina. Our families have remained very close over the years. I knew them before I knew the world. We were all molded from the same clay.
Pastor Pinckney was the real deal. He was always one of the bright ones. He did very well in school, and was called to preach at the age of 13. By the age of 18 he had become a pastor. After college he served as an intern for a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives. When she retired, Clementa ran for her seat, and at the age of 23 was the youngest person ever elected to serve in the House. In another unprecedented achievement, Pinckney was elected to the South Carolina Senate at age 27. In between raising a family and serving as a pastor, Pinckney earned at least two masters degrees. At the age of 41 he was just beginning to fulfill all of the promise his hard work and dedication had earned him.
But growing up back then in rural South Carolina we were just normal kids. Our lives were full of innocence, laughter, harmless mischief. Our community saw our parents’ offspring as the future potential at a young age. They said we were the hope for a brighter future. So when Rev. Pinckney and my brother Kent were elected to the state senate, this represented the fulfillment of that hope.
Some of that hope died Wednesday in that church. The survivors, including my brother Kent and I, know that Clementa’s absence puts more responsibility on our shoulders to continue the work he had begun. That will not be easy. Pinckney was always a bridge builder. Everywhere he went, he was a living example of his faith. His sermon and his testimony were how he lived his life. He was affable. He was just. He could be trusted. As a state senator along with my brother, where he served on the senate finance committee, he was doggedly principled. Clementa left a legacy of achievement despite his humble origins. He did not allow the circumstances to define him. He changed the circumstances and made the world better. He was able to accomplish at age 41 what most people never do in a lifetime.
Our job as people of faith and those who are from the community of Charleston is to keep moving forward. We must grieve and we must heal. We cannot allow the evil that crept into Emanuel A.M.E. church to infect our own hearts. Even though vengeance may be a tempting thought amidst so much agonizing pain, it is best left for the Lord to right this wrong. What we can do is to continue to build. Our company Howard Stirk Holdings owns a television station in Charleston, WGWG. We employ people in the community and provide positive, uplifting programming suitable for all ages.
In a stirring speech before the South Carolina Senate earlier this year, Senator Pinckney talked about the murder of Walter Scott by a Charleston police officer. In calling for police body cameras, Pinckney cited the story of Thomas who was the only disciple absent when Jesus rose from the grave and visited his followers. Thomas could not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, and walked through a locked door to visit with the disciples. But the next week Thomas was there and Jesus walked in. Thomas touched the wounds on Jesus’ side. It was only when he was able to do that he believed.
To some people of faith evil is merely an abstraction, something we read about in the Bible but don’t really see in our daily lives. But evil does exist in this world, and it infects people with a spiritual sickness. It is one thing to see these things on television — whether it was the mass murders at a Colorado movie theatre, or the murder of children at an elementary school in Sandy Hook. It can sometimes seem like an abstraction. But when it hits so close to home, it forces us to confront the reality that evil does exist in this world.
All of our humanity was robbed Wednesday. No matter what the stated motives of the gunman, whenever you murder so many innocent people it is a hate crime. But it is not about the race of the victims or assailant. This was an act of hatred against humanity. And so no matter what the setting or what the origins of the victims, when events like this occur we are all affected.
We cannot win against the onslaught of evil if we continue to be divided over things like race, class, gender, and nationality. We cannot be so easily manipulated by the devil as to believe that there is a black humanity and a white humanity. If anything this tragic event should be a warning to us all of the ultimate problem of teaching our children to hate another person based on their race. That goes for black and white parents, educators, and law enforcement alike. Teaching inferiority is just as bad as teaching superiority. Either allows one to view someone else as less than human and undeserving of being treated with human dignity. You cannot win a war against evil with a divisive strategy that destroys us from within. That is precisely what the devil wants.
In the absence of courage, fear and hatred lurk and fester. Hatred is the opiate which emboldens the fearful to commit acts of true horror. However, I am reminded of the conversation between a minor demon and his uncle depicted in C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Screwtape Letters. In it the demon’s uncle counsels his nephew about how to corrupt men through both virtues and vices. He says at one point:
We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, God permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing, with consequent repentance and humility.
These times call for courage. Let all of us come together and honor the courage and sacrifice of those brave and innocent souls who were called to God. Let us put on the armor of the Lord and sally forth as one nation, indivisible, upholding the banner of liberty and justice. For only then will we be able to defeat the moral enemy in our midst.