Saturday, June 20, 2015

This is an opportunity to repent

Prayer In Church - Gerard Sekoto, 1947

I can't stop watching the courtroom video footage of the families of the victims killed this week at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church addressing the defendant, Dylann Roof. It's more what we hear than what we see that keeps me hitting the play button over and over again.  

Projected onto a screen in the corner of the courtroom we see the image of Roof dressed in prison uniform standing with two armed guards.  He looks downward as one after another the family representatives speak directly to him.

"I forgive you. You have taken something precious from me. You have hurt me. May God have mercy on your soul." 

"I forgive you and my family forgives you.  We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Give your life to Christ and He will change you." 

"We welcomed you Wednesday night into our Bible Study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know.  Every fiber in my body hurts and I'll never be the same. But as we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you. May God have mercy on you."

In the outpouring of response to this evil event, the quietness and strength of the family member's voices cut through my own questions: How should I pray?  How should I respond?  What does it look and sound like to be a Christian right here, right now?

I've seen many calls for the Church to show solidarity with Charleston in our words and songs of prayer, mourning, and lament.  This is a right response to death and violence and racism.  I've seen counter calls for more action, protest and mobilization for change in our churches and in our country's response to what is, in the words of one commentator, "the scourge of racism".  This, too, is a right response. Prayer, lament, and works of justice are all acts of worship given to us by our Creator who formed us.  

Confession and forgiveness are also acts of worship, maybe even the bridge that connects mourning and mobilizing. They are as familiar as the words our Lord taught us to pray and are crucial to our responses to racism.

In all the words flooding my blog reader and social media newsfeeds this week I have seen few calls for confession, forgiveness and repentance.  I’m talking about the kind of call for a change of mind and heart that is pointed inward and not outward for someone else to recognize and own.  

I think, immersed in their own pain and without an agenda to speak to all of us, the families of the victims we hear in the video give us the essential elements for a full-throated response to the Charleston killings: expressions of lament, petitions for mercy, calls for justice, responses of forgiveness and invitations to those not yet reconciled to God through Christ.

When I listened the first time to the video and heard our fellow Anglican priest, Reverend Anthony Thompson, speak to his wife's killer I heard him as if he were speaking to me:  "We would like you to take this opportunity to repent."  Because I believe that God’s spirit convicts us, I have to believe that it was His Holy Spirit who took Reverend Thompson’s words offered to one man and pointed them to me as well.  

As I've been praying for a right response I've recognized a particular defense mechanism that crops up in me -- unwittingly and, often, unnoticed. It seems to be a common posture toward racism among those raised in my particular background (geographical, cultural, religious, family).  At the risk of using a soundbite, but for the sake of being clear, I'll call it the "They're playing the race card" dismissal. Buried into my belief system, I seem to have picked up the notion that I'm smart enough to determine the difference between true acts of racism and those who'd exploit suffering for their own ideological gain. 

At the very best, this posture represents an intellectual laziness toward the historical, sociological and economic complexities of racism in the United States.

At the very worst, it's a passive-aggressive way to say "I don’t care and can't be bothered with your suffering."  

Christ taught us that what was in our hearts incriminates us as much as the actions we do or leave undone.  In this way, my sins -- committed or omitted -- of prejudice, apathy, and refusal to acknowledge that countless numbers of my brothers and sisters have something against my ignorance of their suffering accuses me also. I nurture the environment of racism with my own half-hearted responses and hidden assumptions.  

I'm a middle-class white woman who lives in a mostly white neighborhood. I admit that I don't have any experience with racism, but I do have experience with another sort of suffering that requires a thoughtful response. Brian and I have spent much of our time in the last ten years praying with small groups of people who have been relationally or sexually wounded. We started praying and talking with others in this quiet space because of our own suffering and then could not stop because it's the closest place to God we've been able to find on this earth.

In these quiet rooms, men and women who have reason both to accuse and to be accused take God at His word, that He will draw near to the brokenhearted and hear our words of lament, forgiveness, confession and petitions for justice.  We grieve together for all of the ways we have given and received every sort of human violation.  

I've heard men and women who have been abused, ignored, rejected, abandoned, beaten, raped, molested, betrayed, neglected, cheated, and shunned choose, in the presence of God and trusted friends, to forgive with the same sort of words as Ethel Lance's daughter, "You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you. May God have mercy on your soul." I've also heard men and women who had vowed to take hidden sins to their grave, so deep the shame and embarrassment, make confession in response to an invitation much like Reverend Thompson's "Repent, repent."

This is a different sort of suffering brought on by a different sort of sin, but the response to the Gospel is strikingly similar as the prayers we hear in the video footage. Reverend Thompson showed Dylann Roof a great kindness in his invitation to repentance.  While he was not speaking to us, we would be wise to hear that same invitation for ourselves because lament, confession and mobilization are delicately and worshipfully intertwined.

In their courage and anguish, the Christians in Charleston inadvertently delivered a call to worship for the whole Church. If the racist actions of one man in Charleston gives us all an opportunity to repent, perhaps the courage of his victims to forgive in the face of hate will offer that same mercy of God over each one of us, as well.

For my own response, I've been praying the Confession from the Book of Common Prayer, inserting the specific acts of commission and omission that the Holy Spirit brings to my mind. I've copied and pasted it here, if it will help your own search for a right response.

Most merciful God,
I confess that I have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what I have done,
and by what I have left undone.
I have not loved you with my whole heart;
I have not loved my neighbors as myself.
I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on me and forgive me;
that I may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us all our sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in
eternal life. Amen.

May the peace of Christ be with Charleston and with you.
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