Charleston killings: reflections of an AME minister

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Just one week after the killing of the "Emanuel Nine," worshippers gathered again for Bible study at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the same room the murders took place.

While many reporters have marveled at and praised the parishioners from Emanuel for their courage and resiliency, as an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, I am acutely aware that for more than 200 years African American Christians have not only preached love and forgiveness, they have repeatedly demonstrated the compassion, courage, and strength to practice that love and forgiveness.

While the system of chattel slavery has it's "legal" beginnings in 1640, when the Virginia courts sentenced one of the first black indentured servants to slavery, the stage for chattel slavery was set in 1619 when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia. A Dutch ship, the White Lion, captured 20 enslaved Africans in a battle with a Spanish ship. They landed at Jamestown for repairs from the battle. For food and supplies, the Dutch traded the enslaved Africans to the colonists as indentured servants.

By the time John Adams' edited "Declaration of Independence" was adopted on July 4, 1776, and the Continental Congress formally declared the name of the new nation to be the "United States of America" on Sept. 9, 1776, chattel slavery was a legally sanctioned and well established part of the fabric of American society.

In 1787, a mere decade after the founding of the nation, the foundation for the AME Church was laid when Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established the Free African Society in Philadelphia. The FAS was a black mutual aid society dedicated to serving the spiritual, economic and social needs of Philadelphia's African-American community.

In 1794, Bethel AME Church was dedicated with Richard Allen as pastor. To establish Bethel's independence from white Methodists who repeatedly tried to control the church and seize its property, Allen, a former slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution. Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the AME Church.

While the geographical spread of the AME Church was mainly restricted to the Northeast and Midwest, the slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, and South Carolina became additional locations for AME congregations.

In 1816, black members of Charleston's Methodist Episcopal Church withdrew over disputed burial grounds. Under the leadership of the Reverend Morris Brown, the members organized a church that sought to be affiliated with Allen's AME Church. This church, which eventually became known as Emanuel AME Church, is one of the oldest and most prominent AME churches in the South.

Throughout its nearly 200 year history, Charleston's Emanuel AME Church has been the target of ongoing racial discrimination, hatred and violence, beginning with the church being burned down in 1822 when Reverend Brown and the church were accused of involvement with a planned slave revolt.

While acts of racial violence against black churches may not be a daily occurrence in America, as an ordained AME minister I am painfully aware that racial violence directed at black churches is part of the history (and present reality) of black churches in America.

From the burning down of Emanuel AME in 1822 to the church bombings of the 1960s, the church burnings of the 1990s, and the recent murder of the Emanuel Nine, it is clear that racial violence against black churches are not isolated events limited to mentally troubled individuals. Instead, they are all part of a legacy of racist violence (often committed and supported by white Christians) that targets black people and black churches.

While black Americans have repeatedly demonstrated the compassion, courage and strength necessary to forgive racial violence and oppression, it's time we as a nation stop pretending that racial violence and oppression in America is an anomaly and that black forgiveness of racial oppression and violence is a virtue.

The type of systemic racist violence perpetrated against black people in America is often called "terrorism" when committed by other groups of people. Rarely, however, I have heard the word "terrorism" used to describe the legacy of racist violence in America that targets black people and black churches.

While I recognize and acknowledge the value and power of forgiveness, I also recognize that we as a nation do not promote and praise as a virtue the forgiveness of terrorism. Instead we aggressively seek the eradication of terrorism.

Although I often question the motivation, ideology and practices underlying America's so-called "war on terrorism," I do hope that we as a nation will develop the courage, compassion and strength to name and to eradicate societal conditions that have fostered and promoted the terrorizing of black people (and black churches) in America for nearly four hundred years.

Read on for a second post on the Charleston killings.

Reflections of an AME minister – 2.0

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton sent a letter calling ELCA communities to a Day of Mourning and Repentance on June 28 in response the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Joining this call for repentance, the office of College Ministries at Luther College invited the community to a time of prayer and solidarity with Charleston on Tuesday, June 30, in Bentdahl Commons.

During that time of prayer and solidarity, I shared that as a professor of religion at Luther College and an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, I am acutely aware of the AME/Lutheran connections that underlie the tragic killing of nine people during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church.

Both the Reverend Clementa Pickney, pastor of Emanuel AME, and the Reverend Daniel Simmons, associate pastor of Emanuel, were graduates of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. The shooter, Dylan Roof, is a member of an ELCA congregation.

There are also other deep AME/Lutheran ties connected to this story. Daniel Payne, a bishop in the AME church was born a free black person in Charleston, on Feb. 24, 1811. Payne was raised in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He studied at home, teaching himself mathematics, physical science and classical languages. In 1829, at the age of 18, he opened his first school for black students.

After the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, South Carolina and other southern states passed legislation restricting the rights of both slaves and free people of color. They enacted a law on April 1, 1835, which made teaching literacy to slaves and to free people of color illegal and subject to fines and imprisonment. With the passage of this law, Payne had to close his school.

In May 1835, Payne sailed from Charleston to Philadelphia in search of further education. Declining the Methodists’ offer, which was contingent on Payne going on a mission to Liberia, established as a colony for free blacks from the United States, Payne studied at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

In April 1865, after the Civil War, Payne returned to the south for the first time in 30 years. Having been active in strengthening the AME denomination in the north, Payne took nine missionaries and worked with others in Charleston to strengthen the presence of the AME Church in the south.

In 1852, Payne was elected and consecrated the sixth bishop of the AME Church. He served in that position for the rest of his life. He also served on the founding board of directors of Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1856. The Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio is named in his honor.

Ever since the founding of the AME Church in the late 1700s, there has been and continues to be a rich history of productive engagement and interaction between the Lutheran Church and the AME Church, which makes this act of violence in Charleston even more tragic.

Immediately after the killings in Charleston, the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wrote, "All of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own."

As an AME minister who has just finished his 14th year of teaching at Luther College—a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—I have adopted the ELCA as my own.

While I know the ELCA is not responsible for teaching Dylan Roof to hate black people, I have taught at Luther College long enough and have interacted with enough students to know that many students come and leave Luther College without ever having their racist assumptions and stereotypes challenged. Some even engage in acts of racism against fellow classmates and even against faculty of color with little if any fear of experiencing consequences.

Racism is not only a fact of life in America, it is a fact of life at Luther College. While racism may not manifest itself as violently as it has in Charleston, or Ferguson, or Baltimore, it is present nonetheless.

As we mourn and repent of the tragedy in Charleston, we also need to engage in some honest and deep self-reflection and ask ourselves what are we doing as a college and as a community of faith to challenge the racist assumptions and stereotypes of those within our own community.

I'm sure the pastor and members of St Paul's Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina, did not teach Dylan Roof to hate black people. Similarly, I know that students at Luther College are not taught to hate black people. Do we as a college, however, do enough to confront and challenge racist assumptions and stereotypes? Is it possible that 21 year-old Dylan Roof could have graduated from Luther College and still committed these violent murders?

To quote Bishop Eaton once more, "Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage."

Thank you, Bishop Eaton.

Guy Nave

Guy Nave

Guy Nave, professor of religion, has been part of the Religion Department faculty since 2001, focusing on the topics of Christianity, biblical studies, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change," as well as the role of Christianity in bringing about social "change." In addition to writing for Luther College's Ideas and Creations blog, Nave is the founder of the online social media platform Clamoring for Change and is a guest contributor to a number of online sites, including Sojourners Commentary blog series.

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  • June 27 2015 at 10:46 pm
    Lula M. Bogerty
    Excellent historical interpretation, keep on giving us the truth.
  • June 27 2015 at 11:00 pm
    Guy Nave

    Thanks, sister Bogerty. I read somewhere, "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

  • June 27 2015 at 11:22 pm
    Hi Guy, I am so privileged to read such a thorough analysis of events. Thank you so much for your unrelenting sacrifice to fight racial evil in the US
    Thanks Guy. May our good Gid continue to give you the courage to fight this evil called racism
  • June 28 2015 at 6:36 am
    Mary W. Faircloth
    Thanks Guy for you Boldness, Tenacity, and Faithfulness to the cause of Justice , Peace and Truth. God had you in the right place, in the right time in history to make our collective voices heard. GODSPEED.
  • June 28 2015 at 8:09 am
    Guy Nave

    Thanks, Mary. I consider it an honor to have shared a pulpit with you and to work for the cause of justice, peace, and truth with you. God's speed to you as well.

  • June 29 2015 at 8:44 am
    Cole Melby
    Thank you for the historical perspective, Dr. Nave. The history is incredibly important to understand. These killings were an act of terrorism, no question.
  • June 29 2015 at 8:55 am

    Thanks Guy for sharing an interesting perspective on the murders/massacre in Charleston.  I was hoping that you would provide recommendations on how the Black community can help free itself from racial terrorism.  It should be clear to everyone that if our Nation hasn't done anything about the problem in over 400 years that the majority probably does not see this as an American issue, but rather a Black issue.  Is more rhetoric, well written position papers by educated theologians, or history lessons saturated with statements of fact and truth the answer?  Or is it time for Blacks to reclaim the activism of the 60s and 70s in order to take control of our own destiny?  I don't have the answer but hopefully you can provide some positive recommendations. 

  • June 29 2015 at 9:14 am
    Kevin Williams
    Guy, what an insightful and balanced historical analysis. It is what is is. It is ridiculous when various factions take positions based on what works for them in a given instance. Justice for one is justice for all at all points of the universe. Let's talk soon.
  • June 29 2015 at 11:30 am
    Guy Nave

    Thanks, Cole, Herman, and Kevin for your comments.

    Herman, you are so correct regarding the need for action. I struggle with figuring out HOW to reclaim the activism of the 60s and 70s in order to take control of our own destiny. While I don't have the answers either, hopefully all of us as pursers of justice we can collectively come up with some meaningful, practical, and transformative recommendations for eradicating racial terrorism in America. THANKS FOR THE CHARGE!

  • July 4 2015 at 7:27 pm
    John Thomas

    I believe the renewing of activism begins with the Spirit of the Lord or God at the forefront.  When reflecting back n the 60's & early 70"s, this 'Spirit permeated the black community beyond the church house; in worldly black music, black "improv" dance; and, to some degree, even in athletic organized demonstrated "talents (gifts).  Presently, with capitalism and commercialism - the 'Spirit is discarded and disrespected.  When activism starts with the 'Spirit of the Lord inwardly real....what will seem like "miraculous" change will occur.  Because....the inward heart of man is affected, effected, and the "defect" is changed, truly.  

  • July 5 2015 at 10:00 am
    Guy Nave

    Thanks, John for taking the time to respond. Spiritually inspired transformation is definitely a source of lasting transformation. This is the reason why churches should be on the front line of confronting and challenging all forms of social injustice. Too often churches remains silent in the face of injustice (injustices often fueled by self-centered ideologies like the two you identified: capitalism and commercialism). For activism to start with the "Spirit" it needs to be promoted and pursued by churches. In the 60's and 70's churches (especially black churches) were much more engaged in social activism. Churches today need to rediscover the words of Jesus recorded in Luke 4:16-21.

    Thanks, again John.

  • July 19 2015 at 1:13 pm
    Jonah Luebke
    Professor Nave, Thank you for the history lesson and for the compassion that you have for others. From this post alone, I have learned a lot about the history of slavery, along with the prevalence of racism in our country. Your words have encouraged me to be more cognizant of racism our country. I once read, "Wherever there is prayer, there is action." You're right, we must be in solidarity with those who have racist acts committed against them. Thanks again!

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