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.