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The tragic news of the fatal shooting of nine people as they worshipped at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is sadly not so much a shock as further confirmation that we live in perilous times.
That this happened in a church adds a theological dimension to questions of race and America’s infatuation with guns.
Enduring racial hatred
Human hatred for ‘the other’ has, since the beginning of time, juxtaposed itself against the divine injunction to love one another as our basis for loving God. Cain killing his brother Abel very early on in the biblical story sets the tone for this difficult relationship. Over the past months we have witnessed gruesome sights of beheadings and mutilation on our TV screens and so-called social media, many of which are reminiscent of the worst of medieval atrocities. We have become virtually shockproof.
The present is almost always rooted in the past. And I am reminded that, in spite of its veneer of peaceful race coexistence, black progress and a black president in the White House, the US has a sordid history of lynchings and racist laws that supported an infrastructure of white supremacy. The impressive work and sacrifice of civil rights leaders, past and present, and the progress made has not pleased or indeed benefited everyone.
The regular deaths of African Americans at the hands of white police officers is a constant reminder of ‘look how far we have not come’ in terms of race in America. It would be wrong to say that no progress has been made, but it is tempting to exaggerate how much; particularly among those who seek to promote American cultural and ideological dominance to the world.
A love affair with guns
It is surprising that many Americans feel safer with a gun than without one and are fighting to keep guns available as a human right. Sadly, one of the spinoffs of this terrible love affair with firearms is that they are readily available to any loony or race hater who wishes to give vent to his or her idiocy or pent-up hate of the other; often the black other. Having said that, when I hear that the police are looking for a white suspect in Charleston, I guess one response might be to recall that there was a time when the police would not even have been looking.
That this latest shooting happened in one of America’s longest-established black churches brings added poignancy. The families of the dead may wonder where God was at this time. This question has been asked many times over the centuries whenever atrocities upon black lives seemed to evade the attention of a God who could be perceived to be working on the side of the evildoer. But we know that not to be true. God is a God of justice, but as my mother used to say, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ Even the weak must say, ‘I am strong.’
So it’s time to better understand the nature of God and how, as we are given divine strength, we can learn to be more vigilant, especially about our security. Black Christians today, in America especially, must learn to pray with one eye open, as it were.
Bishop Dr Joe Aldred is an ecumenist, broadcaster, writer and speaker. His latest book From Top Mountain: An Autobiography is available now
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