Lecrae Op-Ed: Charleston Shooting Comes From Deeply Rooted Racism & Injustice

Chris Stanford
Lecrae photographed by Chris Stanford on August 28, 2014 at Reach Records in Atlanta, Georgia.

To gain the meaning of a situation, especially a tragic one, humanity will undoubtedly create a narrative. We have to. We have to do this in order to reconcile in our minds what all the chaos means. We are, by nature, social scientists who believe that when tragic things happen, there is an antagonist and protagonist and a storyline to be told.

The question is which narrative will be told? Who will be the protagonist and [the] antagonist? Through what paradigm will it be seen? We have pretty much come to terms with the fact that even media outlets -- that should only give facts surrounding a story -- have their own narratives that usually lean toward particular audiences.

You see, we all have our own ideas of how stories should be told. And we don't want to hear our protagonists being denigrated or antagonists being applauded.

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So, in the case of Charleston, which seems pretty cut and dry to some, we all find ourselves coming to different conclusions. The different headlines alone sometimes allude to the narrative that will be told:

"Christians Killed During Prayer Meeting"
"White Man Kills 9 Members of Black Church in South Carolina"
"Dylann Roof, 21, Unexpectedly Kills 9 People"

It's very probable, with headlines such as these, that a particular angle will be taken, and, in writing this, I wrestled with which narrative I could tackle.

There is the view that because Christians were killed in a church, that this becomes an issue for evangelical Christians. From this angle, it would be expected that there would be a call to prayer, peace, and unity; we'd be encouraged to not let the issue of race and ethnicity cloud the reality that we are all broken people who need a savior and this event being evidence of that. Though I'd agree with much of that perspective, for me, it's a reductionist view of what has taken place here. I'd hope if nine people who were Muslim were killed, evangelicals would still be concerned.

Another approach to understanding what has happened is talking about the main character, the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof. The media begins delving into the psyche of this 21-year-old young man: his past, his family, [and] his views on society. Many times, this creates empathetic views and humanizes the aggressor. It isolates him from what could be a systemic problem or act of terror. This often makes a person’s actions the unfortunate product of psychological warfare or terrible influences.

Lastly, and more popular, there is the view of the shooting in Charleston in light of a string of racially fueled headlines from Donald Sterling to Ferguson, on to Rachel Dolezal and to Freddie Gray. Let's not forget about the recent death of Walter Scott and the fact that the confederate flag still hangs above South Carolina's capitol. While some view theses as individual, isolated events that are not connected to America's storied battle with race, (specifically between blacks and whites), others see it all as one long, connected [and] frustrating existence.

I think I can somehow use all three of these perspectives in my analysis, and my recent travels have helped shed light on this as well.

I just came home from traveling abroad, and as I toured different countries, I found it interesting that some countries do not shy away from showing the ugliness of their history and leaders, while others tend to lionize their past and historical figures. I'd have to say, in my experience (and public school education), I have seen that Americans lean toward the latter. There tends to be a sweeping idealistic notion that our country was founded with Godly purity and Biblical principles.

Though I won't deny that the Christian faith has had great influence here, there is another side of the story often untold. It was not all God-fearing men who laid the foundations for this country. For example, the jails in England were emptied, and the prisoners were sent to the state of Georgia to settle it. Ironically, prisoners then were given the right to settle land, when felons now are denied the very right to vote. These weren't upstanding Bible students; they were unwanted criminals.

I use this history lesson to help the idealists see that many times we’d rather ignore the brokenness of our country, which then leaves us limping because we’ve not tended to a serious wound. A wound that goes ignored becomes infected and eventually deadly. Our country has these dangerous, undressed wounds. We have wounds that we have not healed from, and covering them with a bandage does not make them go away.

Do we really believe we are in a post-racial society? The existence of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the shooting took place, tells a different story.

Started in 1816, when African-American Christians were not allowed to worship with whites, the church was burned to the ground, rebuilt, and even banned by the state of South Carolina at one point. Fast forward to 2015, and the confederate flag still proudly flies over the state capitol, and, only a few miles away, an unarmed Walter Scott (who happens to be black) is gunned down from behind by a white police officer. Now, only months later, a young white man, Dylann Roof, enters a historically black church, is welcomed to Bible study, and after an hour of being shown love and grace, murders nine black people out of hatred and racism.

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Months ago, when I posted about both Ferguson and Baltimore on social media, many of my white brothers and sisters met me with responses such as:

"Pray for the families of those officers."
"I hope you're not defending those thugs and looters."
"Michael Brown was a thug who got what he deserved."

Interestingly, after posting about this Charleston shooting, I have seen many of my non-black followers posting replies like:

"Pray for that kid; He needs God."
"Let's not make this about race. People are dead and the guy is caught."
"Why would he do this?"
"He's just a kid!"

The inconsistency is shocking to say the least. But should we expect anything different?

History has lasting effects. No one is shocked that the stockyards and cowboy culture that existed in Texas during the 1800s continues to influence the state of Texas. People who rarely, if ever, ride horses continue to regularly wear boots designed for equestrians.

Many black people (to this very day) enjoy pig ears, intestines, feet, and neck bones. Why is that? Well, in colonial times, hogs were slaughtered, and slave owners fed their slaves the unwanted parts of the hogs.

Now, in that same vein of thinking, imagine the lasting effects of taking a male slave and not allowing him to marry, but only using him as a "stud." Think of the impact of making him breed with countless women, so that within 10 years he may have fathered over 100 children. Yet he is not allowed or expected to be responsible for any of them. The historically high rates of fatherless homes in the black family would surely be affected.

History is also what makes it harder for some to view a Mike Brown as anything more than a thug because for centuries black men were not considered men at all. Is it no wonder the empathetic tone rings louder for a Dylann Roof? He looks like your son, your neighbor, your friend, and, well, a "decent’ human being -- whatever that means.

We, as individuals, are of course culpable for our actions, but we cannot overlook the effects of the past.

I am fully aware that I am only capable of educating; making someone actually care about these issues is a divine task. Still, as a leader, as a black man, [and] as a Christian, I feel a moral responsibility.

To humanity and society-at-large: I plead for consistency in love and concern. As my friend and doctoral student Adam Thomason says, "Love is a day-in and day-out fending for the dignity of another, despite race and cultural difference. A love this nation has never seen, across all lines, will cause us to rise, and rise we will."

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To my Christian brothers and sisters: Let's not just pay attention simply because Christians were attacked.

During the period of slavery and segregation, the majority of the orthodox, conservative church was silent. They said, “We aren’t called to social issues; we are called to preach the gospel. If they just accept Jesus, they will eventually be free." But that reduces communities to projects and not complex people.

We don't need a cliché and a proof-text for every social issue. We need hands and feet in the cities, institutions, and infrastructures. The same gospel that frees the soul, frees us to live selflessly toward others with genuine compassion.

Let's not simply encourage the oppressed to be calm and act peacefully. Let us in the words of Isaiah 1:17, "Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression."

There is a great antagonist, and it does not have black or white skin. It is the brokenness of humanity. May a love that miraculously mends our brokenness be the protagonist.