The Bedrock of Civil Society? Mercy in the Face of Death

Death stalks the schools, cinemas, and churches of America

By William Schweiker|July 9, 2015

Death stalks the schools, cinemas, and churches of America. Not a day passes without some report of a madman killing innocent people and then turning his weapon on himself or cowardly fleeing the scene of the suffering he has sown.
Most of the time, the newspapers give the details of the crime, the unbelief of the victims' families, the calls for retaliation against the criminal and for the end of open access to all manner of weapons, and, predictably, the NRA’s drumbeat of “guns don’t kill people, people do.”
Something new, rare, and maybe salvific happened three weeks ago in the home of the brave and the land of the armed. A young madman driven by racial hatred entered a church—Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina—with murderous rage. He killed people who were engaged in Bible study.
Yes, that’s right—Bible study.
Sightings usually seeks to bring to light hidden religious forces and happenings often under the radar screen of our public life. But this violent act is about the blatant and horrifically public reality of religious life. Or is it?
In the first days after the event, the news cycle spinning around the young man, Dylann Roof, and his racist rage, asked whether or not the shooting should be seen as an act of terrorism, about the oddity—and wrongness—of South Carolina still flying the Confederate Flag on the State Capitol, and, of course, about the response of politicians to the horror.
All of this is good; all of it is expected. Even the media’s detection of Roof’s website thick with a “Manifesto of Hate,” as the New York Times put it, is now in full view.
It is important to note what grabs people’s attention, and what does not. More is going on than the media even understands.
Two points.
First, in ways that are almost humanly unimaginable and maybe even divine, some members of the Charleston church confronting Dylann Roof at his hearing, asked him to repent and to join the Bible study, and granted him mercy.
Years ago the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted that Jesus was the one who discovered forgiveness in political life, the ability to start anew after traumatic and horrific events. She thought forgiveness touches a very deep fact of human life. She called it “natality,” the ability to start something new.
In a nation constantly divided by race and economic standing, gender conflicts, and an endless war on terrorism, the everyday, common folks at Emanuel AME Church embodied the central truth of Christian conviction.
Mercy and not vengeance was the mark of their faith. And while this has been widely and rightly noted, it has not been explored as the bedrock for civil society.
Every Church and Mosque and Synagogue and Temple in the land should look to this South Carolina congregation, and say—there by grace should we also live. Forgiveness is the only answer to a society of hate and slaughter if we are to survive our self-made horror.
Second point: from a Sightings perspective, it is crucial that the innocents gunned down were at a Bible study class. Odd and important is that fact. Everyone with a smattering of knowledge of the Bible—and these people are, admittedly, fewer and fewer by the day (by the hour?)—knows that the Bible is not a “peaceful” book, or, more correctly, collection of books.
War, mayhem, rape, murder, despair, innocent suffering, and fury run through page after page after page. Sometimes God kills the innocent along with the evil—see Noah and the Flood story. (The book is much better than the recent movie starring Russell Crowe).
Sometimes the divine itself is believed to be the victim. (See the passion narrative of Christ in the Gospels. The Gospels are also much better than Mel Gibson’s movie.) Death is everywhere in scripture.
Why do we mention this fact?
One of the major challenges—maybe the major challenge—facing religious people in all of the world’s religions, is, to be frank, how to interpret their sacred writings in the most humane way.
All of the religions have texts dripping with blood. All religions have adherents with blood on their hands. The challenge is to interpret and to live the most humane and peaceful form of the religions.
The people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston are teaching the world’s religions how to study scripture. Obviously, they are not teaching the latest interpretive method or the most intricate form of analysis.
They are teaching what it means to live out an interpretation of scripture from its humane core, from the point of its testimony to divine mercy.
Keep their example in mind! Hope—and pray—that other Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., etc., will do the same.
There is no future to social life or to the world’s religions without the beginning that mercy inaugurates. The dear folks in Charleston are beacons of hope in a society of hate.

Robles, Frances. “Dylann Roof Photos and a Manifesto Are Posted on Website.” New York Times, June 20, 2015, U.S.
Schmidt, Michael S. “Charleston Suspect Was in Contact With Supremacists, Officials Say.” New York Times, July 3, 2015, U.S.
Alcindor, Yamiche. “South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: Removing Confederate flag won’t be easy.” USA Today, July 4, 2015, News.
Berman, Mark. “’I forgive you.’ Relatives of Charleston church shooting victims address Dylann Roof.” Washington Post, June 19, 2015, Post Nation.
Nahorniak, Mary. “Families to Roof: May God ‘have mercy on your soul.’” USA Today, June 19, 2015, News.
Bowen-Moore, Patricia. Hannah Arendt’s Philosophy of Natality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989.

Image: Chairs laid out for Bible Study group. Credit: Monkey Business Images / shutterstock.

William Schweiker headshotAuthor, William Schweiker, (Ph.D. UChicago) is Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the Director of The Enhancing Life Project, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, which explores the basic but widely unexamined aspiration of human beings to enhance their lives and which seeks to increase knowledge in order to assist them. He is the 2015-2016 President of the Society of Christian Ethics. Books by Schweiker include: Religion and the Human Future: An Essay in Theological Humanism (2008, with David E. Klemm), and Dust That Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

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William Schweiker

Columnist, William Schweiker (PhD’85), is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.