A Retrospective on the Charleston Church Shooting

On June 17, 2015, a young man entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and was welcomed by members of the Bible study and prayer group. He sat with them for most of an hour and then got up and went on a tirade about how African-Americans were destroying the white South he loved. Brandishing a handgun, he began to fire at the crowd. By the end, he had killed nine people. He was soon taken into custody and charged with nine murders and related crimes.

This event, of course, made headlines all over the nation. Now, a few months later, it has all but disappeared from public consciousness. Other events, like the increasingly frequent shooting of on-duty police officers, have replaced it in news headlines. Yet, people still want to know what causes horrific events, like the Charleston church tragedy. Why do they happen? Pundits, politicians, pastors, and many others all have ready explanations for such events. Thus, in the days following the Charleston church murders, many explanations were offered. Consider the following.

One of the more radical suggestions came from a left-leaning TV commentator who pointed to white racism. It’s true that in the days following the killings, computer and other personal belongings of the accused murderer turned up pictures of him embracing a Confederate flag, which for many is viewed as a symbol of racism. Similarly, national figures such as Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton argued that it was another case of racism.

A second popular view is that the killer was somehow psychologically and mentally unbalanced. There is, however, a problem with this view. There are many in America who deal daily with serious clinical issues, yet very few of them become murderers or even criminals. The reality of his illness fails to fully explain his behavior.

A third causal explanation appeared in an Atlantic Monthly article published a week after the murders which used another favorite concept of current social commentators. They called the event "a hate crime." It’s not easy, of course, to understand how any pre-meditated murder could be motivated by anything other than hate. Thus, the question may be asked: Why a special statute for "hate?"

A fourth explanation focused on the core idea of anti-gun advocates: Too many guns and too easy access caused the tragedy in Charleston. The arguments on each side of this issue are familiar and need not to be rehearsed here. President Obama soon after the event again stated his view that guns are a problem in society.

The most satisfying explanation of this evil event, however, appeared within hours. It came from the hearts and lips of the brothers and sisters of Emanuel Church’s membership. Their explanation got to the core issue, to the most fundamental cause. On the one hand, these parishioners were very sad and grief-stricken. On the other hand, they turned to their faith and remembered that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," that all need to reflect the love of God in their hearts. They also reached a conclusion that no doubt shocked the pundits, politicians, and secular social commentators. They announced to the whole world that they forgave the accused killer for his sin. Sin that was so egregious that it could only be called evil. Further, they urged him to seek Jesus and repent for his great transgressions.

Obviously there is a great chasm between the views listed above that claim to explain the man’s evil deed and the view stated by Emanuel’s brothers and sisters. For them, the man’s evil deeds were the result of sin. Perhaps the outpouring of love and forgiveness by the families and congregation will cause others to pause and ponder the love of God evident in the hearts of these devoted Christian people.

The following Wednesday it was again Bible study time. Nearly 150 people showed up. This session was led by Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff. He acknowledged the previous week’s murders by saying, "Last week dark powers came over Mother Emanuel. But that’s alright," he said. "God in his infinite wisdom, said ‘That’s alright. I’ve got the nine.’"

To the uninitiated, Pastor Goff was stating with certainty that the murdered nine were now in heaven with Jesus their Savior. This is a comfort that all Christians can embrace. Indeed, all Christians should long remember the lesson Emanuel’s brothers and sisters in the faith taught them: the Biblical doctrine of forgiveness is central to Christian faith.

— Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for humanities, faith, and culture with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is "The Soul of Grove City College: A Personal View."

The Center for Vision & Values 100 Campus Drive Grove City College Grove City, PA 16127 United States