June 17, 2015 has not been a memorable date for me. Until now. After seeing the documentary, Emanuel, I expect that it will be a date that stirs memories and emotions. It was on June 17, 2015 that a young man joined a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. After the discussion, while the group bowed their heads in prayer, the young man pulled out a gun, and brutally, heartlessly, killed nine people. The shooter was white, the victims were black.
The movie, produced by basketball player Steph Curry and actress Viola Davis, recounts these events and follows the stories of several of family members of the victims. It is gripping, tender, touching, illuminating work. Film-making at its finest.
I hope you’ll get a chance to see this movie, though I’m sorry to say I don’t know when. It was recently in theaters for a limited release and I hope and trust it will be in circulation again soon. I left the theater deeply moved. The movie helped me appreciate many things, including these four:
- The deep roots of racism.
Living, as we do, this side of the civil rights movement, we can see that much progress has been made in the way African-Americans experience life in our country. Yet the job is not done. When Dylan Roof casually snuffed out the lives of nine dark-skinned people, this wasn’t an isolated incident, but one in an unending progression that reaches back to slavery and lynchings and carries forward today in white racist hatred aimed at black people in our country. I was especially struck by the line in the movie where a man says that racism is as American as apple pie, since it has been there from the founding of country. Sadly, it is here still.
- The beauty of forgiveness.
Spoiler alert: the scene in the courtroom 48 hours after the shooting was unexpected and carried with it the beauty of holiness in a way no one saw coming. After the shooting the city was in turmoil. Not long before this happened, Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back and killed by a white police officer, so tensions were already high. Two days after the shooting at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, there was a bond hearing for Roof. The families were present in the courtroom but were unprepared for the judge to ask them if there was anything they would like to say to Roof, who was present via video.
One by one they shared of their unspeakable loss, of their grief. Several also forgave him. They reminded him they’d welcomed him into their Bible study and now they were forgiving him and praying for him to repent and be forgiven. They hadn’t rehearsed their words, they didn’t know they’d speak that day. Out of the overflow of their hearts, our brothers and sisters modeled the Savior we love who, from the cross of his suffering said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Their remarkable love for their enemy calmed their city.
- The power of the Confederate flag.
The film displays various pictures and videos of Roof, and the Confederate flag features prominently. For some, it seems, that flag still carries with it only the romantic feelings of good old days. Why was this flag such a powerful symbol to Roof?
The city of Charleston is the place where about 40% of African slaves who came into North America disembarked. It is the place where the Civil War began. This is a place where the Confederate flag was still flying over the home of the state government at the time of the shooting. For Roof it seemed self-evident that the flag represents the days of white supremacy and black enslavement. One African-American friend remarked to me that seeing that flag flying high in our country has the same effect upon an African-American as seeing a Nazi flag flying high in Europe might have upon a Jewish person.
4. The trauma of murder.
“Emanuel” does a marvelous job of bringing us inside what, for people like me, was just another news event. Labels like, “hate crime” and “mass shooting” can leave us numb to the realities that these are real people, made in God’s image, now faced with unspeakable grief and trauma.
Their loved ones died in a church building, a place always thought to be safe. A daughter lost a mom and couldn’t even see her one last time to hold and hug her. A husband lost a wife and lives with the memory that they didn’t take their customary walk to the door together on her way out. A mom remembers how her adult son shielded her and her granddaughter, tried to reason with the killer, then gave himself up to be pierced by his bullets while she played dead, lying near him. Nadine, Anthony, Felicia.
These are no longer statistics connected with headlines, they are neighbors, brothers and sister in Christ, struggling to find their way through senseless and unnecessary and violent loss of people they deeply loved.
Not all of those close to the victims agree with the emphasis on forgiveness that is featured in the movie and expressed by some of the victims. Some want to forgive but aren’t there yet. Others feel the emphasis on forgiveness short-circuits needed attention on factors that caused this tragedy. Yet in the end, there is a sweetness here, in the beauty of love winning out over hate. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”