The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. (Psalm 11.5)
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:39)
At its core, and at its best, religion is a quest for peace in an uncertain world. It can be a lifeboat, a balm and a haven from a world sometimes gone mad.
Too often, however, flawed humans can skew that intent by co-opting the ideals of love and brotherhood for evil purposes. At times, the emotional volcano of sinister, deeply held beliefs can erupt, even in a house of worship.
And yet, we see how such evil can be overcome by that same faith, when applied with sincerity.
Last week in Charleston, S.C, a young man driven by hatred and fear opened fire in an African-American church, killing nine people, including the pastor. The congregation welcomed him in to pray. Then he opened fire, spewing racist invective as he shot them down.
Such an act boggles the mind of those who believe the walls of a church should be a sanctuary of peace, not a place of bloodshed. But as the Rev. Rose Johnson of Gainesville pointed out, such attacks have been all too common at black churches facing the wrath of racism before and since the civil rights movement.
The shootings have fingers pointing left and right and the usual clamor over gun control, mental health, race relations, violence in the media and political gridlock. The noise is almost too much, too soon for anyone to calmly propose easy fixes for such horrible actions.
Anyway, maybe we should be pointing those fingers back at ourselves. Too many Americans are living by the one base emotion that has been at the essence of human existence for thousands of years: fear. We fear terrorism, economic collapse, crime, GMO foods and Ebola. Most of all, we fear the unknown and each other, especially those of different beliefs and experiences who challenge the status quo.
We know the only way to combat such fear is to stand together, love thy neighbor and embrace our common humanity. Had the shooter brought to that church an open heart instead of a loaded gun, he may have found what his soul was lacking.
Though still in shock, the people of Charleston, a genteel Southern city known for its charm and grace, have come together to grieve as one, white and black together, rather than riot in the streets or turn on one another.
When the accused shooter appeared in a court hearing Friday, relatives of the victims came to the courtroom not to condemn him but to forgive him.
“I forgive you, my family forgives you,” said Anthony Thompson, whose relative Myra Thompson was killed. “We would like you to take this opportunity to repent.”
“A hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea he’d be able to divide, but all he did was unite us and make us love each other even more,” Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said.
“Everyone’s plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win,” said Alana Simmons, who lost her grandfather, the Rev. Daniel Simmons.
This is how true believers respond to violence: Not with vengeance but with compassion and mercy. Turning the other cheek. So hate won’t win.
Other cities have followed Charleston’s example with peaceful gatherings to remember those fallen.
A different case earlier last week closer to home raised a somewhat different reaction. U.S. District Judge William O’Kelley granted a motion filed by the American Humanist Association that allows three plaintiffs to remain unnamed in their case against prayers led by officials at Chestatee High School.
The group filed a claim last year against Hall County Schools that the school violated the U.S Constitution by allowing coaches to lead organized prayers during school events. The suit touched off a firestorm of reaction from many at the school and community who claimed such expressions of faith were protected by, and not a violation of, the First Amendment.
The ruling was in response to violent threats the humanist association says it has received, the judge letting the plaintiffs remain anonymous in view of such hostility. The threats varied from calling an attorney “a demon straight from the pit of hell” to a voice message vowing to infect one lawyer with HIV. Others used foul language generally not heard in church. One threat was serious enough that law enforcement was notified.
This leads many to wonder: How can one espouse faith-inspired ideals of love and acceptance while spewing such venom against those with different beliefs?
Or, to put it another way: What would Jesus do?
No humanists carried weapons into Chestatee where people were praying. So far, words have been the only weapon on both sides. Yet those same bitter feelings are the seed that can fuel psychotic savages like the Charleston shooter: Fear, fury and intolerance.
One group of the faithful, when challenged by outside forces, responded with rage. Another, the people of Charleston, even after being gunned down by hatred, responded with forgiveness.
Is there a better way to nullify such wickedness? It certainly beats marching in anger or burning buildings. And it is more within our grasp than enacting new laws, confiscating weapons or ringing churches with barbed wire fences and metal detectors.
Charleston has shown the way. We should follow it the next time evil strikes and every time thereafter, praying for those souls poisoned by hatred, for their victims and for an end to this national nightmare.