September 18, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. found himself in a position all-too-familiar to us today. Just three days prior, 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robenson, and 11-year-old Denise McNair were killed when a white supremacist hurled a makeshift bomb near the east side of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist church during Sunday School. As he stood above the tiny caskets of three of the four children killed in the Sixteenth Avenue church bombing, King was challenged to make sense out of a brazen act of racially motivated violence. With clarity and courage, King offered the bereaved family and the church practical reasons for hope and practical ways to respond.
In the recent Charleston massacre, the American church finds itself once again grieving a brazen act of racially motivated violence against black Christians at worship, once again searching for answers, and once again forced to reckon with its own conscience around the pervasive sin of racism. Over fifty years later, King’s words and wisdom are just as powerful and relevant as ever. Together, let’s see what King’s “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” has to say to us in the wake of the Charleston massacre.
A Reason for Hope: God’s Power and Purpose through Painful Circumstances
Without minimizing or justifying the sufferings of the innocent, King offered practical hope by pointing to God’s matchless power and goodness in the face of sufferings. King explained, “And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.”
Although King resisted offering comprehensive answers to the mystery of God’s purposes, he maintained a confidence in God’s power to wring good out of evil. This hope was grounded in his view of the cross and resurrection of Christ which offers the definitive proof that the omnipotent God can bring transforming benefits out of the worst moral atrocities. In the final analysis, evil must bow to the good purposes of God’s sovereign will. This was the hope that Christ embodied as in the face of unspeakable brutality and injustice, he “continued entrusting himself to Him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23)
King’s idea that unearned suffering is redemptive also reflects a nearly 250-year-old redemptive suffering tradition in the black church that traces back to the earliest Negro spirituals. Beneath the sweltering sun of southern cotton fields, slaves shouldered on with the hope that the sovereign God could “make a way out of no way”—that because of Christ, God would somehow bring good from the evils inflicted upon them. This hope has carried black Christians through the brutalities of chattel slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow and racial segregation. This hope continues to carry black Christians through the various forms of oppression, violence, and dehumanization they face today such as police brutality, the Charleston massacre and recent church burnings.
Does this mean that all suffering is good in and of itself? No! It means that because of the cross and resurrection of Christ, we can be confident that God’s omnipotent goodness will have the final say over every form of suffering, no matter how severe.
Redemptive suffering is not mere sentimentalism, or naïve optimism, but the real and lasting hope that only the gospel of the resurrected Christ can bring.
A Lesson to Learn: Address the Underlying Sinful Philosophy of Racism
King also insisted that each of us should learn something through the sacrifice of the victims. Much like Emmanuel AME of Charleston, Sixteenth Avenue of Birmingham was especially targeted for its work in promoting civil rights for blacks in the South. King called the little girls who died “martyred heroines” in the cause for freedom and human dignity. For this reason, he insisted that in their deaths, the young martyrs have something to say to each of us. Among other things, King noted, “They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” This is an especially powerful word today.
There has been much discussion about Dylan Roof, but precious little discussion about the system, way of life and philosophy that produced him. If the death of the Charleston Nine teaches us anything, it should teach us about the wickedness of the philosophy that dehumanizes and caricatures blacks as criminal, violent and expendable. It should remind us that the sin of racism is here to kill, steal and destroy. This is the sinful philosophy that causes even “well-meaning” Christians to persistently find ways to justify violence against unarmed blacks as deserved and to sympathize with ways of life that celebrate black oppression. To support policies that unjustly and disproportionately target, isolate, impoverish, and lock blacks away is fundamentally unChrist-like.
This underlying sinful philosophy causes too many Christians to secretly fear black men as dangerous overly sexualized thugs and black women as lazy overly-sexualized welfare queens. Dylan Roof was one of many Americans who have become intoxicated by these images that pervade our society. These ideas dehumanize people made in the image of God and threaten to fill white brothers and sisters with the kind of pride that refuses to bow the knee to Christ and his royal command to love deeply, selflessly and sacrificially.
This is the sinful philosophy that so intimidates and desensitizes even church leadership to black suffering that on Sunday mornings they refuse to even mention the massacre of nine fellow Christians, a clear attack against the gospel and the church of Jesus Christ. It would be tragic for the American church to mourn over the deaths of the Charleston Nine, to pray, and yet refuse to repent for our participation in the sinful philosophy of racism.
A Way to Respond: Courage over Caution
Finally, King also offered Christians a practical way to respond to the kind of violence that reared its head in Charleston. We naturally respond to violence either through violent retaliation on the one hand, or passivity on the other. About violence, King warned, “We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence.” King’s words recall the example Christ set as he faced his persecutors. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23).
About passivity, King explained, we must “substitute courage for caution” and that we must not passively stand on the sidelines in the “mighty struggle for justice.” These words recall Christ’s active resistance to sin. He actively and continually entrusted himself to God at the cross and actively laid down his life for our salvation, rather than passively having it taken away (see 1 Peter2:23, John 10:18).
Through actively and non-violently resisting sin in faith, Christ set a loving example for us to imitate.
As we think about how to respond to the Charleston massacre we must look to the cross of Christ. We must refuse the way of violence and the way of passivity. Rather, we must actively repent and work in faith against the sinful philosophy of racism in all its forms, both personally and institutionally.
Charleston has shown us clearly that time does not and cannot heal sin. But, by the power of Christ and his gospel, even the sin of racism can be healed in our lives and in our churches. May the Lord grant it for his glory.