By Sr. Laura Coughlin
In the last few days I’ve been completing final assessments for my summer coursework here at BC. To stay disciplined, I’ve avoided the news. Thus it is only today that I read of the nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston who were gunned down by a White young adult with a grudge against Black people.
In what follows I do not intend more hand-wringing about the back-and-forth of violence in the U.S. – racial or otherwise. The news outlets have already begun the usual banal round of provocations. These offer about the same level of insight into things we didn’t already know as weather forecasts do in Phoenix. But one news piece captured my attention:
“Suspected South Carolina shooter 'almost didn't go through with it because everyone was so nice to him'.” (NBC)
Having just finished a logic class with Tolkien scholar, Peter Kreeft, I am more acutely aware of the danger of ambiguous terms. In light of that learning, I have to wonder, “what did the shooter mean by nice?” Did he mean, more precisely, that they were kind to him? Is it possible that what he really meant to say was that the virtue of those he gunned down was demonstrated in the simplicity of their welcoming him – a stranger?
To be kind in general is to be friendly, generous, considerate. But the origin of true kindness is the Holy Spirit. In Saint Paul’s elaboration of the Spirit’s fruits, kindness follows patience and precedes goodness. It is further equated with gentleness, and demonstrates the Spirit’s action in bringing a person to Christian maturity. Did the shooter perceive these qualities in those he described as nice?
There are further questions. Why, when the police interrogated him, did Roof lack the more precise word for what he experienced in the presence of those assembled to worship God? Would the outcome have been different if he had grasped the true meaning and source of the more precise word? Would greater accuracy in language have helped him to recognize the invisible hand of God in the comportment of those he killed?
The news manufacturers will not ask these kinds of questions. Instead they will shift from shock to anger-laden provocations related to state-sponsored executions and gun rights. And in this shift we are about to miss the point of this particular story – that imprecise knowledge, exemplified in the word nice, led the killer to note the ambience of Christian unity, but failed to provide the content necessary for the recognition of kindness and its resultant openness to conversion.
In fact, the nine victims delayed for an hour, and nearly prevented, their own deaths through their kindness to the gunman. A cynical reader will look at those emphasized words and respond that kindness is an ineffective and unreliable deterrent to crime, and such a person will prove his point in the phrase nearly prevented. In fact, one NRA board member has nearly expressed this opinion in his criticism of the church’s pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who opposed a conceal-carry law. The kindness of Jesus Christ, it would seem in this view, requires a contingency plan.
But the idea that such a thing exists is the great lie of modern culture as it turns more vigorously away from God and into the false ideal of human control. Dylann Roof had a conscience and possessed agency. If this were not true, he would not have procrastinated in making a decision. Dylann Roof is not a monster, but a human being who acted sinfully against people living in the love of Christ. His victims could not have known when they welcomed him how directly their lives would reveal Jesus in the figure of the innocent lamb.
What a great temptation it is to hedge our bets against the “lamb who was slain”. The lamb, after all, is consumed in both Old and New Testaments by those who are unworthy. Who would want to be in such a position? But Jesus, through his own vulnerable humanity, invites all of humankind to the love of the Father. When Christ was crucified, the Apostles did not cry, “vengeance!” Rather, they sought to spread the word that we are brothers and sisters in Christ; that we must seek no alternatives to the kindness of the Word that penetrates hearts, converts sinners, and reveals the love of the Father for all His children. This is the lasting witness of the faithful gathered to study the Lord’s word that night in Charleston. Can we be challenged by their kindness to the stranger, and interpret its seeming ineffectiveness in the light of Christ’s victory over death through, and not apart from, the cross?
These men and women, varied in age and background, but unified in faith, could not have known how much they were risking in their simple act of kindness – that reality, and the purity of their welcome to one who would betray them, was held in the secret of the Father’s heart, and is rewarded there as well.