As I boarded the plane last Friday after a busy conference, I got caught up on the week’s news. I had heard previously about the Charleston church shooting, but I finally got the chance to read more of the details.
One of the pieces I watched was a Daily Show segment where Jon Stewart broke away from his typical comedy routine to deliver a passionate monologue about the tragedy in Charleston. I was moved by some of the things he said, questioning why we spend trillions of dollars on wars to keep Americans safe from terrorists abroad, yet we can’t seem to stop deranged American lunatics from committing atrocious massacres. He noted how this tragedy took place a short distance from the State Capitol that still flies the Confederate flag, which he called a symbol of slavery and racism. And as he has done in the past, Jon Stewart focused on the issue of guns. Mr. Stewart ended his monologue in frustration, asking what can we do to keep this from happening.
As I boarded the plane, I thought about the martyrdom of these nine black Christians, gathered for prayer and to study Scripture. I bet these men and women often prayed for the lost ones in their society. As an Evangelical Christian, I am always thrilled when an unchurched individual dawns the door of our church. I bet when they first saw caught a glimpse of Dylann Roof, they thought, “Awesome, a new young fellow has come to join our Bible study.” After all, out of the many visitors I’ve seen walk through the church door, I never assumed any of them were there to harm me but to gain nourishing food for their souls.
If only that were the case in Charleston.
As I pondered the tragedy, the comments from friends and news pundits, I penned a Villanelle poem – “That They Might Shine Upon this Holy Day.” In the last stanza, I wrote,
May we, behind left mourning this dismay,
surrender this Confederate dark fight
on rebel land where they together pray,
that they might shine upon this holy day.
Originally, I wanted to create some effect of juxtaposition or irony, showing the Civil War era connection between freedom and racism. But as often happens, when I write poetry (particularly when I write with a specific meter as I did in this poem), the poem took on a life of its own. This poem drew me to something much larger – the ground of spiritual warfare. The rebel land where they gathered to pray goes much deeper than terrible racism or ideas connected to the Civil War. Racism exists because something more evil exists.
It’s been interesting to watch how people have reacted to such evil. Suddenly, there’s talk about guns, the Confederate flag, and the Civil War. Everyone, or at least the bloggers, are interested in discussing the origins and merits of a war that took place some 150 years ago. And like usual, society’s quest to do something to show they really care falls to superficial levels. Do we really believe that removing the Confederate flag (the battle flag of Virginia, as some have insisted) from store shelves is going to end this evil?
As a Christian, I believe that our problem goes far beyond the Confederate flag, far beyond the barrel of guns, and deep into the heart of mankind. The rebellion is more than just political. It is spiritual. It’s not just a rebellion of a few who want to secede from the Union. It’s about a rebellion of secession from God. The Bible speaks candidly about the results of the rebellion of mankind. “The wages of sin is death,” it urges us. In fact, if you had to sum up the Bible into one sentence, you could say, “It’s a story about man’s rebellion against God, and God’s heroic effort to rescue mankind from self-destruction.”
It’s a narrative that many reject and even mock. And despite the stories of individuals, including my own, who have had a dramatic change, it will never be enough. For some, like Jon Stewart, the cross is too simplistic and religious an answer to our devastating problem.
Right after 9/11, people filled the pews of churches, asking the ever important question, “Where is God?” When asked this question during an interview on the Early Show, Billy Graham’s daughter Anne famously responded,
I believe that God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are. But, for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe that He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand that He leave us alone?
Our quest for secularism is seen by many as honorable. After all, if we’re going to civilly coexist, we should be able to do so without one religious viewpoint dominating all others. The problem is that it’s a facade. It’s as false as strutting into church wearing a suit and a fake smile. It continues unraveling when we attempt to solve the problems that come with dismissing God with answers that don’t involve Him. Nine people are executed on sacred soil, and our response is to remove Confederate apparel from Walmart?
There is at least a correlation if not a causation between the terrible violence in our society and our quest for secularization. Our problem isn’t just the gun, it’s the prevailing evil of the person living in a secular society holding that gun. In the public square, we’ve convinced ourselves and our shooter that God doesn’t exist (or at least that He’s irrelevant) and that there’s no moral standards except of those we have self-imposed. How impossibly hopeless! Why are we surprised when he pulls the trigger?
When I say secularization, I don’t just mean on issues like same-sex marriage or abortion. Any time we leave our faith behind in our legislation and pretend like it doesn’t matter, we are participating in secularization. Refusing to help the poor, failure to establish justice, irresponsible environmental actions, all of these are examples of secularization as well.
Secularization is only meritorious and effective if God actually doesn’t exist. If God exists, then secularization is nothing more than rebellion and treason. We should shutter to think of the consequences of our little Lord of the Flies experiment.
I find this week tragically ironic. We experienced another mass murder, this time in the sacred confines of a church. Like we do in our secular society, we tried to answer it with a-religious questions. We discussed the origins of the Civil War and how it began because of the growing Federal Government imposing its will on the States. While we’re still chewing on history and burying our fallen in Charleston, the Supreme Court demands all 50 States to acknowledge same-sex marriage ruling that marriage is a secular institution and rite.
We are a brazen society that suffers from terrible amnesia. We have lowered one rebel flag only to raise another. The heavy scent of death still permeates the air, and we shake our fist at the heavens, begging for our independence. And all of us who participate on this American soil will suffer the consequences of such determined secularization. Not even our church walls can keep us safe from the monsters our society will create.
But amidst this tragic rebellion, there is a message of hope and resolve. The stories that have come from Charleston have stirred my soul. I crumble at the thought of how these believers, even with a gun pointed at them, preached mercy over this deranged individual. How the families and the church spoke not a message of protest but of forgiveness. How humbly they followed their Lord, shedding their right to revenge and saying, “Father, forgive them.” That is the power of the Gospel, and if nothing else convinces us of the hope of God, their shining example should. Christians existing in hostile societies is nothing new. They are the salt of the earth. These nine will certainly not be the last to die shining.
Oh grave exhale! Watch the stone roll away.
These resurrected martyrs find delight
on rebel land where they together pray.