The Symbolism of Evil, A Vision of Hope

What vision do you hold in your mind as you pray? Do you see images of those for whom you are praying? Do you imagine or see those who are sick being healed? Do you imagine those who have been broken whether by circumstance or their location in life being repaired, restored, renewed, reconciled, and made whole?

This past Thursday at noon as I lead in a moment of silence and prayer—just hours after the act of racial terror committed by Dylann Roof at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (an act that took nine precious lives during a prayer meeting) I beheld the images of those slain. As I beheld their images I prayed for them, I prayed for their families and for the congregation, for the city of Charleston, and for the deep grief that they must be experiencing. I prayed, also, for those who even on the sacred and hallowed ground of a church find no place of sanctuary from the evils of racial hatred, prejudice, violence, or threat of violence. We have a long history in this nation of black churches being burned, banned, and bombed, torched and terrorized.

The black church has always played a central role in the life of the black community (and few have played a more central role than Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church) as a symbol of liberation, education, and independence rooted in faith and meeting the economic and material needs of the community as well as their spiritual needs.
I also imagined, as I prayed, the vision that John saw on the Island of Patmos of those who have come out of the great ordeal:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” –Revelation 7:9

These are the visions I held in my mind as I prayed and it is the vision I struggle to hold onto even now. It is not simply as a vision of a far off future—the times in which we live do not afford us such a luxury. I hold onto this vision as something to work for in this present age—to make it a reality “even now.” It is the vision that both fuels, and sustains me in my ministry and daily life. It is the vision that one sees when all hope seems lost.

With heads bowed in prayer we represented a variety of faith traditions; A.M.E., Baptist, Presbyterian, an ecumenical congregation, and United Methodist. With heads bowed in prayer we were black and white, gay and straight, yet imagining a new ministry that would be anti-racist, multi-ethnic, and LGBTQ inclusive and affirming.

But there is a different vision that is being proposed by far too many in this nation. It is a vision that cannot fathom the God-given vision that John saw of varied nations, tribes, people, and languages together as one. Instead, it is one of di-vision, of racial hierarchy, and racial segregation– supported by the symbols seen in the photograph of mass-murder Dylann Roof wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flags of Rhodesia and Apartheid era South Africa where minority white populations ruled majority black populations with impunity. And, make no mistake symbols have power!
In spite of the desire to portray Roof as a lone-wolf, he is deeply connected to an ideology of white supremacy that extends far beyond his reach as an individual. White supremacist ideology inspired Roof no less than the ideology of ISIS/ISIL that has inspired acts of terror—and it is no less evil.

Roof, who has confessed to the murders, did so, it has been alleged, because he wanted to start a race war. “You rape our women and you’ve taken over our country, and you have to go and I’m here to shoot Black people,” Roof is reported to have said as he took the lives of nine of God’s children at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. It is also the vision deeply rooted in the symbol of the Confederate flag that flies over the statehouse where these horrific acts took place. If the Confederate Flag is a symbol of cultural heritage it is one of a cultural heritage of hate. As I write, the F.B.I. is investigating a website believed to have been created by Roof, described as a manifesto, the site contains dozens of photos of him including photos where he is either holding or is wrapped in the Confederate flag and laments the absence or weakness of skinheads and the KKK.

Ta-Nahesi Coates is correct in his article in The Atlantic “Take Down the Confederate Flag-Now” when he writes, “Roof’s crime cannot be divorced from the ideology of white supremacy which long animated his state nor from its potent symbol—the Confederate flag. Visitors to Charleston have long been treated to South Carolina’s attempt to clean its history and depict its secession as something other than a war to guarantee the enslavement of the majority of its residents.”

So too, was theologian Paul Ricouer correct when he suggested that symbols are interrelated with rites and myths (whether rites are cross-burnings, terrorist night-rides of hooded men with Confederate Flags emblazoned on their white gowns proclaiming a message of white supremacy and segregation, or the rites and myths we use to express our faith). Symbols can signify language of the sacred or they can pervert it.
Three years ago as the nation celebrated Independence Day I wrote about another gathering that was taking place in Alabama. This was an event for “Whites Only.” In the article, I noted the connections between what has been called the “Christian Identity Movement” a term that has been used to describe and at times provide cover for an array of groups with adherents that maintain connections with violent anti-government militias and believe in an Armageddon that will be a racial holy war. The event’s organizer affirmed, at that time, their white nationalist, white separatist, and white supremacist ideology yet rejected the notion that they were a hate group.

The failure of national leaders—politicians, faith leaders, as well as the media to name this current act of racial terror for what it is—an insidious evil, a sin that has its roots in our nation’s inability to wrestle not only with its past legacy of racism and slavery but its failure to wrestle with every present iteration of it is itself a form of evil. So too, is the attempt to distract us by framing the issue as one of religious freedom, gun rights, and mental illness a form of evil and an attempt to distract us from a conversation on race but also a conversation on white supremacy.

In The United Methodist Church leaders might start by examining our own often sanitized history. Ours is a history that includes not only the support of and involvement in slavery and Jim Crow segregation but also the support of Eugenics programs during the last century. We need look no further than our most recent Book of Resolutions. Here we read that among the most “liberal” of Methodists was a belief in the compatibility of Eugenics and Christianity and among “conservatives” the belief that only the white Aryan race was the descendant of the lost tribes of Israel (see Book of Resolutions 2012, pp. 312-317). I commend reading this resolution which also notes that Bishops endorsed one of the first books circulated to the US churches promoting eugenics. Eugenics undergirded the creation of many state laws that authorized forced sterilization, made interracial marriage illegal, and it is argued served as a model for the involuntary sterilization of some 60,000 Americans and 350,000 people when Hitler’s Nazi government used the model as the basis for their sterilization law (2012 Book of Resolutions p. 315).

Significant steps for The United Methodist Church can and should and go much further than worship services calling for “Acts of Repentance.” Meaningful actions (or fruit worthy of repentance) for each of us would include addressing issues of structural, systemic, and institutional racism including supporting and investing in equitable funding for high-quality public education rather than endorsing vouchers for private or parochial schools (practices generated in reaction to Brown vs. Board of Education), ending voter disenfranchisement and providing easy access through voter registration or making voter registration automatic by age rather than creating new barriers to voting and voter registration (practices generated in reaction to blacks seeking the right to vote and elect officials and the Civil Rights/Voting Rights Acts), disrupting the pipeline to prison and radically altering the policing of communities of color (often reminiscent of slave patrols, black codes, Jim Crow, and peonage systems.

As a former member of the A.M.E. Church I learned of the proud history of churches such as Mother Emanuel A.M.E. and of its famed history but also of the origins of the Free African Society. These venerable institutions were formed as a result of the failure of the Methodist Church to recognize African descendant people as equals. If not for the failure of the church to address head on the issues of racism, and white supremacy there would likely have been no African Methodist Episcopal Church (nor A.M.E. Zion, nor C.M.E (Christian Methodist Episcopal Church). The phrase “Pan-Methodist” need never have been created.

As Emanuel A.M.E. Church rose from the ashes after having been burned to the ground by white supremacist many years ago I pray that the people of this historic church might lift their eyes and glimpse a vision of a new future borne out of a horrific massacre. I pray that we, as a nation, will confess our past and present sins, and through authentic acts of repentance and reparations see a new vision that includes every nation, every, tribe, every people, and every language.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom,

Chris Pierson

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3 thoughts on “The Symbolism of Evil, A Vision of Hope

  1. Rev. Pierson
    Thank you so kuch for your witness and for this hard, but necessary, word of challenge. While there is so much in our world that connects us, we must recognize, and confront, and correct the too-long list of things that separate us. Dialogue like that which you offer is a good first, but certainly not last, step in that process. May we all be partners together.
    Peace …

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