But there's another tragedy here that haunts me more and more as the days pass.
In his confession to the police, where shooter Dylan Roof was quite open and direct with authorities, he was reported to have said that, at one point, he began having second thoughts about following through on his plan because "the people were so nice."
If this is true, it is devastating to me - and here's why.
For years, God knows how long, Roof had been culturally immersed in the sick world of white supremacism. A narrative that convinced him of a number of things - that whites are superior and blacks and other races are inferior; that blacks in our country had committed innumerable atrocities to upset this balance in an attempt to claim a power and authority that was not theirs to claim. That black men had raped white women. That they were taking their jobs, taking their rights, taking the way of life they were entitled to. Taking over their country. Along with this, a narrative of violence - specifically gun violence - as a justifiable means to make things right. For Roof, the narrative grew so strong that, in his mind, he had to act.
So he intentionally chose a historically black church in downtown Charleston that was known not just for being black, but constantly lying at the center of important historical conversations about African-American rights. He chose to attend their Wednesday night Bible study, where nine other people gathered to look at Mark 4: 16-20:
And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’
Roof reportedly argued with them at various points - who knows if it was true theological disagreement or just where his mind was at the moment - but the group continued to accept him and welcome him. Which apparently created a conflict in the 21-year old's mind, and it was this: these people sure didn't seem like the kind of people he'd been thinking they were. These didn't seem like people who rape women, or want to take over the country, or are trying to win a supremacy battle. They didn't seem hostile or unwelcoming. They were none of these things - in fact, they were the exact opposite. They welcomed him. They let him have his say, respected his comments, and then shared their own. They created community for him and with him.
And so for a moment - who knows how long, who knows how sincere - for a moment, a little voice in Roof's head dared to think the thought: Maybe my plan to shoot all these people isn't right. Maybe all that I've been brought up to believe about these people, and what I've chosen to believe on my own, is not as true as I'd always thought it was.
In the end, though, he chose to go with the narrative, rather than the truth that was sitting right there around the table with him. He chose a storyline promulgated out of fear and misunderstanding, instead of the flesh and blood that sat in that room. I'm sorry, he reportedly told one of them, but I have to do this.
The narrative won.
Narratives have tremendous inertia about them and sway so much of what we think and do - regardless of whether they are grounded in truth or not. There's a reason for this - sometimes these narratives are rooted in fear. And fear as a human emotion, when it's strong enough, tends to trump truth, regressing to our basest selves instead of reaching outside to grasp on to hope.
That's why it's so important for the church, for example, to make sure the narrative we live and preach and teach and promulgate coincides with what the faith story itself actually proclaims. Yesterday I started a sermon series on the book of Revelation, where I shared that the words "rapture" and "antichrist" are nowhere in the book (I'm not kidding, you can go look it up). That hasn't stopped the church-at-large from living out of a fearful narrative where any dark event (such as this shooting) is automatically viewed as a "sign of the end times" and a renewed focus on heaven-ticket punching instead of living faithfully in the here and now.
Culturally speaking, the same applies. The narrative that tells us that gay marriage destroys marriage as a whole. The narrative that tells us that anyone wearing strange head garb hates America. The narrative that tells us that if everyone had a gun we'd end gun violence. And, for Roof and many others, the narrative that tells us that black people rape white women and want to take over our country.
We need to become people of a new narrative, one with hope squarely at the center. Hope comes in all kinds of flavors. For Christians, it's hope in Christ. For other faiths, hope in another deity. For those of no faith, hope in the better side of humanity. For our culture, hope in the structures that are in place to work for the betterment of all. These narratives may have different origins but there's plenty of commonality there to work together and with each other where it counts. A new narrative must be written by all of us.
How do we do this? First, we have to work to reveal the fallacy of the other narratives - reveal them for their fear, their hypocrisy, and most of all their untruthfulness. How we do this is just as key as doing it. We can attend rallies and shout at the top of our lungs, but in the end that won't help much.
Actually, we had the best example of how to begin changing the narrative given by nine precious souls in the basement of a church last Wednesday night. Living in such a manner that the seed of Mark's gospel is planted and can grow. Is it risky? You bet. Those nine folks didn’t and shouldn't have had to lose their lives for it. But they lived out that narrative to the fullest, and for a moment it managed to take root even in the most hardened of hearts.
I lament the fact that Roof didn't give that seed a chance to fully grow in him. Not just because it would've saved nine lives, but because it could've saved one more. That was some pretty fertile soil he found in that church basement. Let's be like that soil. Let's make it harder and harder for people to continue living by a false narrative and share instead the rich and fertile hopeful story that's really there.