Dylann Roof was wrong. The race war isn’t coming. It’s already here. It began the moment the very first old world (proto-European) citizen stepped on the shores of Africa and the Americas and other soon-to-be-colonized places and said, “God has given this land and these people to me. This is mine.”
The belief in God-given possession flows like a vampire virus through the veins of this country. We eagerly draw lifeblood from as much of the world as possible, in land, natural resources, and cheap labor. What does it mean to be born in a place that measures your value, your worth, your very life by the calculus of possession? That calculus extends through time to us from those founding greed-filled moments invading our waking consciousness and driving us forward in a strange confession.
We believe in competition born of the desire to possess. We believe in striving against others for the sake of survival and growth. We believe that excellence emerges from struggle, from the isometric pressure of opposing forces pushing against each other with all their strength until weakness of mind, body, idea, institution, and company are rubbed away through the heat generated by life forces exposed in conflict.
We could associate many names, schools of thought, life philosophies, or corporate policies with this confession, but its origins are irrelevant at this point. What is crucial is its embodiment, because it is poison. Europeans coming to this country began drinking this poison as they joined their bodies to a civilizing machine operating on two sites. The machine worked on the land and at the bodies of indigenous peoples clearing and killing away all that it deemed counterproductive. It also worked on immigrant bodies killing and clearing away all that could not be turned completely into whiteness.
Whiteness—that form of life that is also a way of seeing life—emerged not as a fixed identity but as a striving, a goal to be accomplished, and for many an achievement to be celebrated.
But not everyone has achieved their whiteness. Some cannot achieve it. Others do not want to attain it, and some live in constant frustration in their failure to secure it. Whiteness depends on possession and the possibilities of increasing possession. Enter Dylann Roof. Many have tried to narrate his assassinations inside a story of psychosis and terrrorism sprinkled with racism, so that we will see his actions as extraordinary evil.
But Dylann Roof’s act was not extraordinary evil, it was quite ordinary evil, the evil deeply embedded in the racial architecture of America. This young man yielded to the mind bending incoherent frustration born of whiteness, a frustration that has always misdirected its anger at black people first, and then other people of color and Jewish people, all of whom are imagined as thwarting the full achievement of the possession of whiteness and the whiteness of possession. This is a possession that runs from land, to money, to women, and finally to respect.
Whiteness creates a state of war. It is a mental state with abiding consequences. This may come as a surprise but many people of color, especially black folks, deeply sense this condition of war. And now that state of war is on the verge of increased visibility as the demographic wave moves across this country eroding a white-washed America and transforming a white majority to a historical fact discovered only in archives. This may help explain Dylann Roof’s actions but it does not explain away the horror he enacted.
I will forever be haunted by two things. First, by his presence in the intimate space of that bible study, sitting there at a table with these saints of God who were seeking to hear a holy word just for them, just for this moment. I would feel less pain if he would have simply walked into the church and started shooting; then I could live with the fact that this young man did not hear the word, did not hear the sound of grace and communion, did not give God’s voice the chance to penetrate his contorted heart.
But that was not the case. He did hear the sound of grace and communion. God’s voice was sounding in Emmanuel. He simply resisted it. He showed us the deaf ear of those seeking whiteness, a deafness that reaches deep into the soul and thwarts the power of God’s love. I am a theologian who struggles to grasp how anyone could thwart the power of God’s love. This is what we theologians call the mystery of iniquity, a mystery that resides in us and not in God.
I am also haunted by the forgiveness that the families of the victims offered this man. One by one—representatives of several of the families forgave Dylann Roof. They spoke words ancient and living, sharper than any two edged sword. In the name of the God they serve, they forgave this man. As Alana Simmons, granddaughter of the slain Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons was reported to have said, “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions.”
I am a theologian who struggles to grasp how black folks, century after century, can forgive, how we are called on in torturous repetition to forgive those who kill us, and we do it. The only way I can fathom this grace of forgiveness offered is if the very life of God flows through people like these black families. It does.
But I also struggle with the way this word of forgiveness is interpreted in America. It’s used to avoid dealing with the problem of whiteness and the poison-filled faith in competition embedded in it. Christian forgiveness when processed on the American social and political landscape emerges as a kind of rhetorical narcotic, homemade and constantly offered to dull the pain of our racial violence.
This soothing high does not help. We need to end this war by unmasking whiteness, challenging our religious faith in competition, and dealing with the long painful history of white (especially male) frustration in a system which awards a very limited number of medals for achieving whiteness. We are all afraid of the copycats—unstable people who may, in the weeks and months ahead, follow Roof’s murderous pattern. But the pattern is already in place, so the real question is: are we willing to dismantle it?