Yes, It Was an Attack on Christianity

Mere hours after Dylann Roof’s murderous assault on Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, Fox News pundits reframed the story as a secularist attack on Christianity. They were met with a tsunami of outrage from critics, who — correctly — accused Fox of downplaying the racist nature of the killings. Facts soon emerged that confirmed Roof’s racist motivation beyond all doubt, but curiously, the anti-religious, and anti-Christian, aspect of the crime has been lost in the swirling media storm—why did he go to church to commit murder?

The tradition of sanctuary — that houses of worship are weapons-free zones, where those who shelter in them are safe from assault — is ancient. Yet assailants have flouted the sanctuary tradition, causing ecclesiastical flagstones to run red with blood.

The church shall be open, even to our enemies.
We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance,
Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast
And have conquered. We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory.

— T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
The murder of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1170, by knights loyal to England’s King Henry II, was one such instance. Becket had crossed the King, who was heard to mutter, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights interpreted that line as a royal contract on the cleric’s life. They entered Canterbury Cathedral, drew their swords and cut Becket to pieces.

The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was another notorious transgression of sanctuary. Klan members planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite under the church’s front porch. Four young girls died and 22 other congregants were injured. Only a few of the perpetrators were ever prosecuted.

In 1980, Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador was celebrating mass in a small chapel attached to a hospital. He had just finished preaching a sermon calling on Salvadoran soldiers to resist their superiors’ orders to engage in state-sponsored terrorism. Moments later, Romero took his place at the center of the altar and was shot to death by members of a paramilitary death squad.

Such atrocities shake believers’ faith in the security of their religion institutions. A newspaper reporter recorded one distraught member of Mother Emanuel church asking: “If we’re not safe in the church, God, you tell us where we are safe.”

When Dylann Roof violated the sanctuary of that Charleston church, assassinating its pastor like the murderers of Becket and Romero before him, there is no doubt he was attacking Christianity, as well as venting racist hatred.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that
some have entertained angels without knowing it.
— Hebrews 13:2

Consider the idea of hospitality as well: forged in desert lands where, for a lost traveler, a nomad’s tent could mark the difference between life and death, this was a sacred trust. For believers who stand in the hospitality tradition, failing to welcome a stranger is a serious transgression. Far more heinous yet is for guests, the beneficiaries of such a welcome, to turn on their hosts, doing them harm.

In 1692 members of Scotland’s Clan MacDonald were murdered by soldiers in a remote Highlands village. Alastair Maclain, a clan chieftain, had failed to swear a loyalty oath to the Crown in a timely fashion. The soldiers’ orders were “to fall upon the rebels, the McDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have a special care that the old fox and his sons do upon no account escape your hands…”

True to the laws of hospitality, the unsuspecting MacDonalds welcomed the soldiers into their homes, giving them food and a place to sleep. Late at night, on a signal from their commander, they rose up and killed 38 men — many of them still in their beds — then burned the village and turned their dependents out into the snow. Forty women and children died of exposure.

Just as the Royalist soldiers first broke bread with their hosts before murdering them in their sleep, so Dylann Roof received a cordial welcomed into Emanuel Church’s Bible study. He sat placidly with his victims for an hour before pulling out his gun and killing those who had welcomed him.

Who is to know what the slain church members thought, at first, of this taciturn young white man who had knocked on the church door, asking to see the pastor? He sat at table with them, perhaps even engaged in discussion with them, as Pastor Pinckney fed his flock with the Word. True to the laws of hospitality, the Christians of Mother Emanuel Church welcomed their guest. Then he abruptly turned on them.

The author of Hebrews exhorted Pinckney’s flock to be profligate with their hospitality, lest they find themselves entertaining angels unawares. In Dylann Roof, those churchgoers met a devil.

Roof could just as well have visited his racist wrath on people gathered in a bar or bowling alley. But he did not. The fact that he chose a church is an indicator not of Fox’s favorite red herring — the imaginary War on Christianity — but rather of the killer’s awareness that the one place in a Southern city where African-Americans feel safest is their historically black church.

Sanctuary and hospitality are virtues honored by religions the world over. Churches are meant to be safe places. Those who extend hospitality to strangers are not supposed to worry that their guests may turn around and assault them.

The communal wounds that Roof has inflicted, alongside his already unfathomable crime, are deepened by his contempt for powerfully-held traditions of sanctuary and hospitality.

  • Jim Reed

    So the real war on Christianity is being waged by Christianity.

  • SPRuis

    When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, his answer was “Because that’s where the money is.” So, if a coward wanted to kill Black people with as little opposition as possible, what venue would he choose? A gym frequented by Black ex-convicts? A basketball court? Oh, wait, I’ve got it … a Black Church.

    So, I have posited an alternative motivation to your “attack on Christianity,” the question now, which is more likely? Or we could just ask the perp instead of speculating. Now, that’s a novel idea!

  • Jim Reed

    We are not working to understand the Roof point of view. We are working to understand the Fox News point of view.

  • Dennis Kelley

    though the shocking nature of killings taking place inside churches does warrant a high level of disgust, the killings of innocents should be enough of an outrage regardless of where they are perpetrated. motives for the choice of this venue are clear in the terrorist’s own claims: the historic significance of the Emanuel AME Church to the BLACK community. Roof himself is a Christian, and argued scripture with the victims for an hour before killing them. it was their race, not their faith, that he attacked. to ignore this is not only lunacy, it obscures the issues of racism in the US, and the problem of Christian domestic terrorists who continue to kill Americans at a higher rate than any other ideologically-driven group.

  • Jim Reed

    Christianity is based on having other groups to look down on for what is considered divinely inspired reasons. Without that, Christianity would be left with just humanistic teachings to work with, and there wouldn’t really be any point in keeping it as a religion.

  • What I’m getting at, here, is more about the reactions of the general public – especially people who come from a religious place – and not so much the cognitive processes of the perpetrator, which are impossible to know. The reason this atrocity seems especially horrendous is because of the aggravating factors of violation of sanctuary and hospitality.

  • NancyP

    Black churches have been involved in civil rights since the beginning. This was a political attack on the (generic) major organizing institution of resistance to white supremacy. Also noted in early news reports was the history of this church as the church of the failed slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey.

  • Roger

    People sitting at a local restaurant should have the same sense of sanctuary and expectation of safety as someone in a church.

  • cmbennett01

    Dylan Roof’s self-reported motivation was his racist ideology. An ideology that he no doubt incorporated into his religious beliefs, but his religious beliefs are clearly incidental to his actions. People often the targets of violence and hatred based on their religious beliefs, most often by others who hold slightly different religious beliefs, but this is clearly not the case. To frame it as an attack on Christianity does not get to the root of the problem. It serves no purpose other that to reinforce the idea that there is higher power that must be defended, perhaps with more violence. Roof’s actions were a crime against humanity, not against religion.

  • Judith Maxfield

    I’m sorry but Roof was not a Christian, no way. Many people wrap themselves in the words but do not live the words. Its what in your heart and practice. There are referrences to this in the Gopels and the caution to beware.For some, being a church goer is just a social tradition and nomore than that, or forced peer pressure to save face. There are plenty fake religionists around. He was a child that adults got a hold of and warped his being. They too should be held accountable.

  • Judith Maxfield

    I agree. Would it be less evil if he did what he did somewhere else? Sanctuary is from the ancient European Church. From what I see in American churches – American style, its only the R.C. and other liturgical churches that get the meaning.

  • Judith Maxfield

    All right all ready. Your dislike and maybe hatred is painfully clear and nothing more. Can we move on please?

  • I thing it goes a bit beyond the RC church. I know of Presbyterian Churches in the Southwest who have designated themselves Sanctuary Churches, meaning they are sheltering illegal immigrants in the church building, in the hope that the authorities will respect the right of sanctuary and not enter there.

  • Judith Maxfield

    I only responed that way because I do not know the U.S. ethos of your church. I do know pretty well the general history and roots but not in America. I’m a part of TEC.

  • lorasinger

    The guy admitted KKK sympathies and they consider themselves to be a Christian organization who just happens to hate blacks and racial minorities. Hardly an attack on religion.

  • NelsonRobison

    Why can not pundits and others accept that Dylann Roof stated, that he went to Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to “kill black people.” Also if this wasn’t a purely racist, terroristic act, why didn’t Dylann go to a mostly white mega-church and murder people there?It is as plain as the nose on your face, this was the act of a racist and terrorist.

  • NelsonRobison

    When a person self describes as a Christian, then I have to take them at their word. Or else we get into.the realm of the fallacious, the “No True Scotsman,” and on the proposition they’d base their refusal to believe anyone is a Christian on their own bias.

  • Paul

    Bottom line, Mr. Roof is one huge coward, choosing the innocent and unarmed to vent his racist venom. There is something terribly pathetic about this little man, who knows what he has endured in his life. Worse is to think of what the future holds for him. I’m sure that his mentors will all stand back and quickly wash their hands of his abominable acts, but their hands are permanently soiled. The United States has one huge gaping wound at the very center of its being, and it will be our undoing. Of course we’ve purged the South of the Confederate battle flag, but that’s only the very tip of the iceberg.

  • Jim Reed

    This is not time to move on. This is time to question. That is what this is all about. What is Christianity? It has become different things to different people, and it slides back and forth and never answers what it actually is. I think the only way past this is to have a significant number of people see that. We need to go back to the beginning. Did Christianity start with any divine connection, or is it just a massive construction creating that illusion in the most complicated way possible?

    When you get deep enough into it, you can see there are questions about this church that go beyond the normal questions about Christianity, but we might not quite be ready to face that yet.

  • Jim Reed

    Some churches believe the only true Christians are those who have been born again. That is probably self reporting, but you have to back it up by believing it yourself ever more deeply, and professing this belief to others. It can make you sound foolish to outsiders, but that is probably the point. Split the population between believers and non-believers, and make sure there is a wide gap between the two groups.

  • Jim Reed

    He also accused them of raping white women. Then he killed mostly women, and old ladies, and a young girl.

  • NelsonRobison

    We also get into the realm of disbelieving that anyone is a Christian because they can never reach the level of my belief. That is why I choose to take people at their word. Christianity is made up of various and sundry beliefs, some of which were in vogue 2000 years ago but which are not now. Also, the profession of belief is such that there’s no single concept or belief which makes someone a believer.

    The second concept that eludes the body of Christianity is that there are many and varied strengths of belief, like there are within the Judaic belief system. There are liberal/progressive Christian denominations, there are conservative denominations which profess a stronger less intellectual belief system, and then there are the orthodox or fundamentalist Christian denominations. These fundamentalist Christian denominations are what we’re fighting against today in the US and abroad. They’re spreading their message of hatred, bigotry and intolerance for anyone who isn’t them but “the other.”

  • Jim Reed

    Those are good ones to fight against, but I believe you can question all of them. They seem to be reflections of human nature, with nothing divine about them. Why even have it as a religion? Religions without God are going to end up being counterproductive, no matter how deeply the belief system is in the meantime.

  • Geoff, God of Biscuits

    Becket deserved what he got. He was a bully and had personally presided over the deaths of other, lesser men who’d annoyed or ‘crossed’ him. His biggest pet peeve was ensuring that everyone paid every last penny they ‘owed’ to the church (and rods, chains and stocks to those who failed) while at the same time foot-stamping RAGE that anyone would ever ask him (who owned 3 palaces in London alone) or any other official of the church to pay a bit for the upkeep of the realm.

    Good riddance.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Did I just enter the Twilight Zone? So anyone can claim to be anything? Is this the result of relativism? It seems to me the bar of right and wrong just got lowered to a few inches above ground. I am saying this as a liberal, (lowercase adv. noted). This is the problem of belief that has separated intention from action and we accept it. So Root really didn’t mean to kill those people so its Ok?

    Belief is a much over rated word. It i taking a “position” and for some, they think its the only step they have to take. The rest wil be an out-of-body experience. I say no to that. There is a saying, “now and not yet”. The rest of the journey is the practice of sincere habits and its hard brain and heart work and process. I believe – yes – believe our American individualism is a culprit that keeps whispering in our ears that we so so unique we can do it ourselves. I don’t think so.

    I’ve been lately interested in what Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright talks and writes. I began a few years ago thinking he was such a conservative. But now, I get it. I’m the one who changed. About the afterwards of belief and what to do next is about the habits of virtue. Oh for God’s sake, that sounds so prim, right? He began explaining as a positive the writings of Aristotle on virtue, the step to happiness. I realized I don’t think i’ve heard that word since my university days. Wright goes on to talk about virtue in the letters of St. Paul. But and I agree, its not so much happinesss it is joy. The two words are not the same. I had an uneasiness the two words were not the same and now I agree with Wright.

    So yes, there are many who claim to be Christian. The question is what kind of a god is their referrence point. What is their passion? Is it a giving of of Self for the sake of humanity? BTW: Compassion as seen as com passion means com=together and passion= suffering in the origen of the word. Some of us see a god who shares in our suffering and toil. Its in the praxis.

  • NelsonRobison

    But you propose to judge those who claim to be Christian by some vagary of belief that they don’t fit your model of what Christianity is supposed to be? Since when did you become a god, to judge the intents of a person’s heart and mind. Are you the “fruit inspector?” Whether or not they proclaim themselves Christian, is not something I’m prepared to do. Because it’s my job to take them at their word! Instead you choose to look to divide a man’s heart and soul, and then determine their intent. Who are you to determine what a person’s intent is?

    I’m certain of one thing, that you commit the fallacy of “No True Scotsman.” If you’re not familiar with this fallacious reasoning, then let me explain, “No true Scotsman is an informal fallacy, an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion.[1] When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim (“no Scotsman would do such a thing”), rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule (“no true Scotsman would do such a thing.”

    I’m not so sure that this is one of the reasons that I left the Church. I was being judged by a group of friends because I chose to have surgery, when their interpretation of scripture made it clear that no one could have surgery to relieve pain, chronic and unrelenting, pain that made me cry and scream. You also assert that belief is “overrated.” You sound like an academic, what are you Christian or academic? Because to many Christians you aren’t quite the Christian you claim to be. They look on academics as heretical and abominable because they substitute knowledge for faith and belief.

  • Judith Maxfield

    I knew this would happen. Say what ever you want. You did not read this very well. My only model is behavior. I so wish that more than a few Christians stood up to the Nazi’s, or us in Viet Nam. O dear, thats judging.

  • Kent Truesdale

    Ya think? 😉

  • Kent Truesdale

    WTF?? the Church evolved brilliantly to serve HUMAN needs of THAT time — in retrospection we always parse the past to serve the human needs of TODAY …

  • Jim Reed

    What is the church? Is it a institution to serve human needs, or is it an institution to teach people about God?

  • apotropoxy

    A Christian attacked a group of Christians- a commonplace in Christendom. But this particular psychopath had clearly not singled our some sub-set of his faith tradition for mayhem. He massacred them only because they were black. Simply stating that “there is no doubt he was attacking Christianity, as well as venting racist hatred.” assumes too much. At most you can say that Roof was ignoring a fundamental tenet of Christianism when he murdered those victims. Your confirmation bias is showing, Mr. Wilton.

  • GregWhitenerel

    Roof passed dozens of churches on his way to Mother emmanuel. He admits that he didn’t have the courage to go the “hood” and start shooting, The unarmed peaceful ministers and octogenerians were indeed practitioners of christianity, but the christianity was incidental to their race.

  • Camera Obscura

    I see the atheists here have missed the point, it seems to be what they do best.

  • Kent Truesdale

    It’s BOTH? (assuming God is one of your human needs;)

  • Jim Reed

    But what does the church even know about God?

  • Kent Truesdale

    The church doesn’t KNOW anything about God (with certainty) — but it always proclaims what we need to HEAR about God …

  • Jim Reed

    The church is just building the church.

  • Kent Truesdale

    The church only grows when it meet real human needs …