Charleston Killings: This is What a Sin Against the Holy Spirit Looks Like


“It’s me, it’s me, it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
– old-time gospel song

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  
– Mark 3: 28-29

All houses of worship are sanctuaries, but the concept of sanctuary ​holds particular resonance in Black Church tradition on account of the church’s role as the one institution white people could not take completely away from the persons whom they never ceased to abuse in the most un-Christian ways imaginable.

It is nevertheless true that the original African Church in Charleston was burned to the ground by whites following a major 1822 slave uprising when it was discovered that long-time church member and class leader (and free person of color) Denmark Vesey had been preaching insurrection there.

And now, in a distinctively American drama that never ends, the historic and brave Emanuel (“God with us”) African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston has been violated yet again, almost 200 years later, ​by murderous anti-black hatred.

Very often shooting rampages in this country are described as acts of “senseless” violence, and commentators insist that it is impossible to imagine the mental state of “someone who would do such a thing.”

But when black people are slaughtered by white supremacists, we in fact do know something about the mind of the perpetrators. We know that these are people gripped by fear and rage. Fear that their own insecurities and crimes will be found out, and rage against black people for unfailingly bearing silent witness to these same insecurities and crimes.

As James Baldwin and many others have observed, the presence of black people and the ordeal of black people in the United States stand as a mighty rebuke to anything remotely flattering that the white man wishes to think about himself: all of the white man’s ​notions of his courage, his generosity, and his Christian love get shattered to pieces by the mirror black people hold up to his craven, thieving, ​​hate-distorted face.

In Down at the Cross (1962), Baldw​i​n writes of “the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is…and at the same time the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of the mirror.”

Baldwin continues:

All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits us there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace–not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. And I submit, then, that the racial tensions that menace Americans today have little to do with real antipathy–on the contrary, indeed–and are involved only symbolically with color. These tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those from which love springs, or murder. The white man’s unadmitted–and apparently, to him, unspeakable–private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro.”

Baldwin tells the hard truth that American white people cannot know and love themselves, cannot forgive themselves in the Christian sense of forgiveness, unless and until they know and love the American ​black people with whom their own identity is so closely interwoven.

There is little doubt that the killer was projecting his private fears and longings when he shouted to the people in that Emanuel sanctuary who were begging him to stop, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

“You have to go.” How many white men, all bearing the mark of Cain, have murdered their brothers and sisters because the very existence of a dark-skinned sibling–a sibling possibly more be​loved of God than they–became intolerable?

Elsewhere in his writings, James Baldwin celebrates the beauty and grace of American black people who have known the worst and survived the worst and yet ​have ​still managed to love and be loved, have still made a way where there was no way. And for all of his own struggles with the church, Baldwin also writes ​movingly of the inexpressible loveliness and dignity of the sanctified.

It seems to me ​that ​it must have been this very loveliness and dignity that affronted the killer: that so affronted him that he found it possible to enter a prayer meeting with murderous intent.

Christian theologians still argue about what exactly is meant by “the sin against the Holy Spirit” that three of the four gospels mention. But because ​in these texts the accusers and enemies of Jesus are ​murmuring that he, the one who casts out demons,​ is ​himself demon-​possessed, it seems fairly clear that what is indicated in committing the one unforgivable sin is projecting onto others one’s own sickened and corrupted and demonic heart.

James Baldwin wrote long ago that we cannot achieve our country until white people, in effect, come to the cross and lay their burden down.

And when, exactly, will that be?


  •' Kim Fabricius says:

    That will preach. That will most certainly preach. Thank you.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    When will they lay their burden down? Christianity is their burden.

  • Has anyone blamed “the gays” yet, or the “homosexual agenda” (that I never got the syllabus of btw)?

  •' apotropoxy says:

    “… whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

    Eternal punishment is not the act of a god who loves. It is that of one who hates.

  •' cranefly says:

    Off-topic, and “eternal punishment” are your words in this case. But sure, why get tired of throwing that in?

  •' phatkhat says:

    Dyllan Roof is, no doubt, mentally ill. (He bears an uncanny resemblance to Adam Lanza.) But you have to wonder why his father would give him a .45, when he HAD to know the kid had problems. Or was family hatred of black people so intense that he was simply primed and did what he thought was expected of him?

    We really need to get a clue about gun violence, but I’m afraid it will never happen here in America. The racism is programmed. The puppeteers want us to hate each other.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    My wife is of Asian decent and has had children as young as first grade same pretty nasty racist things to her – in northern NH. At that age, it is most certainly learned.

  •' Matthew Berry says:

    The appalling tragedy of this event is that nothing effective will be done to stop it happening again, or to start addressing the issues underlying such attacks.

  •' Matthew Berry says:

    The alternate extreme, a nihilistic reduction of moral values by arguing that no sin is unforgivable, is no better.

    Problems of justice, punishment and the problem of evil have plagued many religions and resulted in some of the most eloquent or barbaric expressions of humanity in our history. It should not be boiled down to a “god who loves” or “one who hates”. That’s just too simplistic.

  • That’s your reply to Baldwin’s beautiful prose?

    You really are a one note Charlie. Try imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes for a change.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I am just thinking the solution is not to become more Christian, and as long as that is what people are trying to do, the solution will be an illusion.

  •' fiona64 says:

    Stop it. Stop excusing racism and white supremacy as mental illness. Those are *choices that are made.*

  •' apotropoxy says:

    Most Christians believe eternal punishment awaits souls that die with the stain of eternal sin and Mark holds that such a sin is unforgivable (see quote). Is this new information for you?

  •' apotropoxy says:

    Psychopathy channeled through racism is still psychopathy.

  •' cranefly says:

    Take your bone and gnaw on it somewhere else. Nine people were murdered in a church, celebrating hope and community. You take the opportunity to slam their faith. You should be ashamed.

  •' apotropoxy says:

    Most Christians believe eternal punishment awaits souls that die with the stain of eternal sin and Mark holds that such a sin is unforgivable (see quote).

    In other news… denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Deal with your faith’s contradictions, hater.

  •' cranefly says:

    The article is about a social justice exegesis of that line in Christian scripture, to call out the largely-Christian culture of racial hatred and hypocrisy that tolerates violence in the interest of white supremacy and privilege, which culminated recently in an unspeakable hate crime against black members of a church. That so many white Christians project their hatred and fear onto their society’s oppressed is the antithesis of Christianity to many of us, and is in any case intrinsically tribal and intrinsically unrepentant. So it makes sense to conceive it as the unforgivable sin. I don’t actually have trouble dealing with “my” faith’s “contradictions” because the social justice gospel is the one I feel called to represent.

    You’re like an atheist Frank. You just want to parrot your one line about how Christians believe in hell, and there’s nothing else to talk about. Because you’re so intelligent I guess, and unhateful.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    No sin is unforgivable. Eternal hell is a lie. I’m not going to “argue” about it, I just know it and assert it.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    This article is darkness inspired by darkness. I see nothing redemptive or productive here. It’s cathartic and understandable maybe, but not helpful beyond that.

  •' apotropoxy says:

    “That so many white Christians project their hatred and fear onto their society’s oppressed is the antithesis of Christianity to many of us…”
    ^No True Scotsman foundation.^

    “…and is in any case intrinsically tribal and intrinsically unrepentant.”
    Tribal, certainly. “Unrepentant” requires a theological construct not in evidence.

    “So it makes sense to conceive it as the unforgivable sin.”
    It makes no sense to posit an infinite and loving god and imagine it cannot forgive the actions of one of its creatures. I think your projection is showing.

    “I don’t actually have trouble dealing with the “contradictions”
    Perhaps one day you will finally eat the apple.

    “… the social justice gospel is the one I feel called to represent.”
    This is not about you. It is about Christian theology and practice.

    “You just want to parrot your one line about how Christians believe in hell, and there’s nothing else to talk about.”

    I actually have several “lines” regarding Christian theology and several more about Judaic tradition. My favorite, however, concern the historical Jesus. There’s lots to talk about. Believers in Christian doctrine have struggled for almost 2,000 years with their contradictions and have devoted their best men to square the circles. I find Thomas’ take on the nature of evil a masterpiece in semantic self-delusion.

  •' apotropoxy says:

    The Christians posit a god that is all-loving and all-knowing. Riddle us how an all-loving god could fail to forgive a murderer.

  •' apotropoxy says:

    I just think it and assert it. I also reject the notion of sin as being a transgression of some deity’s law or will.

  • Maybe you should think less. It’s not working so well for you.

    Leave these poor people to their tragedy and chosen sources of comfort. Who cares what you think about it?

  •' cranefly says:

    You clearly don’t understand the No True Scotsman fallacy. Let me help. It’s entirely valid, for example, to say that violence is the antithesis of pacifism, and it’s actually a true fact that various interpretations of Christianity are antithetical to each other. I even qualified by saying to some. What I didn’t do is claim that they weren’t Christian at all, in order to make a claim that “all Christians are ___.” That would be the No True Scotsman fallacy. In any case, no “fallacy” slapped down on the table as a conversation stopper requires me to accept as my own faith what every other Christian believes. You need to work on your lines.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I think this may be beyond what we can handle on RD. Our only tools are Christianity and anti-Christianity, and they are failing us this time.

  •' Matthew Berry says:

    There are many attempts to answer the question. My point was merely that this issue is much more complicated than the dichotomy you presented above.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Do Christians believe in hell, and is that belief significant?

  •' cranefly says:

    What Christians are you talking about? The Christian families who were victimized by this attack said one-by-one on video that they forgive Dylan Roof and may God have mercy on his soul; most Christians don’t believe in a God who is less forgiving than themselves. The author of this article represents the United Church of Christ, which is about as universalist as churches get. James Baldwin, the social critic discussed in the article, makes no reference to eternal punishment or reward, but speaks about the personal sickness and social justice costs of white people’s inability to forgive themselves. I don’t think it’s a wild leap of charity for me to understand that the issue here is a social justice interpretation of the “unforgivable sin” concept, not a literal condemnation of white racists to eternal hell. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that it is off-topic and inappropriate for a bunch of salivating anti-religionists to change the subject to their personal beef with some other Christian theology.

    Do Christians believe in Hell? A lot of them do. I’m sure somewhere on the internet you can find a thread to talk about it with them, where it’s actually relevant the conversation at hand.

  • No. 1, you do not speak for RD, are not a representative for RD, and have no association whatsoever with the organization of RD. I see no reason why you would have any clue as to what “RD can handle” and what it cannot.

    No. 2: If you don’t understand why using the occasion of a mass murder to attack the religion of the people murdered (and of their loved ones) is obnoxious and disgusting than either (a) you are a complete imbecile; (b) you are a terrible person.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Maybe beliefs tend to cause more problems than they solve.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    No 1. I was just reading the responses on the RD thread.

    No 2. I am not attacking them and I don’t think anybody is attacking them. If it is questioning the religion, a lot of the problem is a long history of not questioning religion. That problem is still here even in the face of tragedy.

  • I didn’t say that you were attacking them, I said you were attacking their religion.

    Which you continue to do.

    So, either (a) or (b). Regardless, you’re certainly not someone I want to converse with.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I didn’t attack their religion. I do question what Christianity is about, and I think

  •' cranefly says:

    Ok. But, see, that is a non-sequitur.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    It might still be true, and that might be significant even if it is something that people don’t want to think about.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The father probably had two reasons to give the kid the gun. One is to be prepared in case of the unlikely event that Yankees might invade again. The other is the incorrect observation in their world that black men are raping so many white women.

  •' Geoffrey Kruse-Safford says:

    Because, obviously, the author has a duty to make you feel better.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    Turn it down, idiot. I’m referring to the notion of “unforgiveability,” which is an utter lie. My feelings are irrelevant.

  • Evan Derkacz says:


    Evan Derkacz “DARE-koch”
    Editor in Chief
    Religion Dispatches
    c: 646-574-3961

    Please Note: This email is intended solely for the recipient whose name appears in the address line; it is neither for publication nor for sharing.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    Delete because I responded in kind to a sarcastic comment? Gladly.

  • Evan Derkacz says:

    The comment was deleted because you called him a name, not because you were sarcastic.

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