Lord have mercy. I have spent the past three days moving from Baltimore to the hills of Tennessee and, while no one can unplug completely from news in the age of smart phones, I have been packing in a house with no WiFi, at the wheel of a car and finally unpacking in a house with no WiFi. I have been as unplugged as I have been in ages.
So, first, a word of thanksgiving to the other GetReligionistas for carrying on during two amazing days of religion news at the national and global levels. And much of my personal email, of course, has come from friends and colleagues concerned, and praying, about the vision of heaven and hell that unfolded in that Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
Of course I have questions and, yes, the word "theodicy" in relevant.
Most of my questions concern the actual content of that Bible study, the hymns, Bible talk, prayers and fellowship that, briefly, made Dylann Roof think twice about his mass-murder "mission." What was the religious content of this nearly one-hour gathering? At the very least, what was the Bible passage or passages they were studying? Wouldn't that add context and details to his stunning drama?
it's clear that the press, so far, has been -- understandably -- locked in on the basic, human details of this scene, with hints of spirituality. The top of a new Washington Post story shows this approach, starting with the Bible study itself -- in vague terms -- and its leader, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney:
The man, wearing a fanny pack, had entered Emanuel and asked, “Where is the pastor?” according to relatives of victims who spoke to a survivor.
Pinckney, 41, knew the president of the United States. His great-grandfather sued the state’s Democratic Party to force an end to whites-only primaries. His uncle sued the governor to create voting districts that would make it possible for blacks to be elected to the legislature.
Now, the pastor welcomed the stranger into his church. A white visitor at Bible study was no ordinary event. Church in Charleston, as in most of the nation, is a time when people tend to stay with their own. Emanuel Church is on a street where, for decades, blacks were restricted to one sidewalk; the other one was whites-only.
The group invited the man to join the discussion. He remained silent. One participant, Tywanza Sanders, just a year out of college and working as a barber, posted a few seconds of video on Snapchat showing congregants seated around a long table. In the corner of the screen, the white man, unsmiling, sits next to the minister.
Texts were spread around the table, Scripture and notebooks, prayers and hymns.
As I said earlier, Bible studies have specific content and are usually held in sequence, working on specific books of the Bible or a set of verses linked to a topic.
Picture the scene: Roof is sitting there listening to them, being invited to take part. They sing. What? They pray. What? The discuss specific verses and/or concerns. What? How is this not part of the story? Some reports have said that they argued about scripture. About what?
To some degree, this content affected the young man. But not enough.
In custody, Roof told police that he chose Emanuel Church because he wanted to be sure he wasn’t killing white people. He said he “almost didn’t go through with it because they were so nice to him,” said a state lawmaker who was briefed by police.
Roof reportedly called the killings “my mission.”
Let's take this up to another level. Have you read the stunning New York Times report about the words of healing and forgiveness spoken to Roof during the bond hearing? Once again, readers are shown a scene of almost other-worldly drama, one that makes no sense whatsoever when taken out of a religious context. Ghosts? You think?
The Times team knows that this "music" (that classic Bill Moyers quote again) is important, but just can't seem to get the content of this song.
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- One by one, they looked to the screen in a corner of the courtroom on Friday, into the expressionless face of the young man charged with making them motherless, snuffing out the life of a promising son, taking away a loving wife for good, bringing a grandmother’s life to a horrific end. And they answered him with forgiveness.
“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, her voice rising in anguish. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
The occasion was a bond hearing, the first court appearance of the suspect, Dylann Roof, for the murders, thought to be racially motivated, of nine black men and women during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night.
It was as if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims’ family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief. They urged him to repent, confess his sins and turn to God.
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, the mother of 26-year old Tywanza Sanders, a poet who died after trying to save his aunt, who was also killed.
Yes, yes, yes. It was like the Bible study was continuing, right there in the courtroom. To put this in Southern pew terms, they "testified" for the faith in word and deed. What was the content of these lessons in forgiveness, these testaments? It is good to know that they took place. The Times editors know that.
But why ignore the religious content? It appears, from glimpses in other sources, that some of these amazing believers were truly concerned about the state and future of Roof's soul. They asked him to -- in the other sense of this term -- "get religion" and turn to a savior before it was too late. Is this relevant?
One final question: When you move into a Southern town or meet strangers, it is not uncommon for them to ask a very basic personal question, which is, "Where do you go to church?" The answer to that question provides quite a bit of information.
I cannot imagine that a young white stranger walked into that gather and nobody asked him where he went to church and what he was doing there. Can you?
This Huffington Post story has an answer to that question, and it is an interesting one.
"He was on the roll of our congregation," Rev. Tony Metze of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, told The Huffington Post. Metze is also the pastor to Roof's family, and said he has been providing them with "Christian care" since the shooting. The pastor did not respond to questions on how often Roof had attended the church or if had been there recently. He referred HuffPost to the South Carolina Lutheran synod bishop, who did not immediately respond to request for comment.
In a previous interview with CNN, Metze said Roof's sister, who was supposed to get married this weekend, had postponed the wedding, and that Roof's family was praying for victims' families. In that interview, he also said Roof was being ministered to while in jail.
Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, released a statement on Thursday reporting that two of the victims, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and Rev. Daniel Simmons, had graduated from one of the denomination's seminaries.
To say the least, the progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is not a major player in Southern religion. In the South Carolina, the Episcopal Church -- and more conservative Anglican bodies -- is much more prominent.
It my experience as a reporter in nearby Charlotte, N.C., affiliation with an ELCA church would often imply white-collar status, at the very least. This young man had not, in other words, run away from a Southern Baptist church or a Pentecostal megachurch. Was this progressive branch of mainline Protestantism a significant part of his family's life?
The goal is not to seek blame, or anything remotely resembling that. The goal is information and context. This young man -- in terms of church -- has an interesting background. This is part of the context. Let's hope for deeper coverage on this, and other, issues related to that Bible study in Charleston.