I suggested to a friend that Christians in America should all move to Charleston, S.C. to find religion. He attended the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. He described the various aspects of a worship service that was over four hours long, yet never wavered in meaning and significance. I suggested that when he looked back over the course of his life, that funeral would be one of the most sacred events he ever witnessed. He fully agreed.
A terrorist sat through an hour of Rev. Pinckney’s Wednesday night Bible study and prayer meeting, and then opened fire, leaving pastor and church members dead and injured. The shooter hoped to unleash an onslaught of white on black violence, and must have been disturbed by what followed. Although enveloped in grief, members of Emmanuel AME Church called on their community to celebrate the lives of their martyred friends and extend forgiveness to the man who had taken so much from them. Speakers at the funeral reminded everyone of the ways that Rev. Pinckney and Emmanuel AME Church worked for the public good in Charleston. They recalled the broad partnerships they enjoy with virtually every public servant in the city. The church is called “Mother Emmanuel” as the oldest AME congregation in the south. Last week she was a mother in another sense. She called the best out of her city and nation. She reminded us not of who we are, but who she believed we could be in such a terrible moment. Church members cared for each other, and demonstrated that years of attending the Wednesday night Bible study and weekly worship together had truly formed them in the ways of Christ. Love, forgiveness, grace and courage prevailed over anger, dissension and reactionary violence.
During the same two-week period Charleston was dealing with this crisis, the Supreme Court passed rulings on Obamacare, marriage equality, environmental regulations and lethal injections. Truly it offered something for everyone to protest, complain and grumble about. For many Christians, both liberal and conservative depending on the ruling of the day, it felt like while the sky may not have fallen, we would be wise to move toward the edges and avoid harm in the imminent collapse. Social media lit up with indignation, position pieces and comment upon comment as people shared where they were on various topics. It was hard to miss the level of disagreement and even resentment that many felt toward the views of others. Sometimes it was toward those of another church affiliation. Other times it was in exchanges with fellow church members—people who have served, attended bible study and worship together for years.
I do not share the naiveté of many who assume that Christians are some monolithic group who, because of their common faith in Christ, hold the same views on important social issues or desire the same outcomes in our society. I am a United Methodist pastor. The denomination I serve is known for a broad ideological spectrum within its membership. If you can’t handle a little conversational heat, you really won’t do well with my people. You should attend that little church across town where the pastor tells everyone what they believe and the flock nods politely. That is simply not us.
Disagreements in the body of Christ go back to the first 12 disciples who followed Jesus and the church that Luke observed and recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Much of Paul’s letters are dedicated to calming the bickering of members who forgot what it meant to love the neighbor sitting right next to them in church. What is different today is the wide use of social media by Christians. When posting on Facebook or Twitter, we often forget just how public our disagreement is and how distasteful it is to those who are observing us who don’t share our faith in Christ. In fact, many who are not Christ followers are repelled from Jesus’ message when they observe that we are as hard or even more damaging to each other in our disagreements as people who don’t claim to be Christians. Our incisive comments often make our point but blow our testimony.
In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul writes: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
That is what the pastor and people of Mother Emmanuel AME Church learned on all those Wednesday nights. It has been deeply moving to see a group of Christians live that out when their church was torn apart by hatred and violence. The rest of us would do well to look upon their example and gain the commensurate humility that could inform how we speak and write to each other.