Accounting for Seeds
Flashing headlines stopped lesser trains of thought that morning, many of us hearing the news for the first time. The busy flow of strangers and hotel employees walking briskly toward their respective conference rooms abruptly stopped, and together we stood leveled, watching.
The evening before, a young white male had opened fired on members of a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Eight members died at the scene, a ninth at the hospital. The victims—Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Depayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda, and Myra—ranged in ages from 26 to 87. Together that evening, they had been studying the parable of the sower when the twenty-one year old entered the church quietly. He was welcomed at the table. He sat with them as they considered the Gospel of Mark and prayed, and then he stood up, uttered a hateful racial speech, and killed nine people in a house of worship.
In the days following, the Charleston shooting continued to command headlines, though not merely in reports of the horrific details as they unfolded. The shooter was apprehended, details of his background given, acquaintances interviewed, inquires made into the gun he used, theories posited on the mindset that lead up to his terrible course of action. But the tragically familiar flow of details following US shootings was interspersed this time with less familiar reporting. Relatives of the victims gunned down at the church faced the shooter merely a day after his actions, offering striking, but not easy, words of forgiveness and mercy. That Sunday, just four days after fellow congregants and their senior pastor were left in a pool of blood in their basement, the church came together for services, the building having been released as a crime scene only hours earlier. Worship commenced as the standing congregation sang of Christ: You are the source of our strength; You are the strength of our lives. Across the city, churches in unison rang morning worship bells in solidarity with Emmanuel AME Church and the victims lost for nine full minutes—a minute for every victim. That evening, a unity chain of clasped hands extended across the 13,200-foot-long Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge from Charleston to the town of Mount Pleasant. The words and actions inspired by this Christian community in lament were a far cry from the “race war” the shooter vowed to the nine victims he would incite with their deaths.
But he was not the only one whose story was dispelled by Emanuel AME’s countercultural telling of the Gospel. In many sectors, events were told and retold with a curious tone, a suspiciousness, or watering down of the acts themselves. Op-ed pieces poured forth, some expressing concern, others closer to anger, over any sort of “forgiveness” offered to him.(1) One commenter attributed the movement toward forgiveness itself as a mere symptom of the history of black intimidation and hope of survival in a white world. Others seemed aware that something different, and far more resolute, was going on. “A lot of folks expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot,” said Norvel Goff Sr., a presiding elder at Charleston AME. “Well they just don’t know us. We are people of faith.”(2) It was a week that made clear that the cross remains foolishness and a stumbling block, even as the brazen display of cruciform forgiveness clearly hit an international nerve. National Review writer Charles C. W. Cooke tweeted in response to the families as they stood before him, “I am a non-Christian, and I must say: This is a remarkable advertisement for Christianity.”
This was explicit Christianity at work in this people of faith, not mindless tolerance, spineless faith, or racial brainwashing. And this is as clear in the wake of the young man’s trial and his unmoved insistence that he holds no remorse for his actions on June 17, 2015 as it was the day following the murders when Nadine Collier stood publicly before her mother’s killer and did not mince words: “You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you. It hurts me. You hurt a lot of people, but may God forgive you.” Anthony Thompson exhorted the young many to “take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways no matter what happens to you and you’ll be okay.” Apart from the Christian faith, this forgiveness would look utterly foolish indeed.
When the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached over the coffins of the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing September 15,1963, he said, “History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.” To another community grieving the loss of innocents in a place of worship, King alluded to the one who first made the puzzling suggestion that there might be glory where we can only find grief. To a crowd equally in need of hearing how this might be so, Jesus stopped to explain it using a simple image from every day agrarian life: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”(3) A grain of wheat has to die, has to be buried in the earth, given back to the source of life and sun and rain itself. Only with this death and burial can the harvest come. And miraculously, it is an abundant harvest. One seed in death yields a tremendous return—”some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”(4)
Jesus explains simply what the farmer knows well. Still, his application, pointing unavoidably toward his own death, is wearisome. The seed is about to fall and die. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, he says. But glory in the death and cross of Jesus Christ is more than counterculture; it is grotesque, offensive. And yet, this is precisely the narrative of the Christian faith that cries out across ever tragedy and century and soul in dire need. This is the story we are given not to hold as abstract truth, but as an inhabitable story that will puzzle neighbors and enemies and frustrate darker narratives. There is glory in the death of Jesus Christ, in the suffering of God, because in his unmerited suffering, like a seed that falls to the ground and dies, there are roots shooting down to water that cleanses and life bursting abundantly forth from a burial that would not constrain him. This is precisely what the gospel cries out over the unmerited suffering of communities and a world overcome with evil and cynicism. And so you find that not only is redemption possible, but forgiveness can be extended because the glory of the cross, the transforming yield of life that can be held in God’s death, is actually holding you.
Four years ago, a bible study at Emanuel AME church welcomed a stranger into their midst as they read of Jesus telling a story about seeds falling on the ground. The brutal death of nine Christians in a Charleston church did not incite a race war. But their lives will continue to proclaim in grief a glory worthy of Christ himself:
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Edward E. Baptist, “Forgiveness in Charleston isn’t absolution for 400 years of racial violence in America,” LA Times, June 24, 2015; Roxane Gay, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” The New York Times, June 23, 2015.
(2) John Eligon and Richard Fausset, “Defiant Show of Unity in Charleston Church That Lost 9 to Racist Violence,” The New York Times, June 21, 2015.
(3) John 12:24.
(4) The parable of the sower is told in Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:1-15
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