On the Slaying of the Charleston Martyrs

By Bishop Rob Hirschfeld

This morning we woke up to yet one more report of the nearly unrestrained violence in our nation.  A young white man in distorted mind and conscience took advantage of the hospitality of an historic African Methodist Episcopal congregation in Charleston that had gathered for prayer and bible study.  After some time, the young man opened fire with a weapon he had concealed, killing nine faithful people, including their well respected pastor.  The Evil One chose a toxic and lethal mix of mental illness, easy access to guns, racism, and hatred to level the latest assault on God’s children.

Those who died at Emanuel AME Church are martyrs of our faith.  Unprotected. Vulnerable. Without any physical means of defense, these men and women died while seeking to know God’s will in the study of scripture and prayer.  And now, once again, the nation displays a similar outrage as it had two and half years ago when a young man with distorted mind and conscience entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. According to a report of the Center for Disease Control, since that December day in 2013, there have been at least 80,000 gun related deaths in the United States.  Evil had another day yesterday. But God’s love will win. Let me say again, God’s love, stronger than death, will win.

I am waking up.  I am waking up to what it means now, in America, to be a baptized Christian.  I grew up in an era of the Church’s history when we were taught that Church was a place of networking, of meeting nice people who could help you along the way in life.  Church was a place where people, though often deeply flawed, sinful, hypocritical, sought to be kind to one another.   We were taught that if we had the right educational programs, Sunday Schools, burned the proper incense in our high churches, or preached the powerful message in our low-church pulpits, the Church would grow and grow and maintain its place as the moral voice of our nation. That promise lulled me almost to sleep. But I am waking up now.

I am now waking up to realize that I, we, need to be ready when called to another kind of witness.  We might be called to actually die in witness to the God whose power, working in us, is stronger than the violence, hatred, brutal inhumanity, in short, the evil that runs rampant in this world.

We can predict that in the days ahead, (in fact it has already started) there will be calls to lock our church doors, to arm ourselves with guns, to be trained in case we find ourselves under armed assault.   We can predict that there will be people who will be less likely to gather in public with their brothers and sisters in Christ for fear of their life and their safety.  I, for one, cannot blame or fault them.

But, I also worship and proclaim a God who chose to display ultimate power in being vulnerable to violence—a God who, in fact, prayed to have the strength to welcome it, not to fight back with arms and more violence but with the power of love, and a presence that will make the world new.

As a bishop bound to defend the faith of this Church, I call upon our congregations to remember that we have already died in our baptism.  It sounds stark, but when we remember that we have already been raised with Christ, we can see that death of our baptism as a most beautiful, life-affirming, freedom-bestowing, hell-destroying thing. We have already been raised to a promise of new and eternal life.  If worshipping God and studying God’s Holy Word with people of other races, creeds, nationalities, sexual orientation, or gender incites the hatred and the violence of the Evil One, my God tells me to say, “I am not afraid!”  It was that posture of invulnerable vulnerability, of powerful powerlessness that Jesus Christ, and his followers Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, the Maryknoll Nuns, our own Jonathan Daniels, and all the martyrs of the past, men and women, occupied when they met their deaths and by doing so shared showed how impotent the violence of this world really is.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  (Ephesians 6:10-13) 

As a Church, let us remember that our minds are not to be conformed to the spirit of this age.  We are not called to take up any arms but the arms of God’s power, made known in a defenseless child born in an unprotected stable and who grew up to choose to be crucified by frightened and insecure men.  The world may be expecting us to arm ourselves.  Let us now show the courage of love the world so sorely needs by continuing to open our doors, to pray, to invite the stranger, to feed the hungry, to visit the prisoner, and to study God’s Word and to share the meal of Christ’s Body and Blood that reminds us of our immunity to the wiles and violence of the Evil One.

18 June 2015

Feast of Bernard Mizeki, Martyr