It could have been me. In fact, it could have been any of us. By us, I mean the people all over this world who enter churches, synagogues, mosques, and other sacred places of worship to study, to pray, to listen, to sing, and sometimes even to mourn.
When I went to my Pentecostal church in a southern suburb this past Sunday it never crossed my mind that the loud preaching, singing, and praying could at any time be silenced by gunshots. When I went to a memorial service just this past Monday at a synagogue, to lay to rest a Holocaust survivor, it never entered my mind that a cowardly act of violence by one individual could tragically interrupt the quiet reflection of that service.
The hate crime in Charleston, South Carolina is a very scary reminder of how vulnerable we all are. When I heard about this tragedy, the racist church bombings in the Jim Crow South rushed back into my conscience, and I suddenly felt a very present unease. What does it mean to live in a world where even our most sacred spaces are vulnerable to the most violent crimes? What are our responsibilities as individuals? What should our collective response be?
Facing History and Ourselves asks students and communities to look within, to explore the roots of hatred, and to imagine a world free of ghastly acts of violence. Which ideas, dispositions, and beliefs create the fertile ground that raises up perpetrators of hate crimes? What brings a human being to devalue others so much that they are willing to become murderous? How can we see this coming? Can we ever prevent these acts of violence? Are they sometimes just random? Or are they always a part of a larger narrative?
This deep reflection eventually leads us back to ourselves. Do we see our own blind spots? Do we see our own potential to hate what we do not understand? As we try to understand what happened in Charleston, are we reflecting our own biases?
These are the kinds of questions that we at Facing History hope will be raised in classrooms and communities in the aftermath of this tragedy. We recognize that the answers are complicated and sometimes insufficient. However, without this deep reflection we are resigned to accept hate crimes as inevitable, and humans as incapable of creating a tolerant world.
The violence in Charleston brings to mind a community in Billings, Montana who responded to hate crimes by choosing to see the best in each other’s traditions. Christians, Jews, and community members of all backgrounds stood together and essentially said "Not in our town." Their collective love for one another drove the haters out of town. What a lesson for us all.
What happened in Billings exemplifies our resiliency in the face of hatred and violence. So I will go back to church this Sunday with my family. I may do so with trepidation, but I am more determined than ever to look evil in the eye and express my religious freedom, and with that freedom comes a responsibility to make sure those who are different from me are able to do the same.