Refusing to Be Comforted: Charleston, Black Death, and Prophetic Grief

By Rev. Jennifer Bailey

This piece was originally published in the Sojourners for a link to the original article please click here.

"A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."- Jeremiah 31:15

On Wednesday, June 17, Dylann Roof walked through the doors of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Charleston, S.C. For nearly an hour he sat among the saints of God and participated in their weekly Bible study before opening fire and viciously killing nine black Christians. Among those gathered was a librarian, Cynthia Heard; a minister and local high school track and field coach, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; and their pastor state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Tywanza Sanders sacrificed his own life to protect those around him. They were mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. They were ministers of the gospel, ushers, and choir members all united by their love of God, their church, and each other.

I am a clergywoman in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I am in mourning and I refuse to be comforted. Like the story of Rachel weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18), I will not allow my anger and lamentation to be silenced. With silence comes complacency, and the stakes for are too high. The very soul of American Christianity is on trial, and progressive platitudes of reconciliation will not save it. The type of healing we need can only be borne out of lament — a lament that holds space in the deepest pits of our beings for the piercing sorrow and rage being expressed by black communities, cultivates empathy, and puts restorative justice at the center of our collective action. It is a type of lament some of my dear sisters in ministry have begun to call prophetic grief. As one of my beloved heroes, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in New York notes, “Love looks like this: Prophetic grief. Tears falling heavy. And activism that ends racism.”

The type of healing we need can only be borne out of lament.

When unspeakable tragedy happens, it is human instinct to ask questions to attempt to make sense of the chaos. In this case, the Charleston massacre last week, the answer to the question of why is abundantly clear: Dylann Roof wanted to kill black people. Reports from friends and peers describe a young man who in recent months made increasingly violent statements about attacking black people and talked of wanting to start a “civil war.” In a statement to police Roof stated the hospitality and welcome of his victims made him second-guess his actions, but that he pushed through with his mission because he believed black people were taking over the country .

There is nothing new about Roof’s worldview. Whenever the ideology of white supremacy is threatened in America, it responds by violently inflicting lethal harm on black and brown bodies. So it was during Reconstruction, when the political and social advances of former slaves gave way to the rise of domestic terrorist groups like the Klu Klux Klan in the name of protecting white families. So it was during the Jim Crow era, when the lynching epidemic claimed 3,959 black lives by claiming to defend white womanhood. So it is today, when the public declaration that #blacklivesmatter is met with resistance, scorn, and outrage in communities quick to proclaim we are living in a post-racial society. The slaughter at Mother Emmanuel is just the latest chapter in a 400-year-old collection of narratives detailing the horror of racial terror in the United States. In the library of America’s unspoken truths, the collection sits next to a companion series on the history of labor exploitation and the cultivation of American wealth.

Attacks on African-American houses of worship are entrenched in this history of racial violence. In 1821,Mother Emmanuel itself was burned down for its members’ role in plotting a slave rebellion. Four little black girls were killed during the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. During the early 1990s, another tumultuous era of American race relations, an series of church bombings occurred through the South. This tactic of terror is particularly egregious in its profaning of holy space. Black churches are not just a space for communal worship. They are one of few places in our society where black Christians are acknowledged as children of God. That is what makes this violation particularly heinous. By a combatting the narrative of black life as commodity through the affirmation of black humanity, the black churches function as political spaces that inherently challenge the dominance of white supremacy.

This tactic of terror is particularly egregious in its profaning of holy space. 

I invite my Christian brothers and sisters of all racial backgrounds to join me in my prophetic grieving. Our cries cannot and should not be the same. For some of us, who inhabit black skin, our tears will be coated in rage and exhaustion. They will be punctuated by the stark feeling that we are permanently displaced in the only place we have known as home. We know that we fighting for our lives and have no choice but to cry out to God.

For others, particularly white Christians, the choice may not be as clear. Lament for Charleston cannot be separated from a challenge to the system of white supremacy that serves to protect white people and white interests. Prophetic grief requires a confession that the system of white supremacy infiltrates and shapes our worship spaces, theologies, and ethics. I have no doubt that this process will be risky for my white colleagues. Rarely does transformation occur without birthing pains. The reality of power is that while my survival is at stake, my white Christian brothers and sisters have the option to opt-out, avoid the pain, and remain silent.

Yet, if Christians are serious about those words in the Lord’s Prayer “thy kingdom come,” I believe that we have to get serious about dismantling the sins of racism and white supremacy. If faith without works is dead, so are calls for prayer without action and accompaniment with suffering communities. For those asking wondering how to start, you can begin in your own congregations. Refuse to be comforted. Lean into prophetic grief. Speak the truth about your own implicit and explicit racial biases.

Nine black Christians are dead in Charleston. Killed by during a prayer meeting in their church. If that is not enough of a call to action for the American church, I don’t know what will be. May God rule accordingly on the Day of Judgment.

Rev. Jennifer Bailey is Founder and Executive Director of the Faith Matters Network.