After a long line of racially fueled events that have swept our nation, including police shootings and city-wide violence, Charleston, South Carolina enters the stage. It’s like a strange chapter at the end of a long line of racially divided chapters that have continually divided America. It’s the unlikely chapter in recent history. The surprise in the chapter is that it’s not about race. This chapter is about grace.
As we all know, the Charleston shooting has rocked our nation. The senseless act of murder carried out by a white man in the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston has brought the spotlight of the world to Charleston and what has been put in view is not what the the world expected to see. No riots. No SWAT team in riot gear. No cars being burned in the streets. Instead, it was the unlikely scene of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Bethane Middleton-Brown, the sister of one of the victims, said, “I acknowledge that I am very angry,” but “she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.”
What can we learn from this horrible tragedy? Three clear things are put on display in this tragic scene that continues to unfold in Charleston.
Sin Transcends Race and Flags
What happened in Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities across the nation was not about the Confederate battle flag. Although there are issues that must be addressed with the hate groups who use that flag as their icon of racism, the root problem in the Charleston shooting was sin – not a flag. I applaud Russell Moore and others who have spoken out about the need to retire the Confederate flag. I support the movement, but as I look at the big picture, I see two different issues. One is the Charleston shooting and the other is the symbol of racism that the old Confederate flag has come to represent. In fact, you can take flags away, and sin remains rooted in the racist’s heart. We must address the root issue, the depravity of the human heart.
According to the Bible, all of humanity stands guilty before God (Rom. 3:23). However, as Paul unpacks that truth in Romans 3, we see his reference to Jew and Gentile. Beginning at the end of verse 22, Paul clearly sets the stage to break through racial tensions by saying, “there is no distinction.” For the Jew who grasped the thought of Jewish superiority, Paul was making it clear that the Jew and Gentile are both on equal ground at the foot of the cross. Paul continues, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As Paul used the word “all” he is lumping into that barrel all races of humanity. In other words, no person has the right to boast about himself or his race. All are guilty before God.
Jesus Saves Sinners and He Isn’t White
I remember as a boy seeing the white Jesus pictured with long flowing brown hair in church buildings and even in the homes of Christians. It wasn’t until later in life that I actually came to the realization that Jesus isn’t a white man. That didn’t offend me, but it sure might offend those who believe their white race is superior to other races based merely upon the pigmentation of their skin.
As Paul wrote to the Jews in Romans 3, he makes clear that Gentiles can be saved too. It wasn’t about eating the right foods or observing the right holidays. It was about something far greater and more superior – the blood of Jesus. Grace comes to guilty sinners and it doesn’t stop at racial borders. Paul continues into verse 24 by saying, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” After making it clear that all races are guilty of sin, he then says, “[all] are justified by his grace as a gift.” Not in the sense of universalism, but in the sense of grace that goes beyond Jews to Gentiles – essentially to all racial groups.
Paul speaks of justification, grace, redemption, propitiation, faith, and the righteousness of God all coming upon “all” who have faith in Him – Jew and Gentile alike. Paul says, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27). In other words, Jesus saves Gentiles and He’s a Jew. In our context in America, we could say, “Jesus saves sinners, and He isn’t white.” Paul labors to make known that God is the God of Jew and Gentile. The people of Charleston S.C. have labored to make that known in the aftermath of this tragedy. They have put on display a common bond that crosses racial boundaries. As they continue to talk – the world continues to listen.
Followers of Jesus Follow Jesus
It’s one thing to wear a t-shirt that has some catch phrase about Jesus on it, but quite another thing to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. What’s in the abundance of the heart comes out in the words of people in the aftermath of tragedies. Sure, it’s easy to misspeak when you’re stressed because of the pain of tragedy. However, the Charleston S.C. community is revealing the true beauty of Christianity. The Christian community is putting on display the hell conquering, race unifying, death defeating power of Jesus Christ.
As Jesus was being slaughtered on the cross, He cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In essence, that’s exactly what has been coming out of the mouths of the family members and church members of those who were killed by the gunman. It’s one thing to forgive another Christian when you’re sinned against, but to extend forgiveness toward a person who entered a church building and shot your family member is beyond normal. It’s extraordinary. The only explanation is that Jesus is Lord and His forgiveness is real.
We can learn much from this tragedy in South Carolina, but one thing that transcends all lessons is the genuine beauty of Christianity in a sin cursed world.
William Cowper, a friend of John Newton, wrote the following poem and we have it as a hymn in our hymn books. Cowper wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
It can be our prayer that God will hide a big smile behind this frowning providence. When Satan wants to divide races through a church shooting, Jesus can bring about unity that simply doesn’t make sense outside of the gospel. When a lost world watches, they see the love of Jesus and stand in awe.