I returned from a six day retreat where I had no internet access and the first thing I saw on the news was the story of the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015.
Dylann Roof, a 21 year white male, walked into the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston during a Bible study session. After sitting with the group for an hour, he pulled a .45 caliber handgun from his fanny pack and killed nine people, reloading his gun numerous times. The victims were all African Americans.
He seems that he has planned the attack for six months and picked the Emmanuel AME Church because of its historic significance. Founded in 1816, AME is the oldest historically black congregation south of Baltimore and has played a role in civil rights struggles going back before the Civil War.
He said his motive was to start a race war. A manifesto discovered on a website with pictures of Dylann holding the Confederate Battle Flag reveal an individual who had fairly recently discovered white supremacy and racism and had embraced this ideology as his reason for being.
The FBI has classified this horrific event as a hate crime but said it didn’t meet the criteria for terrorism. I think this is because Roof was not part of any organized political movement and was a solitary crusader against what he saw as the threat that blacks and other racial minorities posed to the white race.
By any reasonable definition, this is terrorism. He’s on a mission that he hopes will result in cultural and political change. We can fall into the trap of looking at this issue through the lens of who commits the crime. If they are people outside of the majority group, Muslims, for example, we have no difficulty in calling it terrorism.
For sure, Roof was motivated by hate but this was not a spontaneous act or one committed under the influences of drugs or alcohol. He sat through an entire hour of Bible study before he started shooting just before the closing prayer.
He said he almost changed his mind “because the people were so nice.” Moreover, he was from the town of Eastover which is largely African-American and had black friends. In his manifesto he stated that he did not grow up in a racist family or environment.
When confronted with why he wanted to hurt people, he said he had to carry out “his mission.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
The plan of starting a race war seems to fit this criterion of furtherance of political and social objectives pretty well.
The reality is that it’s a both a hate crime and a crime of domestic terrorism. We’re in denial of both our history and our present if we skip over the terrorism component of this heinous crime.
We don’t want to acknowledge the fact that Americans kill and main each other for reasons of political oppression. We would rather think that terrorism is about those others who come from outside our borders with intent to cause us harm.
There has been a long and bloody history of domestic terrorism against black people in our country especially since the Civil War. The intent has been intimidation, suppression, and control. The Charleston massacre was a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism.
We’re moving towards a more tolerant and inclusive world as a whole. This has inspired a sometimes violent reaction from people who see this as a threat to their way of life. There is the rapid evolution towards multiculturalism and tolerance of diversity. Some see this as undermining their status and privilege and are in extreme reaction to it.
The positive story is that these domestic terrorist and hate crime incidents often produce a result which is the opposite of what is intended. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, for example, helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement and was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Now with the massacre at Charleston, the Governor of South Carolina and both of the Senators from that state are calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State Capitol grounds.
Amazon, Sears, Walmart, and eBay, are all removing Confederate battle flag theme products from sale.
There has been an outpouring of genuine sympathy for the victims who welcomed a disaffected young white man into their black congregation for Bible study only to be murdered by him. The attitude of the families of the victims was to declare that love is stronger than hate and to express forgiveness
The background issues which are the context from which Dylann Roof carried out his horrific acts will still remain after this event fades from public attention. Racism is still prevalent in America and it’s more than a white/black issue. All racial and ethnic minorities are subject to its maleficent influence.
American’s gun laws are not going to change any time soon. It’s still going to be easy for people like Roof to get the guns that they can use to commit mass murder. Common sense reforms like universal background checks and limiting the size of magazines on guns are not going to happen in the face of an entrenched gun culture mentality.
Tragically, it looks as though it’s going to take several more massacres before we finally do something reasonable about gun control.
Yet there are two others aspects of this case where I see we can do something as individuals that can help us move towards the inclusive and compassionate world we want to live in.
Dylann embraced white supremacy and racism as his purpose. He apparently got his indoctrination to this ideology from the internet rather than from joining a white supremacy group of some kind. An unemployed high school dropout, he had been spending his time doing drugs and playing video games. Now he had a purpose and a mission.
This is sadly similar to what seems to be happening to disaffected Muslin youth around the world who have embraced the ISIS ideology and who travel to Syria to kill and often to die.
Our evolving world leaves some of us without a sense of purpose and meaning. This is especially true of people from relatively privileged backgrounds where there is no immediate struggle to meet basic survival needs.
What we need are positive role models. People who can embrace the transformations happening in our world and embody a sense of purpose and meaning which serves the greater good.
If enough of us find our own unique purpose and meaning, we can create a positive frequency that others can entrain to. The rapid transitions of our world produce a cultural chaos and we need heroes who can take on the work on reinventing civilization by creating new forms of empowered community based on the principles of inclusion and compassion.
What will move us forward doesn’t have to be something complex and ambitious. Even the smallest service you can render to a community that is supporting the greater good will be of great importance. We need people to be enrolled in serving the transformation of humanity.
The second thing we can do is to learn to be more compassionate both with others and with ourselves. The horror that Roof perpetrated resulted from toxic judgments that he took on and with which he became identified. Let him be our negative role model and then let’s move in the opposite direction.
We can do better at understanding how judgment works and how it can go astray and poison our minds with hate.
It’s important here to distinguish between judgment and discernment. There is no escaping the need for discernment. This is better, this is worse. This is acceptable, this is not. This is something for me, this is not. This is something I prefer, this is something I recoil from. I need to say yes to this, no to that.
Discernment can be something we arrive out from our compassionate witness. It’s compatible with compassion. Toxic judgment is not.
Judgment seems to have four components: projection, reaction to past events, disinformation, and preferences. Projection is seeing what you don’t like or accept in yourself as what’s wrong with another individual. I judge others are grotesquely fat just when I’m not accepting my own body mass, shape, and fitness.
We also carry a lot of reactions from the past into the present. If I once had a conflict with a man named George, I may now I look with fear and suspicion on the next man I meet named George.
We often form judgments based on insufficient information. We assume, for example, that people are acting unfairly, jumping to the head of the line, for example, when in reality they’re just joining their companions who have been there holding a space for them.
Preferences are the most difficult aspect of judgment to see in perspective. Our tendency is to see our preferences are being what is good, true, and right and to see the preferences of other people as bad and wrong.
The reality is that we experience the world through the narrow perspective of our preferences such as our Enneagram point and Myers-Briggs type and anything other than that is experienced as uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
It’s easy to slide into making others wrong for having different preferences. We can fall into vilifying what is not preferred. Then the person or aspect which is not preferred becomes the enemy who has to be excluded and shunned.
But, we wouldn’t have a functional world without all of the diversity of preferences that exist. We need everyone’s quirks to make up an interactive ecology of differences.
For example, economically and politically speaking, it’s important to have voices from many different spectrums because every economic and political viewpoint highlights some prominent values and puts others in shadow.
So, what to do when in spite of our best efforts, we judge others?
Compassionately witness this disturbance within yourself. Look at how that person you judge could be your perfect teacher instructing you in what is not yet healed in yourself.
Look to see if you can find wonder and discovery in how they are doing things other than how you would do them.
Don’t judge yourself for judging. You’ve caught yourself in the act so now you can embrace whatever discernments are needed without having to make the other or yourself bad and wrong.
When we can learn to see our judgments as some combination of our wounds, our ignorance, and our quirks we don’t have to take them too seriously. We can open to new perspectives and leave our righteousness behind.
When we judge other less, we’re also going to be kinder to ourselves. This is a vital point in moving towards a more inclusive and compassionate world. For, whatever you don’t own or accept within yourself is going to become the face of an enemy in the world.
When we accept and love ourselves in awareness of our limitations, we become a loving presence and a positive influence for everyone around us. Then we can practice discernment with compassion.
Saying no when that is needed becomes our opportunity to treat others in a loving way as we embrace the diversity of our rapidly changing world with tolerance and understanding.
We make the world a more compassionate place through one act of compassion at a time.