Some questions for this blog come via the blog platform or by email . This one was asked during conversation at a church coffee hour.
Question: How could a young man who was baptized and confirmed and raised in the church become a racist murderer?
Frank Answers: It was a shock, especially to us Lutherans, that one of our own, a young man whose family are members of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbia, SC, is the alleged murderer of nine members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, including the senior pastor, state senator Clementa Pinckney. In an ironic twist, Pastor Pinckney received his M. Div. degree from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia.
Some big social issues are involved in this incident such as racism and gun control. But I want to focus just on Dylann Storm Roof. We don’t know much about Dylann’s church involvement. Even though his family attends church, it’s likely that Dylann drifted away from church about the same time as he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. Divorced parents and drug use are part of his background.
For whatever reasons, Dylann was drawn to the ideology of white supremacy and created a website called “the Last Rhodesian” (a reference to the white-ruled African country, which fought a bitter civil war against black majority rule before it became Zimbabwe), on which he posted photos of himself wearing a jacket on which were the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa. He hinted at why he chose “historic” Charleston and “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as the place to carry out his racist attack. Along with a long, hate-filled screed, the 21-year-old included photos of himself burning an American flag, taking aim with a pistol, and posing proudly at sites connected to the Confederacy.
Perhaps more about his background and the reasons for his attraction to the ideology of white supremacy will become apparent during his trial. But that a Christian could be seduced so fully into a hateful ideology as to commit an evil act is not surprising. A text we read in the night prayer office of Compline says: “Be sober. Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9).
Dylann was open to seduction by this evil ideology. Once he was seduced his will was taken captive by the Evil One and he acted with evil intention.
It’s hard to define evil. Some define it as utter wickedness. But this puts evil into a moral category; it is regarded as an immoral action. I think evil is beyond morality in that it has no redeeming quality. It is an intention to cause harm just for the sake of causing harm, not for the sake of achieving some greater good, no matter how delusional the intention may be.
Dylann was welcomed by the pastor and members of Emmanuel A.M.E. Church. He sat through a Bible study class and then calmly shot nine welcoming people at point blank range. That’s just plain evil.
Western people are reluctant to acknowledge the reality of evil. The psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote about this in People of the Lie. But the problem of evil—of evil people—surfaces in secular books and films. Consider the following response of Hannibal Lecter to FBI agent Starling in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants—nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?”
Yes, racism remains an insidious factor in American life. And maybe guns are too readily available and information for reliable background checks of gun purchasers is not sufficiently available. A racist act was committed by a young man with a gun. But there are racists with guns who don’t murder people in cold blood. This was an evil act. Christians ought to be taking evil seriously. I’m not talking about sin—those acts of commission or omission which are our own fault, our own most grievous fault. I’m talking about bad stuff that is done with evil intention, and against which our Lord taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil.” The Great Litany of the Western Church petitions deliverance “from all sin, from all error, from all evil” and “from the cunning assaults of the devil.” Martin Luther ended both his morning and evening prayers in The Small Catechism, “Let your holy angels have charge of us that the wicked one have no power over us.” Dylann may even have been taught that prayer in confirmation class.
Is Dylann evil? I don’t believe he’s beyond redemption. Members of the murder victims’ families have already graciously offered him forgiveness. But he was taken possession by evil forces that replaced the mind of Christ with an evil mind. This isn’t the kind of stuff secular people or the secular analysts are likely to talk about. But Christians need to be aware that our adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour, that sometimes the devil’s disguise is a seductive but evil ideology, and that we need to resist him, firm in our faith.
Pastor Frank Senn