Question (asked by a church member at a church coffee hour after worship): 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 youth, whose family were members of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbia, SC, is the alleged murderer of nine members of Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, including the senior pastor, state senator Clementa Pinckney. In another ironic twist, Pastor Pinckney received his M. Div. degree from the Southern Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbia.
We don’t know much about Dylann’s church involvement. Even though his family attended church, it seems that Dylann drifted away from church at 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. Something, it seems, was moving him away from community (family, church, school) and into a more anti-social stance. His education was not coming from these traditional sources but from the internet. He was embracing an identity as a rebel, but a rebel with a cause.
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 with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa on the breast of his jacket. 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.
The causes of the American white supremacy movement after the Civil War are many and varied. Many whites continued to embrace the “lost cause” and states’ rights after the resounding defeat of the Confederacy. Many felt that their whole way of life had been demolished by emancipation and abolition of slavery. In the Era of Reconstruction many former slaves became political office bearers. The withdrawal of federal troops from the Southern states in the Hayes Compromise of 1977 and the Supreme Court determination that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional in 1883 and its upholding the doctrine of “separate but equal” (Plessy vs. Ferguson) in 1896 opened the door to white resurgence, political disenfrancisement of black people, and Jim Crow laws that banished blacks to second class social and cultural status. This new social situation was enforced by the Ku Klux Klan with cross-burnings, whippings, and public hangings. These terrorist methods were intended to control black people.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 it seemed that white supremacy was politically and culturally suppressed. But it has surfaced again, attracting a rag tag following of alienated whites who resent the social inclusiveness of mainstream American society and the “elitism” of the communications media and express anti-American sentiments by embracing symbols of the Confederacy (the flag and statues of generals) and Neo-Nazism. These factions apparently attracted young Dylann Roof through “googling” on the internet. He came to the conviction that someone had to act and not just talk.
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. In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters the message is clear that the Devil goes after the Enemy (Christ) by seducing the Enemy’s followers (Christians). 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).
For various personal reasons Dylan 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 to call attention to his perceived plight of the white race in America. But his act had no redeeming quality, and that’s why it was evil. Evil 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.
Dylan was welcomed by the pastor and members of Mother Emmanuel Church. He sat through a Bible study class and then calmly shot nine welcoming people at point blank range. That’s just plain evil. He was listening as Christians read and discussed the Bible. It was an activity that might have taken place in his own home congregation, although I doubt that he would have attended such a class.
But it was apparent that words of Scripture and the experience of Christian fellowship, which are prized among Christians, meant nothing to him. He had totally abandoned that religious-cultural context. I suspect he has totally abandoned, if not renounced, the Christian faith. He might even regard Christianity as the source of Western society’s cultural corruption, as the Nazis did and as neo-Nazis have, what with Christianity’s love ethic and outreach to all people. The white supremacist ideology is anti-Christian as well as racist, implicitly if not explicitly—although there are many Bible-toting racists in Christian congregations. But it was Dylann Roof who pulled the trigger.
Is Dylan evil? He was seduced by evil, but 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 it, firm in our faith.
Pastor Frank Senn