On Struggling With Faith After the Emanuel AME Church Massacre

How can you believe in God when there’s just been a massacre in a church?
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Pia Glenn
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How can you believe in God when there’s just been a massacre in a church?

How can you believe in God when _____________________?

As a person of religious faith, I’ve heard this question too many times to count, with one of the innumerable atrocities of our world filling out the second part of the query. Having traveled in certain highly intellectual and self-satisfied circles, I’ve had it sneered at me with nearly unbearable condescension. I’ve debated the late, great Christopher Hitchens on the topic, and I will always cherish those conversations and honor his memory as someone who was able to engage me without stooping to denigration. 

If we accept that faith, by its very definition, cannot be proven, we accept that asking someone who acknowledges their faith to provide hard evidence of what it is would be a fool’s request. You don’t have to understand it, and sometimes I don’t even understand it. I’ve questioned it, lost it, found it again, and it is currently intact, albeit presently shaken.

How can you believe in God when there’s just been a massacre in a church? 

I begin and end each day with a prayer, both of them said in bed as I either embrace slumber or shake it off. I had been having a remarkably carefree Wednesday night last night, turning the volume down on all of the cares of the world and watching some truly basic cable comedy. 

When I heard of the murders in Charleston,  my shock and sorrow banished the giggles, but were still tempered by the red wine and fatigue swirling in my system. My prayer last night covered its usual terrain, but there were whispered condolences added on for the 9 people who went to bible study and had their lives violently snatched away in their place of worship. People who I’ve never met, and now could never possibly meet. People whose violent end confounds so many of us in ways that leave us wracked with emotional pain, horrifically numb, and everything in between.

How can you believe in God when a 5 year-old has to not only endure a massacre at church, but allegedly survived it by playing dead? 

As details came in about the clear hate that motivated what is aptly being referred to as a hate crime, it got harder and harder to process with each report. A survivor speaks of the murderous interloper, now identified as Dylann Roof,  having entered the church, introducing himself, asking who the pastor was, and sitting with the group of people who had gathered in the basement of Emanuel AME Church for the duration of their regular bible study.

There, in the literal house of God and the presence of faith in action, he sat and marinated in his evil before extinguishing people who had welcomed him in prayer. He was only able to even be on the premises because of faith. Faith is what allows strangers to show up at the door of a house of worship and be welcomed in. Faith is what keeps the doors and hearts open at a place of worship as steeped in holy devotion as Emanuel AME Church, one of our nation’s most historically significant black churches,  is.

One of the victims was the church’s pastor himself, Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also a senator of the state of South Carolina. Reverend Pinckney’s cousin, Sylvia Johnson, told reporters that the reverend spoke to the killer, who told him, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” 

How can you believe in God today?  

My morning prayer felt futile. The dawn brought a clearer mind with which to see the utter horror of these slaughters. I imagined the faith that had brought these people together in the first place on what they didn’t know would be the last night of their lives. I imagined how they might have begun yesterday in prayer, as I tried to today. I imagined the Reverend pleading with actual evil, faith leaking from his corporeal injuries but still present even in his final acts. I imagined the murderer taking the time to reload his weapon, doing so a reported five times. 

 There’s a somewhat glib euphemism used at times of emphatic declaration, that one will say or do something “in front of God and everybody.” It may have biblical roots, but these days it’s more often tacked on to a threat of a brash act or an insult. Still, it’s a figure of speech. 

Not today. Dylan Roof slaughtered those people in front of God and everybody, making his racism known as he did. 

 How can you believe in God when white supremacy reigns? 

My sorrow is so deep at watching black bodies fall victim to heinous and senseless acts. My spirit is so sickened and truly tired at having to justify its own existence. So warped is the environment of dubiousness in the face of racially motivated murders at the hands of people who were meant to serve and in places designed to protect, that I feel a twisted and guilt-laden relief that this killer actually spoke his racist hate. 

White supremacy is a phrase that frightens many people; people who would never claim such a horror, even as they enact it. We’ve been fighting just to be believed when we assert that our lives matter while simultaneously summoning the strength to bury our dead and carry on. White supremacy is not just riding a horse in a hood, nor is it only entering a church with intent to kill. 

It’s the mentality that dismisses or even seeks to explain such terror as this as solely an act of mental illness. It’s the mentality that wants to paint this villain as an outlier, a sick person who did a sick thing, and not a living embodiment of a cruelly pervasive way of thinking, albeit an extreme one. 

As I said when writing about the mass shooting at UCSB last year,  this murderous act is extraordinary in its execution, but some of the underlying impetus is quite ordinary in ways that too many people refuse to admit. Black people are told every day in many ways that we “have to go.” 

We’re outraged in hindsight because this killer actually followed through. Violent psychopathy and severe racism are not mutually exclusive, and the more people shove this killer off to the side as an anomaly, the harder society will have to work at the already Sisyphean endeavor of dismantling white supremacy.

How can you believe in God? 

Will churches now turn strangers away as basic policy? Would you blame them if they did? 

Churches and places of worship have been historically targeted for attacks by those who traffic in terror, and they’ve been forced to adapt and include security measures in places that are fundamentally built around peace. 

 Indeed, law enforcement has said that they were only able to apprehend this killer today because of the surveillance cameras installed at the church; present-day security meeting faith out of necessity. 

 Across social media, I see people rebuffing the idea of prayer. Community leaders are calling for a “National Day of Prayer,” people are scoffing, and I understand. These people were shot and killed while engaged in prayer, what good is it today? 

An idea that helps me is that prayer needn’t always be calm. I was recently reminded by a cherished clergyman that if I truly believe in God and I believe in prayer as communication of my innermost thoughts and hopes, I might as well be honest. 

And so I pray: How, God? How the fuck could this happen? 

 That’s where I am, and my faith does not come wrapped in platitudes or answers neatly packaged in verse and archaic language. My faith has no explanation for the racism we blatantly face, and no condolences sufficient for this level of tragedy. My faith is furious, and sometimes it cusses. 

My faith also doesn’t judge yours, or your lack thereof. (Whatever the case may be.) My faith, however, is alive today. 

 How can I believe in God? Right now, I don’t know. But I do.