Two years ago today, nine beautiful people were shot and killed inside the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. As it has been with a growing list of terroristic tragedies in this world, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news, and I remember the revulsion and bereft I felt.
It was a deep, personal sense of loss, not because I knew any of the victims, but as a child of the Deep South and as one with no conscious memory of life apart from the church, this intrusion seemed especially profane. I was left asking, “Is there no holy place left? No sacred space that has not been assaulted by bloodshed and violence? Is there no safety, even in the presence of God?”
As a minister I have come to understand my role as a “meaning-maker.” This is not the pompous assumption of a title or ability. Simply, congregational leaders are tasked with arranging, processing, and interpreting the world to provide at least a degree of sense and purpose. Sometimes we come up with reasonable answers, sometimes not. After the Mother Emanuel shooting I couldn’t even come up with reasonable questions.
I was left only with what is now an iconic photo taken outside the Charleston church. A group of mourning church members held a giant handmade sign with a single word on it: “Why?” Valiant effort has been made to answer this question, efforts that fall short of an ultimate answer.
It was the heinous ideology that motivated the shooter. There was the abominable ease by which he acquired his murderous weapon while in a radicalized state. It was all the missed warning signs by friends and his family. But the deepest “Why” – the philosophical, even cosmic “Why” – of how this monstrous act could be committed against such holy people has no answer.
The same can be said of Manchester, Orlando, Aurora, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Paris, and countless other unknown and unpublicized acts of injustice. In the face of these, even the most skilled meaning-maker or faith-explainer can only respond with silence: There is no meaning to be made and no immediate answers.
I’m not the only clergyman to be struck silent. The “Preacher” (or “Teacher”) who wrote the ancient book of Ecclesiastes came to a similar conclusion. In addition to inspiring Pete Seeger to write and The Byrds to record, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” the writer of Ecclesiastes offers a word of encouragement to those worn down by the absurdity of life.
“It’s all meaningless, meaningless,” he cries at first, but gives a “last and final word: Respect and obey God. This is what life is all about. And eventually God will bring everything that has been done into the open and judge it accordingly.” In the words of Max Lucado, “Faith is not the belief that God will do what we want. It is the belief that God – eventually – will do what is right.” I pray so.