There are no words sufficient to describe the shootings of nine African-Americans in Charleston last week, or the suffering of these victims, their families, friends, and fellow church members. This is the stuff of shrieking, sighing, and groaning, not words. And yet we try, and I believe the trying matters.
Across the country, across the planet, people are moved by this atrocity to speak and, with speech, to reach towards those who are suffering and touch them with love. I know only one member of Emanuel Church, a friend from college. He says he appreciates those of us who have made contact, and while I cannot imagine that my actual words are of much comfort, I do trust that the act of my speaking means something important to him. It’s the being there that matters, even the wanting to be there, even if we don’t know what to say.
Alongside the words we speak to connect with those who grieve, there are also the words we speak to make sense of what happened, and we are now engaged in a fast-moving public conversation about what brings about this kind of violence. We are talking, lots of us, about race, about guns, about the Confederate flag, about mental illness, about terrorism, about the state’s role and the media’s role in promoting a culture of violence.
We are also talking about evil.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley began this conversation when she used the term at least twice last week. She said on the Today show, “[W]hen I’ve been talking with investigators as we’ve been going through the interviews [with accused shooter Dylann Roof], they said they looked pure evil in the eye,” and on Fox, “[T]here’s a very evil kid out there that we need to blame.”
I think Governor Haley is correct to identify this massacre as evil. One reason we have yet to solve our nation’s mass public shootings problem and heal our various race-related wounds is that we have not accurately named what we are dealing with. I think the word “evil” is accurate, and I think it is helpful to think of this horror in that way.
Governor Haley was not offering a nuanced treatise on evil, however, and her comments ignore a dimension of evil that we must not.
The Governor’s words express the notion that evil, or this evil at least, is the work of a lone individual, an individual you can look in the eye and blame. And it is true, clearly, that an individual, a “kid,” carried that gun into Emanuel Church, fired it repeatedly, and is responsible for these deaths.
But evil is also a force much larger than any individual, an entity we can’t always look in the eye. Evil is a force embedded, and largely hidden, in the systems and structures and social forces of every culture, an entity both material and spiritual that works to deceive, destroy and dehumanize all it touches. The institution of slavery and the justifying ideology of white supremacy were evil in this sense. The era of lynching and terrorism that turned African-Americans into refugees, fleeing the South for cities in the Northeast and elsewhere, and still shapes the racial geography and urban poverty of our nation – this was evil. And the epidemic of mass black incarceration — one in three black men will go to prison in their lifetime – and the fact that black offenders receive longer prison sentences than white offenders for the same crimes – this is evil.
Evil takes possession of groups, not just individuals. It inhabits cultures and institutions. It is this pervasive, social, and mostly invisible quality of evil that John Steinbeck names when he speaks of “the monster,” the force that presses a banker in Grapes of Wrath to take away his neighbor’s farm, and what the Christian Scripture references when it speaks of “principalities and powers.”
One of the most illuminating words for evil comes from the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton. Merton’s word for evil was “the Unspeakable.”
Merton wrote: “One of the awful facts of our age is the evidence that [the world] is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the Unspeakable.” Like Steinbeck, and like the Scripture, Merton is giving evil a name, a name with a capital letter even, and thus treating it as a being with agency. But additionally, the image itself, “unspeakable,” points to the way evil resists our recognizing it and speaking of it. Merton’s Unspeakable is not (with apologies to J.K. Rowling) “he who must not be named” but “he who can not be easily named,” “that which works against our capacity to name it.”
This image is helpful both in deepening our understanding of evil and in directing us to action. If evil is the Unspeakable, if it makes itself invisible and difficult to name, our resource against it is to see it and speak of it. But truth-seeing and truth-speaking, of course, are the very things the Unspeakable does not want.
There are those who predict that our focus on Charleston will be short-lived, that our attention will soon shift from this tragedy to some next sensational story, that we will forget it as we have forgotten Sandy Hook and Columbine and Oak Creek, and if they are correct, this will be the work of the Unspeakable. The Unspeakable does not want us to remember. We would do well, I think, to have a network devoted not to the “news” but to the “olds,” a twenty-four-hour channel to tell us about the things that have not changed, the things that resist change.
Others say that we should limit our speaking about Charleston to expressions of sympathy, at least for now, that if we talk about what might have caused this violence we are politicizing it and disrespecting the victims. I am all for respect, and whatever we say, at this time and at any later time, we should say it with humility, civility, and dignity. But to speak of this event and not speak of our nation’s history of violence and terror against black people, and not speak about the dangers of rhetorical extremism, and not speak of our shared failure to find a responsible approach to gun use, and not speak of the ways our culture glorifies and endorses violence — this is to disrespect and be silent about truth. And silence about truth is exactly what the Unspeakable wants.
Of course, not just any speech, and not just any manner of speaking, will do. Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” The Scripture embodies this wisdom when it says “do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . but overcome evil with good” and “speak the truth with love.”
It is people shaped by that Scripture, members of the victims’ families, who have spoken the most important words of the last week. There is Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance: “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”
And Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons: “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”
And Bethane Middleton Brown, sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor: “I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family, is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray to God for your soul.”
I am especially grateful for Ms. Brown’s word about being very angry. Much as I am moved by these women’s strength of character and their words of forgiveness, there is part of me that wonders about how often, historically, black people have hidden their anger as a tool for survival or as a way to make white people feel better, part of me that wonders how often they still do this. I do not know, obviously, but I wonder, and so I appreciate hearing the word angry spoken alongside the word love.
These words from the victims’ families are important not for their feel-good value – as I said, if they are only or mainly about making the rest of us feel good, they would be adding to our difficulty — but because they teach us how to address the Unspeakable. (By “us,” let me be clear, I mean “white people us.” I have no idea how black people should confront the Unspeakable. I have not lived the history of black people and do not know the same evil they know. It is absurd and arrogant to think I might know what is right for them in this moment, and I mention this here as a plea for collective humility as we go forward.)
What these church women teach us is that along with speech, our greatest resource against the Unspeakable is Love. Their witness to Love is in such contrast to Governor Haley’s call for the death penalty that is staggering. I understand the call for the death penalty, both the cathartic reason for it and the political reason for it. A tool that has been used in overwhelming disproportion against black people cannot be set aside when a white person has killed black people. But the death penalty promotes a culture of violence. It is manure in the soil that will grow the next Dylann Roof, and the state uses it because they do not know how to overcome evil.
I have no need to idealize the black church, not the black church in general nor Emanuel AME in particular. I am sure there is no more perfection there than anywhere else. But if any institution in this country has the wisdom and track record for confronting evil in redemptive ways, any group of people with a history of engaging terrorism and hatred courageously and effectively, it is the black church.
When its members speak to the Unspeakable, we would all do well to listen.