By Jim Tune
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted and then detonated at least 15 sticks of dynamite beneath the front steps of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama. The firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four girls, prompting Martin Luther King Jr. to make one of the most radical statements imaginable: “At times life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not lose faith in our white brothers.”
To insist on faith in the humanity of an enemy and to believe in their potential goodness in the circumstances of that horrible moment is almost preposterous. Do we have the capacity to imagine that now? I believe we do.
More than 50 years after the Birmingham bombing, a man walked into a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire on members who had assembled that evening for a prayer service. The gunman killed nine people, including the senior pastor.
The shooter, 21-year old Dylann Roof, later confessed that he committed the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war. Roof had maintained a white supremacist website with photographs of himself posing with the Confederate flag. Public reaction led to the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouses in several Southern states.
In the days following the shooting, the loved ones of those murdered expressed concern for Roof and forgave him, even as they grieved and remembered their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children.
Several weeks later an image of black South Carolina state trooper Leroy Smith went viral. The picture captured Smith—who happens to be director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety—gently guiding a white supremacist to a seat after he was overcome by heat at a rally protesting the removal of the Confederate flag. When asked about his act of mercy, Smith told a reporter that all he saw was a fellow human being in distress.
In a New York Times interview, Smith was asked why he thought the photo evoked such a deep resonance. He gave a simple answer: Love. “I think that’s the greatest thing in the world—love. And that’s why so many people were moved by it.”
If love can prevail in the midst of such hatred, surely we can possess enough imagination to live that way in the midst of less virulent daily challenges to love our neighbor. Legislation will not bring reconciliation between the races, although just laws are certainly needed. Politicians will not bring reconciliation to a divided nation. The courts can’t bring reconciliation between fractured families and divided spouses. The answer is love.
Did state trooper Smith realize he was paraphrasing the apostle Paul? I don’t know. But he understood something that should be obvious to us as believers. Love moves people.
Imagine if we simply focused on acts of love? Even love of our enemies. I think it could go viral.