I never understood why Batman would risk his life for the city of Gotham. Every night, Bruce Wayne sacrificed himself for a city that he really didn’t seem to know, a city separated from him by his mansion’s gates and considerably higher tax bracket.
The same goes for Daredevil in Hell’s Kitchen. Here is a blind vigilante taking on the Kingpin of the crime underworld, all the while I am thinking, why not leave the city to Wilson Fisk and become the guardian of a city like San Diego?
I didn’t understand their obsession with their cities, that is to say, until the “prayforCharleston” hashtag started gaining momentum on Twitter late Wednesday evening. I am a native son of Charleston, South Carolina and the news made me want to come to my city’s rescue.
Charleston, South Carolina will always be the place I call home. From my youth, I walked her ancient streets, climbed her shrines to days past, snuck into her private gardens, and enlisted into her Corp of Cadets. I watched the sun rise and set over her plot of the Atlantic coast, traded much of my life’s wages for her sweet tea and Southern fare, and enlisted her charms to win the affection of a Southern debutante whom I happily married in one of the city’s many chapels 14 years ago.
Like the mythical Sirens of Homer, the city’s slow-Southern song and shabby splendor bewitch all who draw near. With each step down East Bay, King, and Calhoun streets the city makes its way into your bloodstream and, before she is done, has rearranged your DNA to become a part of you. The Holy City is my city. She is a city that calls me, haunts me, and shapes me to this day.
So in many ways, I owe Charleston. I see that much clearer after living in foreign outposts these past 15 years. The city is as much a part of me as I am of the city. And now, with the dark flag of racism and hate flying high over the spires of her humble skyline, it feels like the right time to come to her aid.
This is part of the reason why when I first read about the shooting in Emanuel AME Church, I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to go fight for the people of Charleston; I wanted to throw my arms around my brothers and sisters in Christ at Emanuel AME. I wanted to give my life and limb to bring justice to a world of chaos.
But I was at a loss. The only thing I knew was what not to do: donning a pleather suit and cape was the last thing my city needed—or anyone for that matter. I had no idea how I could affect positive change for my city and her people.
Into this void memories flooded in, memories of what Charleston had given to me, lessons learned along the way. From an early age, Charleston became a part of my life studies; the city was an able tutor with lessons centered on the noble ideas of culture, character, and contradiction.
Culture is Charleston’s front-page news. It is the first thing you see when you cross into the peninsula and the reason most visit in the first place. Simply breezing through a Southern Living magazine gives you a nip of the city’s mysterious elixir while a full-fledged tour of Charleston is a bottleful of her intoxicating appeal.
You find Charleston’s character written in the wizened faces of Charleston’s royal ancestry. Like the city herself, its people are marked by a ragged elegance. If you are wise enough to lean in and listen to the syrupy slow voices, you can hear history dusting itself off to walk through the creaking doors of your life. And if you look closely, you can see the city’s charms in the artful technique of the sweetgrass basketmaker and her magic stitched into the linen suits hanging loosely on the bony shoulders of the Southern gentlemen parading down King Street.
These lessons are for anyone willing to pay attention. But it is Charleston’s lesson in contradiction—once a private lecture for her own sons and daughters—that captures my mind tonight and the attention of the nation.
Contradiction is everywhere in Charleston. Hers is a dangerous beauty. Her refinement is rough around the edges in a desperate, but somehow, persuasive way. Charleston is a city, both old and new. She is marked by history and progress. The city rose from of the ashes of the antebellum South by embracing its past and selling tickets to its dark history, and does so, to this day, in the shade of the Boeing and Volvo manufacturing plants. The city is black and white, precariously teetering on the racial fault-lines the New South tries so hard to forget. And, finally, Charleston is the Holy City—a nicknamed earned by its steeple-crowded horizon. But, in recent days, the city has become a national landmark for racial hatred and human wickedness. Once the Holy City, Charleston is now the place where congregational prayer is silenced by gunfire.
If my city has taught me anything, it is this: the contradiction that fills the thick air of Charleston begins and ends in my heart.
Charleston is a sum total of the humanity that walks her sidewalks, visits her markets, and invests in her rowhouses. Charleston is what she is because of her inhabitants—she is a macrocosm of her people. Her lesson is anthropological.
As I begin to understand my city, I begin to understand myself and those around me. Not only that, I also begin to see that Charleston’s story and the world’s story are intertwined. Wednesday night’s lesson began in Eden and only now unfurls its complexity in the headlines of the newspapers and the 140 characters of our Twitter feeds. So again, this is the lesson that my city has whispered all along and I am just now starting to hear: I am the contradiction; no matter how hard I want to help, I am the problem.
Before I can do anything to understand the racism plaguing Charleston—even Ferguson, Baltimore, up Interstate 26 in North Charleston, and by the swimming pools in McKinney, TX—I must first recognize that this is a sin issue that plagues my own heart. I must know myself before I can crusade for real change. I must know that I was made in the image of God but, in my sin, I am cast in the image of Cain. My default, everyone’s default, is this contradictory heart—one that wants happiness but cannot find it in this world, one that wants peace but can only find anger.
This anger and hatred is not just metaphorical or limited to our hearts. The image bearers of Cain at times act out their sin in very real and very physical ways as the pews in Emanuel AME Church cry out in witness. But even if we never draw blood personally, we must remember what the Sermon on the Mount tells us: harboring anger is akin to murder, so none of us are off the hook here.
This is important when my first response to the violence in Emanuel AME Church sanctuary is a need for justice. I want racism to end. I want to see bigotry removed. I want to see violence and crime eradicated. These are good and necessary desires and goals to work toward in the days ahead.
But let us not stop here. If we do we have not gone far enough. Let us not forget where all of this starts. What the smoke rising from my hometown shows me is that problem is a human problem, a sin problem first and foremost. This problem runs through the human race like the rivers that outline South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Sin, of course, finds expression in different ways in different people but it plagues us all and leads to nights like this past Wednesday. Sin is the common enemy that needs to be conquered. This is my greatest problem; this is our greatest problem. Sin is the root of racism, violence and crime. It is the source of the pain and tears we have felt and tasted over the past few days and the years before.
What is more we cannot fix it. Sinners cannot remove sin. Our problems cannot be solved with politics, education, or even worse, retaliation. The only way this problem can be solved is by following the example of our brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME Church: We must turn to Christ.
Remember the divine agenda: “the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” Christ is the suffering servant dead set on killing sin and destroying its reign over his creation. But often unlike our agendas, God begins with the moral problem, the spiritual problem. The death of sin and offer of new life is the foundation of his kingdom work. Here, he establishes a better kingdom, a new city where racism, bigotry, and violence are powerless against his death and resurrection. His cross work has taken the sting out of sin and death. Christ comes in humility to take away the sins of the world. He is pierced for our transgressions, which is the one final act that can bring peace to Charleston, our cities, and the world—an act that opens the gates to the true Holy City, the new Jerusalem.
The solution, then, to our own personal contradictions, the contradiction plaguing our city, and the contradictions of the world was already being spoken in prayers that filled the sanctuary of Emanuel AME Church this past Wednesday. Let us be wise and follow the example of our dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us petition God to reconcile us to the world and the world to us by first reconciling us to Himself. May he change Charleston, the nation, and the world by first changing a sinner like me.
About J. Ryan Lister
J. Ryan Lister (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. He and his wife, Chase Elizabeth, have four children.