Mother Emanuel: Sorrowful yet always rejoicing

Race Issues
by Jarvis J. Williams

Posted on Tuesday, June 23, 2015, at 3:50 pm

In recent days, African-American Christians from Charleston’s “Mother” Emanuel AME Church have radiantly modeled what it is to experience joyful Christian sorrow in the way they responded to the racially motivated murder of their pastor and eight other parishioners at a Bible study last Wednesday night.

The Christian life can be perplexing, consisting of joy mingled with pain. Jesus says His disciples will be poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), will experience persecution for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:10), and will experience revilement and reproach from others for His name’s sake (Matthew 5:11). He also urges us to rejoice as we suffer (Matthew 5:12). The Apostle Paul, referring to His own suffering as a believer, tells us, “We live … as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:9-10, ESV).

Shortly after media reports indicated that accused killer Dylann Roof was driven by a white supremacist ideology, many feared racial tensions would cause Charleston to erupt in violence. Yet, because of the deep faith of the men and women who were slaughtered and the legacy of faith they left behind, and the way their church modeled and personified Jesus’ gospel of reconciliation and joyful sorrow, all has remained calm.

It all started with the families of the victims, as they faced Roof for the first time in the courtroom via a television monitor, only hours after the crimes. Instead of responding to their loved ones’ murders with deep hate, these family members, through many tears and tremendous pain, extended love and forgiveness to the accused murderer. They urged Roof to repent and to give his life to Jesus Christ.

That beautiful display of the gospel was followed by the joyful sorrow shown by the saints at Mother Emanuel as they worshipped King Jesus the first Sunday after the deaths of their beloved pastor and fellow parishioners.

This response by the families and their church astonished Christians and non-Christians alike. The church’s love for Christ and pursuit of unity in the gospel have shown the world how fallacious white supremacy is by demonstrating the love of Jesus to the accused white murderer. These men and women have shown that when Spirit-filled African-American Christians experience even the deepest form of grief because of racism, the love of Jesus within them enables them to rejoice in their great Lord and Savior while they suffer perplexing sorrow.

As an African-American Christian, I have felt deep sorrow, despair, and anger these past few days because racism took the lives of my brothers and sisters in Christ. But the believers at Mother Emanuel have inspired in me a renewed commitment to seek gospel-centered racial reconciliation, given me a better understanding of forgiveness, and taught me the importance of finding joy in God in the midst of deep, deep sorrow.

Jarvis J. Williams

Jarvis is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and the author of Christ Died for Our Sins: Representation and Substitution in Romans and Their Jewish Martyrological Background. Follow him on Twitter @drjjwilliams.

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