I write this editorial the week after the shooting at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee. Last Sunday afternoon, I had gone to Wal-Mart after worship services to get my daughter a birthday cake for a birthday party we were having for her at church that night. As I was standing in the checkout line, my smart phone lit up with a notification from Fox News that there was a church shooting. As was the case when my phone notified me of the shooting that took place in 2015 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, my first prayer was for the safety and health of all within that place of worship, followed by a prayer that this church was not a church of Christ and that my brothers and sisters in Christ were not the ones suffering through this tragedy. Sadly, when I then opened up the notification to read the news story I discovered that it was in fact a church of Christ who was the victim of this particular atrocity. Since then, my heart both rejoiced to learn that most of those wounded have stabilized and sank with sorrow at the news of the death of a single mother of two, Melanie Crow Smith, as well as the news of the critical condition of the minister of that congregation, Joey Spann, who was wounded in the chest and hand after shouting for everyone to run. (I’ve since heard that he seems to be improving, for which I and others are thankful to God.)
This shooting is just the latest of a long line of tragedies and divisive actions which make the times in which we live very troubling indeed. In the past decade alone, in addition to the shootings at Burnette Chapel last Sunday and the church in Charleston in 2015 we can recall the movie theater shooting in Colorado; the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut; the Washington Navy Yard massacre; the tragedy at Virginia Tech; the shooting in Arizona which killed a little girl and wounded others, including a congresswoman; the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin; the bloodshed at San Bernardino, California; the slayings at the Orlando night club last year; the tragedy in Dallas which also occurred last year and Charlottesville this year; many more incidents of violence could be cited.
There also seems to be much division and animosity drawn along lines of race and ethnicity in our society today. The president of Lipscomb University recently made national news after inviting minority students to his home to discuss their experience at the university. After hosting Hispanic students in his home and serving them tacos, he then invited African-American students to his home the following night and served them traditional “southern comfort” food such as collard greens and corn bread at a table decorated with a cotton stalk centerpiece. The students were offended, some of them taking to social media to air their grievances after trying to express them to the president, Randy Lowry, who later publicly apologized for insensitivity. This controversy took place days before the aforementioned Burnette Chapel shooting in which a black gunman of Sudanese background opened fire on an assembly of Christians of different races, causing some pundits and commentators to wonder if racism played a factor in the shooting as it had clearly done in the similar incident in Charleston in which a white gunman had opened fire on a predominately black congregation. Also taking place on the same day as Burnette Chapel was another controversy in which National Football League athletes and coaches knelt instead of standing during the singing of the National Anthem. This controversy had its roots last year in the actions of a quarterback who had knelt during the Anthem in protest to another controversy: alleged police brutality against African-Americans in recent years, something which gained and kept national attention after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following Michael Brown’s death and a grand jury declining to charge a police officer with wrongdoing. Since Ferguson, more protests, riots, and incidents of proven and alleged discrimination against minorities and police officers have taken place. Much more could be cited, but these serve to illustrate the troubles facing our country and culture these days.
It is my sincere and firm conviction that the love of God is the solution to our troubles. As Carolina Messenger writer Lorraine Smith wrote in last month’s issue, love is “an overworked word with underfelt meaning.” We tend to throw that word around a lot without really stopping to think about or put into practice its meaning. Yet if both Christians and non-Christians would put the biblical meaning of God’s love into practice with all whom we come into contact, we would very readily find that love to be the solution to our troubling times.
Consider what 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 says about the love God has for us and which He desires for us to have for each other. The passage states that love is “patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.” The kindness of godly love in itself would cause all acts of violence such as the aforementioned shootings to cease, since kindness demands that we would all treat each other the way we would want to be treated (Matt. 7:12). Such universal adherence to the kindly conduct prescribed by the Golden Rule would also exterminate all racism, bigotry, and discrimination. Applying the other tenets of godly love would only further solve the division amongst us if they were universally applied.
What if the patience, kindness, humility, and respect of godly love had been in place by all from the very beginning with the Lipscomb controversy? Much if not all of the contention would have been avoided if both sides had shown patience with each other from the beginning. From what has been reported, President Lowry by his own admission initially dismissed the students’ expressed concern about the cotton centerpiece, something for which he later acknowledged as wrong and apologized. In turn, some of the students showed little patience with his dismissiveness, instead taking to social media to complain about it. Having read their posts and similar posts about the controversy, including the subsequent comments of many from all sides, much of which were extremely profane and insulting to all parties involved, it is clear that such unkind, boastful, arrogant, and rude communication only exacerbated the problem and resulted in even more division. The patience and kindness of godly love, if shown from the beginning in love’s humility and civility by not only all initially involved but also by all who have since made observations, would have gone a long way towards solving the problem.
The Bible also says that godly love “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” Imagine if all sides of the National Anthem controversy put these tenets into practice. What would happen if everyone who attended a football game and saw an athlete kneel instead of stand attentively during the National Anthem decided to NOT resent it or be irritated by it? What if the athlete who considers kneeling in protest saw the uproar resulting from others doing it and, rather than insisting on doing what he wanted to do above all, decided to put others’ interests above his own (Phil. 2:3-4) and protest in a way less controversial? Would a solution to the problem be more easily attainable? Probably.
The passage goes on to say that love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” It seems to me that with every allegation of police wrongdoing and racism in recent years, there are many who do not care about first finding out whether the police officer in question is in fact guilty of the discrimination and bigotry of which he is charged. Many assumptions of guilt are made, often based on appearance and in many cases not even that. Such lack of concern about obtaining the truth only more intensely fans the flames of the chaotic anarchy of the riots plaguing our society in recent years. These tumults in turn result in more “rejoic(ing) in wrongdoing,” as many take advantage of the strife to loot, assault, and rape. Would the riots and protests that were the catalysts to even more criminal activity and loss of life and property have taken place if everyone in our society refused to “judge according to appearance,” but instead decided to “judge with right judgment” (John 7:24)? How much better would our society be if everyone cared solely about punishing only those found beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law to be guilty of bigotry and criminal conduct, and rejoiced that the truth was found and upheld when such was done?
God’s Word ends its discourse on godly love by saying that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” We all let each other down, disappoint each other, and hurt each other because we are all human and fallible. What would happen if we all chose to bear with each other in all things, basically putting up with each other? What if we all gave each other the benefit of the doubt instead of automatically assuming the worst about each other? What if we all genuinely hoped for the best for each other and were all willing to endure each other’s mistakes and follies while actively working with each other to make our positive hopes for each other a reality? How much better would our culture be?
Am I being naïve? If I think that everyone will have God’s love for each other, of course (Matt. 7:13-14). Yet, more people can be like this than we might think, Christians. It depends on each of us to make it happen. You see, only those who truly put the will of the Christian God first in their lives, continually striving to penitently grow in God’s love in every area of their hearts, with come to show God’s love to every person they see. Yet that will never happen unless you — each of you — brings the gospel to them and lives it in front of them (Matt. 28:19-20).
Robert Engle, the Burnette Chapel usher who stopped the gunman last Sunday, refused to be called a hero, ascribing that honor to others and calling on everyone to pray not only for the victims but even for the shooter and his family. That’s godly love. Imagine if more were like that. — Jon