Like everyone, the tragic events at Mother Emanuel AME Church have left me reeling. These have been days of intense grief, anger and fear. One moment, I can feel the heat of rage from my body. The next, I can barely see through my tears. Yet, with each moment, there is a constant aching that I have known before. My soul hurts. It was the pain I felt when Granddaddy passed and when I watched Aunt Darlene take her last breath. I felt it when I got the call that my first love had been murdered and feel it when I remember that his killer remains free. It is the same pain I feel after each heartbreak and failed attempt at love. I feel it with every report of a Black girl missing or killed by police or loved one. It is the pain acquainted with Blackness, longing for freedom in a world that refuses to offer it.
And, like a good Christian, I’ve taken this pain to God because that’s what we’re supposed to do. Place our burdens on the altar and leave them there. Yet, sometimes, leaving them is impossible. Sometimes, you can’t just walk away from the pain. Sometimes, the grief tucks you in at night. The pain makes you coffee in the morning and checks on you throughout the day. With each tear, you’re reminded it’s still there. Every racing thought informs you that tough, dark days are still ahead. When pain comes, we’re told to endure hard trials like a good solider. But, we are not always strong. Trauma causes many of us to emotionally eat or starve ourselves. Heartbreak invites seasons of self-doubt and insecurity. It may take us weeks, months, years to heal and even then we don't always know how or when to let go. Some things become impossible to forgive. At times, bitterness set in and, despite what we may hear in church, depression is very real. We are not always strong. Who will tell us that, despite this lack of strength, we are still beloved of God and nothing is wrong with us?
Of the nine people killed at Mother Emanuel, six were women. We now know that the pastor's wife and one of their daughters hid in his study as Roof went on his rampage. A mother played dead in her son's blood, while another elderly woman’s life was spared. At least ten sisters were present in Mother Emanuel on that terrible night. Sisters have been turning to the church for centuries to cope with White supremacy and Black pain. It is no shock that so many Black women were there Wednesday because we are the church. Yet, despite comprising the bulk of Black church membership, the theology of our churches has yet to respond to our pain and address our needs. In just three days, we began to celebrate the forgiveness extended by the families. Pastors offered this as an example of authentic faith; this, according to them, is what Jesus would want from his disciples. But what does that mean for young women unable to forgive their rapists, molesters, abusers and attackers? What can we give them for healing instead of trite clichés and biblical interpretation that places responsibility on them? Whenever faced with difficulty, we are always reminded that we are strong Black women. Because sisters before us survived worse, we should be able to survive our current crisis. Survival is important but we glory too much in it.
How are Black women supposed to understand that violation is wrong when they hear pastors celebrate how God is able to use it for His glory and their development?
Weak theology seeks to protect a God who is not vulnerable. God can handle our questions, anger and disbelief. God is concerned about our emotional health and we do that concern a disservice when we preach otherwise. Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his time whenever the articulations of their faith further marginalized oppressed people. We must do the same and hold our leaders accountable for the ways they prevent Black women from healing, causing even greater despair. If Black women are strong, perhaps that strength is in acknowledging our weaknesses. It could be that we are strong because we recognize when we need help and accept it when others are trying to share our load.
I must admit that I am a long way from forgiveness. I'm not ready to forgive Roof and others who have hurt me. And I believe that's okay. I believe God understands my unwillingness to forgive is tied to the unbearable pain I feel and would never hold that against me. I believe God journeys with me, even in seasons of unforgiveness, and understands that it's hard sometimes. I believe God is acquainted with my grief and, above all things, wants me whole and well. We must cultivate a faith that allows Black women to be honest and vulnerable. We must give them the tools to understand that God never called them to be Jesus but to be faithful and human.
Candice Benbow is a writer, preacher and will begin her Ph.D at Princeton Theological Seminary this fall.