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"Emanuel" - A documentary that could move the dial in the conversation on race

Brian Ivie, the director of "Emanuel" says “This film is not just about racism – it’s about grace.”

This heartfelt documentary was released four years to-the-day (June 17, 2015) after a 21-year-old white supremacist, Dylann Roof, shot people in a prayer circle with whom he had just finished Bible study. Nine worshipers, including the senior pastor, died that night at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, one of our nation’s oldest black churches.

I was grateful the folks at St. Christopher’s had already done some work on racial reconciliation before we went to see the movie together on Juneteenth 2019 (June 19), having spent our five Lenten Wednesday evenings eating a meal together and then talking about Howard Thurman. Thurman, a 20th century mystic, preacher and professor, served as the spiritual guide for Martin Luther King, Jr. and others during the civil rights movement, and introduced the foundational principle of non-violent resistance. In hind-sight, we understand this principle as the civil rights movement’s most transformative way forward.

Despite the honest conversations many parishioners had shared during our Lenten dinners on the topic of race, some of our parishioners had worried that seeing the documentary might be too difficult and worried about the film being shown in a public space. Yet, 40 parishioners pre-ordered tickets and came to the showing; while still others wanted to come, but tickets had sold out. The documentary was less than an hour and a half. Initially, we wanted to gather briefly after the film to discuss our thoughts, but afterwards - quickly agreed to wait a week - giving ourselves time to process what we had just experienced.

The documentary described well the history of slavery and racism in Charleston, South Carolina, and how its antebellum Southern culture played a role in what happened the night of the shooting. Since most of the victims’ families voiced their forgiveness directly to the killer as he was being charged, much of our discussion went into how that was even possible. Some of us expressed wonder at their spiritual depth - while some were uncomfortable with the speed of it. Was it “too quick” to forgive another who obviously had no remorse? Would it have been better to let the process of true inner forgiveness play out a bit longer? Perhaps the haste curtailed adequate local and national conversation and accountability?

Ultimately, the film helped us see that justice and forgiveness can co-exist. Some of the victims’ family members expressed that they were not necessarily prepared to speak their forgiveness that day; yet they felt led by God to witness to the power of love over hate. It was clear in many of the interviews, that forgiving helped these family members lighten the load of the pain they were carrying.

In retrospect, we pondered the question: Did forgiving Dylann Roof result in any good? Did it have an impact outside the victims’ own peace of mind?

Perhaps their choice to forgive, publicly, contributed to:

  • Public sympathies shifted in support of the victims - especially for white people.

  • Demonstrations and angry arguments hadn’t worked before, yet soon after this tragedy, the state Legislature voted to bring down the Confederate flag from the state capital.

  • Emanuel demonstrated to the world that Christians do imitate Jesus’ hard call to forgive - 70 times 7!

Our conversation left us with some pressing issues:

  1. How does this nation - or how do we - keep these horrendous acts from recurring? What tangible steps must be taken?

  2. Dylann Roof was powerfully radicalized on the internet. On the night of the shooting, after the group had finished Bible study, Roof later told police, “The people were so nice, I almost didn't do it…" Yet, he felt so obligated by the white supremacist cause, that he shot his hosts while they prayed. How do we even start to address hate-ideology that is so freely accessible on the internet?

After the movie - even as we left the theater and were talking with one another on the way back to our cars - heartfelt discussions started to pop up between black and white folks who didn’t even know one another before watching the film! With such a busy summer our church hasn't done it yet, but we would like to link up with a local AME church to share a meal and discuss a couple of the movie snippets around the dinner tables.

In a powerful way, this documentary introduced us to the humanity and beauty of those nine lives who were senselessly cut short. Yet even in death and loss – that African American community demonstrated joy, faith and resilience. During the film, as we saw again the news feed of that funeral service that honored the Emanuel 9 – and as President Obama was moved to sing “Amazing Grace” – for us, that was a Holy Spirit moment in the movie theater. For sure, Emanuel’s faithful response of answering violence with love, throws relief on the side of the angels.

Most definitely, risk watching this film.


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