I can’t think of a better way to die than in my church, surrounded by fellow believers, actively engaged in prayer. I have a feeling that Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a man of God whom one colleague recalled referring to as “Reverend Senator,” would have felt the same.
So the first thing that we all can do is thank God that if Sen. Pinckney had to be slaughtered, it was in this holy place, under these holy circumstances. And we can thank God for the same about the eight parishioners who died along with him in Wednesday night’s unspeakably vile attack.
Sen. Pinckney’s death is no more tragic than the deaths of his parishioners. But it deserves extra attention because of what it can remind us, and because of what it can teach us.
That lesson began Thursday morning in a hushed Senate chamber, and I have a feeling that Sen. Pinckney would have been particularly touched by the tributes he received from his fellow senators.
Not the parts about how he fought for the least of these – the orphans, the children. Not the parts about his booming voice or his calming presence or how he never got angry. Those parts were about him. I have a feeling he would have been touched by the parts about his faith, and his God.
“Romans tells us that ‘All things work together for good for those who love the lord and are called according to his purpose,’” Sen. John Scott recalled, “and ‘If God be for you, who can be against you?’”
Sen. Thomas Alexander remembered that Sen. Pinckney’s office was in Room 512 of the Gressette Building, and he consoled himself and fellow senators by quoting from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:12: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Sen. Darrell Jackson told senators of a fellow pastor who called from across the country to ask what he could tell his parishioners to help them understand why a young man from the Midlands would go to Sen. Pinckney’s Charleston church, sit through an hour of Bible study, and then pull out a gun and slaughter the senator and his parishioners. And like countless preachers and priests throughout the history of the church, he didn’t have a satisfying answer. What he had, though, was an essential statement of faith: “My motto with God is this: Lord, I still trust you, even when I don’t understand you.”
Added Sen. Gerald Malloy: “If he would be able to speak to us today, he would say all is well; all is well with my soul. … For those of us that are believers, I believe that God has a plan for all of us.”
As he said that, I recalled the words of Mordecai to Queen Esther, as he called on her to risk her life to come to the aid of the Hebrew people: “And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”
“He was my colleague, he was my friend, he was my brother in Christ,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, one of the most conservative Republicans in the upper chamber. “Many a time from this podium I’ve heard him share a Bible verse that meant a lot to me.”
I am struck often by the speeches our legislators deliver after experiencing what at the time seem like great difficulties in their lives. They are speeches thanking colleagues and friends from across the political and ideological spectrum for their great compassion and friendship. For their prayers, for rushing to their assistance, for continuing to support them as they move past whatever difficulty occurs.
In those moments – and even more in the thankfully rare moments like this, after our legislators experience genuine tragedy – we glimpse the hopeful and wonderful and inspirational thing about our state Senate, and even our House; the thing that used to be taken for granted in legislative bodies the nation over: the ability of people with such different political priorities and philosophies to come together, to get to know each other, to form friendships across those boundaries.
What makes these friendships all the more incredible is that legislators don’t work past their differences the way every one of us does every day in our personal life – by avoiding them. Legislators engage those differences; they debate those differences, even argue over them. And when things go right, they reach a consensus. Sadly, this happens with less and less frequency
The tragic thing about our Senate, and our House, and other elected bodies where this capacity to form friendships across political lines remains, is how much that capacity is squandered. How many times our lawmakers fail to use those friendships, that shared faith, to come to a consensus.
One of the scriptures Sen. Pinckney most loved to quote was from the Old Testament prophet Malachi. It’s one of my personal favorites, and as Sen. Pinckney recognized, it’s one of the most important for our elected leaders to heed: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
It is my prayer that in reminding themselves of their friendships and their common faith, in remembering Sen. Pinckney’s great goodness as a man of God, our legislators can remind themselves of what they are capable of. Of what they are called to do. And that they can do their work – our work – in that same spirit of cooperation.