There’s a Carole King song I first heard as a child, which tells of a deranged man’s arrest and now makes difficult listening. Smackwater Jack, he bought a shotgun, ‘cause he was in the mood for a little confrontation. He just let it all hang loose, he didn’t think about the noose. He couldn’t take no more abuse, so he shot down the congregation.
You can see why Jon Stewart had nothing. In a kinder and saner world, the Emanuel AME massacre would be a joke: satirists like Stewart would ask, incensed, what racists in the US had to do for their motives not to be whitewashed. Demand apartheid? Mourn the Klan? Shoot black people in church? Even then, they’d maintain, someone like Dylann Roof would be labelled ‘unbalanced’ and ‘disturbed’. Audiences would cheer, knowing the punchline to be true – and now it is. The joke has sprung itself, and nothing about it is funny any more, just forcefully, sickeningly absurd.
Unlike the subject of King’s song, Roof was not just deranged. With Charleston now home to that collision of US anxieties, a racist gun crime in a church, small wonder conservatives are scared to discuss it honestly, but nothing Roof did was random. It’s one thing to attack a church, another to assault a black church in the USA – another still to shoot worshippers at Emanuel AME, known for its role in civil rights struggles. ‘I chose Charleston because it is [the] most historic city in my state,’ writes Roof in a summary of his views, and you can be sure equal thought went into selecting Emanuel.
At its most radical, black Christianity in the US has always seemed to me more drawn to the second coming than the resurrection, songs promising that come the day, the oppressor will have nowhere to hide. If tacitly materialist, it’s a liberation theology, suggesting that until chained or handcuffed bodies are free, the soul’s release is meaningless. Perhaps this helped make pastors so crucial in Ferguson and Baltimore, and perhaps it’s what Clementa Pinckney, murdered this week, preached after Walter Scott was killed – certainly it was this promise of ultimate justice, as well as Emanuel’s congregants, on which Roof opened fire.
The whole thing is a nightmare of belief and doubt. Judging by his statement, Roof believes white people are the real oppressed – otherwise, perhaps he’d have sensed that after the last year, black Americans (Christian or not) didn’t need another shooting for belief in salvation to be challenging. The right refuses to believe racism deserves to be talked about after a neonazi gunned down black people he sees as animals, thinking instead that he must just be the unbalanced sort, while like Jon Stewart, those of watching from far off feel it’s ventured beyond a joke. Charleston presents an unbelievable atrocity, yet I can believe every word.