I'm reading a book called Radical by Maajid Nawaz. He grew up in the UK to a Pakistani family and became an Islamic Radical, but eventually came to disagree with the viewpoints he once embraced. He said one of the things he had to do in his journey back from a place of great hate was to learn to humanize everyone, even (especially?) those who dehumanize others. He describes how he went from celebrating 9/11 to mourning the London attacks in 2005.
As I read about what happened in Charleston, my reaction is to want to dehumanize the man who murdered 9 people in Emanuel AME Church.
He's a monster. Or a demon. Or something else that allows me to pretend that he's not a fellow human.
But that's not true.
He was born. He has a mother and a father. He eats. He drinks. He breathes. His heart beats.
He's human. And if I take the narrative of the bible to be true, he's a fellow child of God. Loved by God.
I want to be very clear: I'm not supporting or accepting of what he did.
As I read that he spent an hour sitting in a worship service with these people before murdering them, I can't fathom how after that time, he pulled out a gun and started shooting them.
I remember that at Columbine, in the original modern day mass shooting, crosses were erected for all the victims. Someone erected two smaller crosses for the shooters, which were angrily torn down. It's painful to recognize that someone who has caused so much harm may also deserve some measure of compassion.
We like to live in a binary, black and white world. Someone is 'good' or 'bad'. But life isn't so cut and dried. Someone can be guilty of terrible things and still deserve compassion.
The Colorado movie shooter suffered from mental illness. Instead of having to choose whether this affects his guilt or innocence as the legal system must do, can I not see it as a place where I should have compassion?
I'm not seeking to humanize the Charleston shooter because he deserves it or because I am ignoring what he did.
I'm seeking to humanize him because it's true.
It is also the only way we can hope to stem the tide of shootings at schools and malls and workplaces and houses of worship.
Because if these actions are the work of monsters and demons, I am powerless to stop them. I can only shake my head and feel sad that such beings cannot be stopped.
But if I'm dealing with humans, I can have hope. Hope that messages of love and acceptance and peace can be heard.
When I see an Islamic Radical come to the conclusion that 'an eye for an eye' simply doesn't work; and when I learn about the US Civil Rights movement through a film like Selma, I see clearly that only when we treat our adversaries as humans - no matter how flawed - can we hope to prevail in our cause.
In this case, the cause is that all humans are valuable. All people need dignity and acceptance.
That doesn't mean approval of all their actions, but that leads us into conflict resolution, which is not the point of this post.
So as you continue to hear about Charleston, mourn with those who mourn. These were also fellow humans who were killed.
I'm so saddened to hear of the death of my brothers and sisters in Christ. But I also have hope in a God of resurrection who says that He has the final word.
So in the meantime, I will hope that the shooter may get a glimpse of the loving God worshiped at Emanuel AME.
Because every human needs to know that God loves us, even as we must accept consequences for our actions.