2015 Archives

Violence in Charleston


The following by William B. Lawrence, Dean of SMU Perkins School of Theology and Professor of American Church History, first appeared in the June 19, 2015, edition of The Dallas Morning News.

June 22, 2015

By William B. Lawrence
Dean and Professor of American Church History

William Lawrence
William B. Lawrence

Once again, a wretched and cowardly act of violence has invaded the sanctity of a house of worship. Six years ago, the victim was Dr. George Tiller, who was shot while he was serving as an usher in a Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas. Yesterday, the victims included nine people—among them, Pastor and State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney of Charleston, South Carolina—at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Once more, places of prayer that should be sanctuaries for the spirit are houses for homicide.

But these were not isolated incidents.

Many Americans recall that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot when he stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis. Fewer of us will remember that his mother was shot and killed in Atlanta while she was playing the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church. 

Violence in religious spaces is occurring too often and with increasing frequency. Fifteen years ago, according to Carl Chinn, there were twenty-two incidents of violence at religious sites. Last year, there were 74 such incidents, and they resulted in the deaths of 176 people. So the rate of violent incidents has increased nearly four-fold since 1999. Of those violent actions, according to The Washington Post, nearly 60% involved guns.

Weapons in worship worry me. And the evidence of growing gun violence within religious spaces should compel us all to be concerned.

But here in Texas, where I live and work at a church-owned University, guns are perceived to be the solution, not the problem. The state legislature in Austin has recently adopted—and Governor Abbott, in front of an arsenal of firearms, has signed—a bill that will “expand Second Amendment rights” as the governor likes to say. This new law not only authorizes people to carry concealed weapons but also mandates what is called “campus carry” in the Lone Star State. This means that gun owners who have an “open carry” permit can wear a weapon in a shoulder holster or on a belt while on a campus of a public university. And a private university, like the one where I work, has six months to justify a ban on campus carry, or such loaded side arms will be as common as laptops in classrooms, as ubiquitous as beer at ball games, and as prevalent as Pinterest users on the quad. 

At the moment, this appears to be a solution for which there is not a problem. Gun violence on campus gets a lot of publicity when it occurs. But it occurs far less often than it does on the streets away from the campus. Unless somebody thinks it would be a good idea to raise the amount of gun violence on campuses up to the level of incidents away from campus, there is no reasonable argument to favor more guns on campus.

But there are plenty of reasonable arguments for opposing it. Politicians like the current Texas governor want to “expand Second Amendment rights.” But his way of doing so may actually diminish “First Amendment rights,” including the right to free speech, freedom of assembly, and the freedom to worship as one pleases without any governmental establishment of religion.

At the spring Commencement of Southern Methodist University, the speaker was former President of the United States George W. Bush. It was the first time he had given a Commencement address since leaving the White House, and it made sense for him to break the ice in Dallas. His Presidential Center, with its Library, Museum, and Institute, is a prominent feature on the campus. His wife Laura is an alumna and a member of the Board of Trustees. 

And, although his critics might be loath to admit it, he gave a fine speech. It was sprinkled with some of his familiar attempts at self-deprecation (assuring those who made only a C average on their way to graduation that they, too, could some day be President). But it also had a few substantive elements that deserved more attention than the local or national media provided.

In one of his more significant points, Mr. Bush noted that people in this country have a constitutional guarantee regarding freedom of religion. He said that every person is free to choose how to worship and free to choose not to worship at all. He then added that he has made his choice about a faith commitment. Many of the aspirants in his own party who are campaigning to get his former job should read his words about Americans’ first, fundamental right — the right to choose how to worship, whom to worship, and whether to worship. 

But the violence in Charleston on Wednesday can make us wonder whether the American people also have a right to feel safe at worship. Hate is not more powerful than love, according to most religious traditions. But the authorizations under open carry laws give hate a fighting chance. The one thing we need not to do is give haters more weapons to use.

For the love of our nine African Methodist Episcopal brothers and sisters in South Carolina, along with the many other victims of gun violence in religious spaces, I hope we can find ways to give hate fewer chances for inflicting homicidal harm. 

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