Conversations with President Matthew Myer Boulton and friends of Christian Theological Seminary

CTS Issues Statement on Emanuel AME and Papal Encyclical

Within a day of each other, two unforgettable events took place last week that go to the heart of Christian faith: an unspeakable act of what appears to be racist terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina; and the official release of “Laudato Si,” an extraordinary papal encyclical on ecological degradation, the global economy, and the world’s most vulnerable people.

In very different ways, each of these events has put Christianity at the center of some of the world’s most important conversations. And in very different ways, each presents a range of opportunities that Christian Theological Seminary cannot and will not overlook in the months and years to come.

First, our hearts are broken by the murders in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killings that appear to have been motivated by the hateful ideology of white supremacy. Our prayers are with the dead and their families, with the city of Charleston, with our students and colleagues at CTS in the AME tradition, and with all of us in the broad American community, as we struggle together to face the demons of our history and our present. We are inspired and humbled by the forgiveness already demonstrated by family members of those who were killed, and by the solidarity across racial and religious divides in Charleston and around the world. Their testimony helps remind us of what genuine Christian faith looks like, and that God is always present even and especially in times of tragedy and loss, transforming horror into hope, violence into reconciliation.

And yet: we refuse to think of this catastrophe as an isolated act by a deranged loner. The church known by many as “Mother Emanuel” was not a random target. Whether the shooter knew it explicitly or only vaguely, Emanuel AME is a historic congregation deeply connected to African-American liberty, from today back to the civil rights movement, and all the way back to an unsuccessful slave rebellion planned in 1822. The fact that the shooting itself took place on June 17, the anniversary of the exodus that planned rebellion would have enabled, is either a dreadful coincidence or another sign of the shooter’s racist intentions.

Likewise, white supremacy is not an isolated idea. It is part of American life, as we in Indiana — where the KKK was more powerful than anywhere else in the country, less than 100 years ago — know all too well. We do not like it, of course, but we must face it. Indeed, Emanuel AME is only a short distance from Sullivan’s Island, once the largest slave port in North America, through which some 40 percent of the 400,000 slaves brought to British North America passed. The legacy of the sins of slavery and racism is death, and that legacy is still very much present to us all. The opportunity before us, then, is to redouble our efforts to confront these sins in ourselves, in our neighborhoods, in our institutions, and in our wider communities — and to do so by deepening our connections with the ways Christian churches have, at their best, played crucial leadership roles in the service of liberty and dignity for all of God’s children.

Second, we strongly affirm what Pope Francis has done in “Laudato Si” (a phrase he borrows from a song written by St. Francis), at once bringing a theological framework to the ecological crisis and bringing a lucid ecological focus to Christian life and work. On both counts, his encyclical has stirred significant debate around the world — which is exactly what any good papal teaching will do. But we have not seen an encyclical of this depth and engagement with socioeconomic issues since Pope Leo XIII addressed labor and capital in 1891 (“Rerum Novarum”) and, in a different way, Pope John XXIII addressed war and peace in 1963 (“Pacem in Terris”). In effect, Pope Francis has declared that the world’s economic and ecological challenges are theological and spiritual challenges, and we strongly affirm this core conviction.

And yet: we refuse to think of these issues as matters of mere opinion and discussion. Francis rightly calls his readers to consider how — in our personal lives, family lives, institutional lives, and broad community lives — we can contribute in ways great and small to the urgent work of turning the tide of the ecological crisis. We can and must engage this work more closely, always with an eye toward action and change. And in doing so, again, we thereby deepen our connections to the ways Christian churches have, at their best, played crucial leadership roles in the service of caring for God’s creation. As the stories in Genesis 1-2 make wonderfully, poetically clear, we are gardeners, after all, created to care for the Earth and all its creatures.

Our prayers are with Charleston, and our prayers are with the whole of God’s creation. At the same time, our hopes are with Charleston, and our hopes are with the whole of God’s creation. The invitation before us is to pray and hope together, and so to work together, in ways that genuinely follow Jesus and the Holy Spirit, all for the sake of the future God intends — the future towards which these historic days urgently, heartbreakingly, hopefully point.

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