This past weekend, Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, held its first church service since the massacre that claimed the lives of nine members of its congregation.
Rev. Norvell Goff- preaching because the church’s regular pastor, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, was one of last week’s casualties- delivered a Spirit-filled sermon that honored both the lives of those who were murdered and those people who came to- and responded in- Charleston with prayer and forgiveness. Goff’s fiery and inspirational sermon reflected the community of Charleston and the members of the congregation, encouraging both groups to persevere in the kind of Christ-like love that actively seeks to overcome the kind of race-based hatred that motivated Dylann Storm Roof to commit his terrorist acts of evil.
As a Christian, one would hope that sermons like Rev. Goff’s that encouraged love and forgiveness would have been commonplace in churches, especially black churches, this past Sunday. Again, as Rev. Goff acknowledged- and which has also been seen and wondered about by news media outlets across the country- the response of the Charleston community wasn’t to riot or loot, or to profess threats and intentions of vigilantism unless local residents were delivered a sufficient amount of what they defined as “justice.” There was a clear, noticeable and appreciative lack of social disruption and economic destruction in Charleston last week- as it should be. The proper- though difficult- Christian response to a situation such as this is love, prayer, forgiveness, and spiritual edification.
Which is why it was disappointing, disheartening, and somewhat confusing to watch a clip of Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, preaching this past Sunday. Charles H. Ellis III is Senior Pastor of Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan and is currently the presiding Bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (P.A.W.).
Ellis’ sermon was the opposite of Rev. Norvell Goff’s. Where Goff sought to encourage his congregation to stay the course in courage, faith, unity, and love, Ellis sought to lay blame and in many ways, maintain racial and political division by slandering what he called “the right wing” and “Reagan Republicans.”
What does Ronald Reagan, the so-called ‘Reagan Republicans,’ or the “right wing” have to do with the reprehensible acts of Dylann Storm Roof?
In his sermon, Ellis confusingly castigates Ronald Reagan for rightly telling the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall- insinuating that Reagan’s international act of morality is somehow hypocritical because Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s governor, refused to take down the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse- which to Ellis, represents an wall of separation equal to the Berlin Wall (Nikki Haley has since endorsed removing the flag removed, but not because of Ellis’ sermon).
Ellis’ disingenuous attempt at (im)morally equating Reagan with Nikki Haley and the Confederate flag fails because they have nothing to do with one another, whatsoever. Technically speaking, the Confederate battle flag has very little to do with Republicans but a lot to do with Democrats, but I doubt very much that this historical tidbit made it into Bishop Ellis’ sermon.
And Ellis’ sinks further.
Though the sermon clip is edited, Ellis appears to shame Nikki Haley for calling herself (and being) a Christian while, “stand[ing] up for segregation” and “for stand[ing] up for denying people their rights.”
When and where, specifically, has Nikki Haley ever defended segregation or actively fought against giving “rights” to any of the citizens of her state? Since Ellis made the claim, he should provide incontrovertible evidence to support such morally serious charges. Charles Ellis is slandering his sister in Christ with these harmful allegations.
Nikki Haley shouldn’t be shamed. Charles H. Ellis III should be shamed for engaging in a false, moral equivalence and for dissembling from the pulpit.
When Republicans and conservatives- and by extension, conservative talk radio and television (which are proxies for white people) are mentioned in combination with Dylan Storm Roof, whether it’s in Ellis’ sermon or anywhere else, it’s to intentionally identify and slander both groups as racists who’re guilty of having ideologically influenced Roof to murder the Charleston Nine- even though there is no evidence to support such vilification. I expect this level of dishonesty from politicians, television pundits, and Bill Maher- types who’re looking to score political points, but not from a pastor of Ellis’ stature and influence. For Ellis or anyone else to politicize the deaths of those martyred in Emanuel A.M.E. Church is to do a disservice to the lives lost and the faith they shared prior to their deaths. Again, that a pastor would do this from the pulpit is disgraceful.
Furthermore, that Ellis politicized these deaths and blamed Roof’s malicious acts on the ‘right wing’ and ‘Reagan Republicans,’ rather than on sin that brings forth and nurtures evil undermines his moral and pastoral credibility, and goes directly to his character. As Jesus said, things that cause people to stumble are sure to come as day follows night, but woe unto them though whom these stumbling blocks come.
More to the point- how does Ellis’ sermon serve the purpose of racial reconciliation, particularly in the body of Christ? After all, some of the very people Ellis pridefully ridicules and condemns- Republicans and conservatives, including Gov. Haley- are actually his (our) brothers and sisters in Christ and he perpetuates the unnecessary divisions that St. Paul warned against.
Where Rev. Goff preached a love and forgiveness- that transcended politics- worthy of the name of Christ, Bishop Ellis preached finger pointing and continued division.
Considering the racial acrimony and division the country has witnessed and suffered through the last several years, we would receive much more spiritual and civil edification if there were more sermons like the one Rev. Goff delivered this past Sunday at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, rather than the one shamelessly delivered by Bishop Charles Ellis III.
Derryck Green has earned an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and will receive his Doctorate in Theology and Ministry from Azusa Pacific Seminary this fall.