Dr. Bernard Powers ’72: “Can’t Have the Testimony Without the Test.”

The professor of history at the College of Charleston on forgiveness and what we can learn from the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Posted on June 26th, 2018 by

Dr. Powers's book, "We Are Charleston" (co-written with a poet and a journalist), explores the historical context of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, as well as its significance in the congregants’ response to the mass shooting there. (photo by Leslie McKellar)


In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Powers—a historian of Charleston and the AME church—found his life’s work at the center of our nation’s conversations on race, violence, history, and forgiveness. Here is our Q & A with him.

Gustavus: Your book, We Are Charleston, notes that “the Church’s story is America’s story.” That’s a large one.

Dr. Powers: The AME church was established as a rejection of racism in the 18th century, and so that people of African heritage could control their religious lives. The church has a theological mission, but it has a social justice mission, which spun into existence the moment it was created. Some of us who have studied the social gospel call it “the gospel of freedom.” Mother Emanuel is the oldest AME Church in the Deep South.

The story of the founder is important. Richard Allen was a slave who buys his freedom and becomes the founding bishop. Later, slave catchers tried to kidnap him and return him to slavery. When the ringleader of this effort was captured and put in jail, Richard Allen mounted a plea for his early release. He does this as a dictate of his Christian practice. 

This is an early example of forgiveness in the AME church. It comes out of that whole notion of, well, how can I ask for forgiveness unless I am willing to forgive? “Ye who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Another touchstone in the AME church, and—to be sure—the trajectory of the African-American experience, is the notion of freedom. For hundreds of years, slavery was the norm for African descendants in America. But the arc of the moral universe did transform their situation and freedom came. In the AME church, we liken that to the same kind of freedom Jews experience in the Exodus story. It is a tremendous source of strength and encouragement, and central to the AME church history, and Mother Emanuel’s story. 

What do you remember about the day of the shooting and the weeks after? 

I was in Trinidad with my wife. A friend from Charleston called me. I remember he said, “There’s been a shooting at Mother Emanuel.” I said, “What?” And the line dropped. My wife thought someone on the street must have been shot; the church is right downtown. We turned on CNN but didn’t hear anything for about two hours. Then the story came across: Mass shooting at Mother Emanuel. 

We were dumbfounded. We have connections to that church and we knew the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Shot and killed in a prayer service in his own church? Charleston is holy city. How could this happen? 

I remember being with Reverend Pinckney just two months before he was murdered. He was the keynote speaker at an event dealing with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Pinckney gave the final address, and he was extremely generous to the men in grey. I remember thinking, I do not have the capacity to be that forgiving. Then Pinckney was murdered by a neo-Confederate. His generosity was rewarded with violence. 

Watching victims’ family members say to killer Dylann Roof, “I forgive you,” was a powerful experience for many who followed the story. It is difficult to imagine facing the killer of your family member, and even more difficult to image having that response. 

It is unexpected, it is daunting, and it is amazing. Those people showed us something to be emulated. They set the bar very high. But it is exactly what we are required to do as those who profess Christianity.  

Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “Forgiveness is the price you pay to heal the world.” AME church founder Richard Allen did it. I think of his example, and the related example of Nelson Mandela, thrown in jail for 30 years for wanting his people to have freedom, emerging from jail having forgiven the people who sent him there, continuing to promote brotherhood, and becoming the first successful post-apartheid president of South Africa. 

It’s also something that is a part of the American civil rights tradition, among those who practiced philosophical non-violence. There were a lot of people in the movement who were not like that. Martin Luther King Jr. was not always like that—he had to become that man.

You know, not everybody forgave Dylann Roof. You have people who did and didn’t in the same families. You have people on a continuum. But these people who were at Mother Emanuel that day were in Bible study, after they had been in a long church meeting before. This is the tradition that they came out of. One of the relatives said that “extending forgiveness” is how she was raised, and that she was following those lessons. These are the lessons taught in the AME church, and by founder Richard Allen. These are biblical lessons, and those families took it to heart and lived by it. 

Justice is a core value at our College. Working for justice implies a dissatisfaction with the world as it stands. How can we reconcile, in an unjust world, our need for justice with our need to forgive? 

The only way is to appreciate the malleability of humanity. This is something that I learned in studying the existentialists at Gustavus. They argued that human beings ultimately have the responsibility for who they are and what they claim to be. A spoon cannot change its nature, but human beings have the capacity to be what they are not in this present moment. One can extend forgiveness with the expectation, or at least the hope, that the person you are extending it to will evolve into the person they have the capacity to become. 

The husband of one of the victims said to Dylann Roof, “I forgive you, and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Change your ways.”

Exactly. And we can’t argue in any responsible or certain way as to the limits of what a person can become. Because look at the example of Saul, who became Paul. Who could predict that? Who could have predicted Nelson Mandela of the 1960s would become Nelson Mandela of the 1990s? Even in my own personal experiences, I have become a more forgiving person and able to accept things today that I couldn’t have before. If you are a thinking and sensitive person, you’re going to want to grow. Even if you’re not, you can be put into a situation where you’re going to grow, whether you want to or not. As we say in the church, you can’t have a testimony unless you have a test. These people at Mother Emanuel had a test, and that gave them a testimony, and that testimony has been transformative in their lives and the lives of others. 

For those of us who are frustrated by the lack of change, or slow pace of it, where can we take our comfort?   

I know people get tired. But I think back on milestones I never thought possible—a black Miss America, for instance, a black president—and I draw strength. I am encouraged to put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. 

Young people don’t have the kind of reservoir of experience to draw upon to make them as patient as someone my age. Maybe that’s a good thing. But it’s got to be frustrating. We live in a much more racially integrated society, we have a higher level of education than ever before, but nevertheless we still have situations where unarmed black men and women are shot down in the streets by policemen. Why does this continue to happen? Why do whites think they can control black bodies, even killing them? I see how young people can be deeply frustrated and impatient. 

But historically, we have seen the inconceivable. My goodness, what it must have felt like to hear the guns of Fort Sumter, the guns of the Union Naval Blockade fire on Charleston for a year and half before it finally fell! It was black troops who were the first to liberate Charleston, riding in on horses, wearing blue uniforms, with guns on their shoulders. What that must have looked like and felt like to people who expected to live the rest of their lives in slavery!

We have to continue to fight the battle, individually and collectively. The Civil War consisted of many battles. There were setbacks, victories. We don’t know when the ultimate victory will come, but we must continue to struggle toward the mark. The plight of the human condition is that we are all flawed. Flawed people are going to live in a flawed society. There will always be something in need of fixing. As we identify the problems and strive to fix them, we hopefully—to use Lincoln’s phrase—“release the better angels of our nature.” And as we do that, we become better as ourselves. We become what we are not in this present moment.

As the preachers frequently say, “I’m not what the Lord wants me to be. But thank God, I’m not what I used to be.



Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


One Comment

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