When I heard about the June 17 massacre at Charleston's Emanuel A.M.E. Church, my first, visceral response was that of a pastor.
Nine parishioners were killed while attending a Wednesday night Bible study.
As the killer opened fire on the dozen people present in South Carolina, thousands of similar groups across the United States were meeting and adjourning, in basements, sanctuaries and classrooms.
Any minister can tell you, those few who trudge out for mid-week services, to spend an hour studying Scriptures after a tiring day at work, are the best of the best. The cream. They're really, truly serious about their faith, the kind of folks who tend to live it out in their homes, at their jobs, among their neighbors. The saints.
Never miss a local story.
They're the ones who give to the poor and volunteer for grunt-work tasks around the church building and coach the congregation's softball team.
Those are the ones Dylann Roof, 21, wanted to kill. Roof reportedly has confessed to the crimes, saying he was stoked by the hope of starting a race war.
Maybe he's crazy. Maybe he's stone mean. Maybe he's misguided. Maybe he's drugged out. Maybe he's all those things. That's for a judge or jury to decide.
But Roof somehow knew instinctively: he must destroy the best.
Darkness hates light, the New Testament tells us.
The nature of the victims' souls and the measure of their spiritual legacy became apparent at Roof's bond hearing two days after the murders.
Felicia Sanders — mother of victim Tywanza Sanders and a survivor of the shooting — showed up at the hearing, along with several other victims' family members.
These extraordinary Christians expressed not, as you might reasonably predict, demands that Roof be executed, but forgiveness and compassion toward the punk who methodically shot their kin in God's house.
In honor of their fallen loved ones, I presume, and in obedience to their Lord, they kept the commandment Christians always are supposed to follow.
Not because of who Roof is. Not because he deserved it.
But because of who they are and who the victims were: children of a God who operates a bottomless well filled to its brim with mercy.
I doubt very much I could have done what they did, had I been in their place.
We Christians are told, as St. Paul wrote in Romans, to feed our enemy if he's hungry and give him a drink of water if he's thirsty.
"Do not be overcome by evil," St. Paul said, "but overcome evil with good."
Clearly, these survivors took that and similar admonitions to heart.
May God himself reward them. They're better people than I am.
So here, in the national news, we've witnessed the starkest contrast imaginable between good and evil, light and darkness.
Among the great, unsolvable mysteries of faith — of life generally — is the presence of vicious evil in a world supposedly governed by a benevolent God.
A dozen people came out on a Wednesday night to discuss the Bible together. A killer sauntered in and destroyed nine of them.
There's no answer that I'm aware of.
Good is present in this world. Evil is equally present.
When they meet, mayhem often results.
Because a person is decent and spiritual and generous doesn't mean he or she won't become a target of the unhinged or the stonehearted.
Yet the Christian message is that evil never really wins until we allow it to turn our own hearts to stone.
Instead, we're to do what those Christians in South Carolina did. As impossible as it seems, we're to overwhelm evil with mercy and love.