As many of you know, on Friday nights, I most often speak from notes, rather than writing out a full sermon. However, I’ve tried to use the notes from last Friday night (June 19, 2015) to create a text that will allow me to archive my thoughts following the tragic shooting in Charleston, SC.
Like many of you, I’ve been walking around the past few days with a sickness in my stomach and a sadness in my heart, trying to make sense of the violence that unfolded last week in Charleston, SC. I’ve scoured the various news stories that have appeared in my social media sources, absorbing the opinions of friends and journalists as I’ve struggled to be able to articulate my own thoughts about this mess. I stumbled upon a headline from the Chicago Tribune—it actually wasn’t about Charleston, but rather about another homicide in Chicago, one of nearly 200 in that city so far this year. The headline asked, “What Is This World Coming To?” and I had to scoff in spite of myself.
I’m sorry to inform the journalist who chose that particular phrase as the lead-in to that story, but the world is not “coming to” anything or any place. We. Are. Already. There. We thought after Columbine perhaps things would change, when violence invaded our schools. That was 16 years ago. We thought maybe things would change after the massacre in the movie theater in Aurora, CO. That was nearly three years ago. Or maybe things would be different after twenty children, aged six and seven, were killed in Newtown, CT. That was also in 2012, and there have been more than 90 shooting incidents at schools and college campuses since then. The cycle of violence continues unabated and every time that an incident makes the news, the politicians and pundits adopt a sober stance and proclaim, “The time has come for a serious conversation…” And the conversation never fully materializes.
We have a problem. We have a problem with a fetishization of guns and violence, yes. (No, I don’t want to eliminate all guns. But I want us to be able to have a sensible, dispassionate conversation about guns that will promote safety and keep firearms out of the hands of the wrong people.) We have a problem also with racism, with mental health, and with our prison system (to name just a few other core issues). But to dismiss the evil that took place in Charleston as an isolated incident is to ignore the broken systems in our country that allow such evil to fester and grow, and it does a tremendous disservice to the memories of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, and Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor.
We have been taught to fear those who are “other” than us. So long as our vocabulary remains “us” and “them,” so long as we think of “those people” in a neighborhood removed from the one in which we live, we cannot hope to heal our broken world.
There is a sad, almost sickening irony to the fact that we spent Friday night June 19 mourning the victims of the Charleston shooting who were singled out because of their race. Friday marked 150 years to the day of the emancipation of slaves in Texas, a date celebrated among African-Americans as “Juneteenth.” It was also 51 years ago that President Johnson signed the sweeping 1964 Civil Rights Act. Both historic events are heralded in history books as turning points for race relations in our country. But how far have we truly come?
When the parishoners of Emanuel AME showed up to church on Wednesday, June 17, they expected to worship. They expected to study the bible together. They expected to find, as they had every other time that they walked into that historic building, a sense of sanctuary- not only in the sense of the word that means “a house of worship,” but also in the sense of “a place of refuge or safety.” They offered that very thing to the troubled young stranger who joined them that evening; news reports state that he worshiped and studied with the group for more than an hour before the gathering turned deadly. The idea that violence could unfold in this holy place was beyond anyone’s thinking, so much so that Reverend Pinckney reportedly invited this young man to sit by his side, so that the reverend might guide him through the biblical passages.
Journalist Charlie Pierce noted that in the face of such tragedies, we often call them “unthinkable” or “unspeakable,” when they should really be neither. Not to speak or think about such events (and the issues that contribute to them), Pierce says, allows us to fool ourselves by putting artificial distance between the violence and ourselves. We must speak about it; we must act upon it.
In 1963, after the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four little girls, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. eulogized the victims by saying in part that the victims, “say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”
Rabbi Shai Held notes that in the book of Genesis, as God creates each item, God does so "למינהם" l'mineihem- "each according to their kind." So the various firmaments in the heavens, the fish, the plants, the animals, all are created with degrees of diversity. Rabbi Held notes that this is true for every element of creation except for humans. In contrast, the text takes great pains to remind us that all humans derive from a single pair of ancestors. Rabbinic tradition further elaborates, teaching that God was trying to avoid the possibility that future generations would say, "My ancestor was more prominent than yours." Reverend Johnny Youngblood puts it differently when he says that "Racism implies that God failed creation." In other words, why would God purposely create one segment of humanity to be inferior to another?
The Torah portion prescribed by the Jewish lectionary cycle for the weekend of June 19 was Korach, telling the story of a rebellion fomented by the eponymous character. In presenting his concerns to Moses and Aaron, Korach declares, "רב לכם" rav lachem- "you've gone too far." "It's too much." Moses, standing up for himself, for God, and for the Israelite status quo, turns the tables and says to Korach and his followers, "No...rav lachem...it is you who have gone too far."
We've gone too far. We need not ask "What is the world coming to?" because we are already there. We are already in a moment of racial tension, mistrust, violence, sadness, and fear. But we can, we pray, come back from the brink.
As a rabbi who cares about the future of the young people in our congregation, and as a father who cares about the future for my children, I am committing myself to being part of the solution. I am proud to be participating in the Interfaith Alliance of Champaign-Urbana, a local group of clergy and laypeople representing both faith communities and social service agencies. We are working to envision ways to build bridges within our community that will promote understanding and create a brighter future for all. Together, I am optimistic that we can reclaim the American dream as a possibility for all.