Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
This past Wednesday night (June 17th) nine people, including the pastor, were ruthlessly gunned down at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The murder rips into our hearts and leaves us shocked and speechless. With deep sadness, we extend our deepest compassion to the church’s clergy, its congregation, and the entire African American community of Charleston, who have had to endure a brutal assault on their very identities in their own church, city, state and country.
In this case, the heartrending murder is especially sinister because the attack was clearly a blood-curdling expression of racial hatred perpetrated by a young man who had barely entered adulthood. It’s also shocking because it occurred in a place of sanctity, a place in which the spirit of love and peace should prevail. If murder stemming from racial hatred can occur even in a church, where is safety to be found?
As we convey our sympathy to the survivors, we must call on this country to squarely confront its legacy of racism, a legacy constantly being jump-started by mentally warped radio hosts, news commentators, and inflammatory websites. Even more mainstream news outlets, such as Fox, tried to camouflage the truth, suggesting that the murderer slayed the worshipers because they were Christian rather than because they were black.
Make no mistake about it: The murder in Charleston was only a particularly explosive expression of the hate and paranoia running through huge swaths of White America: the fear that “they are taking over our country,” that we are losing our positions of dominance. Though racism may erupt in gruesome murders like the one in Charleston only on occasion, black people and other people of color have had to endure repeated harassment and murder even by officers of the law, as seen in the spate of police killings that have come to public notice over the past few years. More subtle expressions of racial hatred ripple across social media on a daily basis and in everyday encounters that black people must face on the streets and in the workplace. These can be a frightening and degrading experience.
While racism is deplorable enough, the easy access that racists and other bigots have to lethal weapons sets the stage for tragedy. Both racism and our gun culture need to be squarely addressed, and the efforts to defeat them must be unrelenting. Tackling the roots of racism should begin already in elementary school by making appreciation of diversity part of the curriculum. Courses in basic ethics should be mandatory, and children should be taught to show respect to all people regardless of race, religion, gender, or ethnicity.
It’s also time to push once again for rigorous controls on access to guns and other weapons. Each time this proposal has come up in Congress it has gone down in defeat, sabotaged by the gun lobby and their political lackeys. But we shouldn’t give up. The facts speak for themselves. It may be true that “people kill people,” but when people can easily get guns, the murder rate is much higher than it would be otherwise. Reams of statistics confirm this as fact:
According to data compiled by the United Nations, the United States has four times as many gun-related homicides per capita as do Turkey and Switzerland, which are tied for third. The U.S. gun murder rate is about 20 times the average for all other countries on this chart. That means that Americans are 20 times as likely to be killed by a gun than is someone from another developed country.
Until we wipe out racism, we’ll repeatedly have to lament the killing of innocent black and brown people, whether by agents of law enforcement or by frenzied hatemongers. Until we impose rigorous controls on access to guns, again and again we’ll have to wring our hands over the tragic loss of lives, whether black or white or brown, adults or children, strangers or friends. Talk is cheap and easy. But what we need is action.