A Message to America in the Midst of Our Mourning

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Rev. William Barber, in a stirring sermon on the Charleston killings, reminds us: “We must be concerned not merely with who the murderer is and what makes him tick, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy that produced him and produces others.”

Rev. Dr. William Barber II is the president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and the national chair of the NAACP’s Legislative Political Action Committee. Since 1993 he has served as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in Goldsboro, NC. Rev. Barber has also been the spiritual leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, which organizes weekly Monday demonstrations in the state to protest state policies on such issues as voter suppression, discrimination, and government legislation that hurts poor citizens. In this capacity he has emerged as one of the leading moral voices in America today, a powerful voice of conscience in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.

This past Sunday, June 21st, Rev. Barber gave a magnificent sermon on the murder of nine members of the Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the previous Wednesday night. The sermon is truly shattering, a stirring call to the conscience of this nation to confront its dark legacy of racism, violence, and discrimination, a legacy that continues today wrapped up in certain code words that advance racist attitudes without violating the conventions of polite discourse.

The following are a few highlights of the sermon. These are drawn from my personal notes, hurriedly taken down as he speaks. They should not be regarded as an official transcript. You can view the entire sermon here.

There is a history in this country whereby racialized political rhetoric and racialized policies spawn the pathologies of terrorism, murder, and violent resistance. What we are seeing is the transformation of the Southern strategy. You don’t have to use the ‘n’ word anymore. You talk about policy, but the policy is in coded language. You suggest that the real problems in this country are being caused by “them”—the lethal word is “them” or “the folk in urban communities.” You’ve got to be willfully deaf to miss the racism.

Some are saying “We have got to move to healing and closure.” Now is not the time for this. Our society needs the healing of truth and change. The governor (Nikki Haley) said, “We’re going to fight this by giving the killer the death penalty.” Giving the perpetrator the death penalty is not going to fix what needs to be fixed because the killer is still at large. You’re not going to kill racism, violence, and poverty by arresting one disturbed young man and then dumping on him the sins of slavery, Jim Crow, and the new racialized extremism that has captured almost every Southern legislature and court house. It will not bring closure and healing. It will simply bring a cover-up.

[By executing the killer] you can’t heal a society that is sick with the sin of racism and inequality, where too many people perpetrate by word and deed the violence of undermining the promise of equal protection under the law. You can’t just say that this is one insane young man—you’ve got to deal with what drove him insane.

This is not a head wound that can be healed with a few stitches, a bandage, and some salve. The unequal distribution of freedom and money and land and dignity in the South has to be addressed with radical surgery. We need change, not closure. We must remember that the perpetrator has been arrested, but the killer is still at large, the killer is still free. We must be concerned not merely with who the murderer is and what makes him tick, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy that produced him and produces others.

Finally, we must understand what happened when the family members [of the victims] said, “We forgive him.” Don’t misinterpret this. Within the nonviolent faith tradition, it has always been clear that hatred cannot drive us to hate, that evil cannot drive us to evil. Their forgiveness is a sign of resistance. It means: “Don’t let the system determine how you are going to act.” When the system says you’ve got to curse, you praise. When the system says you’ve got to hate, you forgive. When the system says you should be angry, you love.

Their forgiveness was a prophetic forgiveness. They’re saying to America: “We’re not going to let you blame all this on that boy. We don’t want the death penalty, because that is only killing the perpetrator, it ain’t killing the killer. If America is serious about this moment, we can’t just cry ceremonial tears, while at the same time refusing to support the martyrs’ fight against racism.”

By refusing to hate him, the families are challenging the schizophrenia of American morality. They are saying: “Are you going to decry the killings, but then support giving people more guns? Are you saying you hate the killer, but then pass healthcare policies that are killing folks? Are you going to wave the Christian flag at the funeral, but keep the Confederate flag up on state buildings? If we can forgive the man who killed our loved ones, America, why can’t you change? If you really want to deal with this, you’ve got to embrace justice, equality, and love, you’ve got to end racism and poverty.”

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