Messages America must hear from Charleston: Rev. Barber's sermon on the Emanuel AME massacre
The same evening a white supremacist joined a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and gunned down nine church members including senior pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Moral Monday movement, was holding Bible study of his own — in jail. He had been arrested at the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh that day along with nine other people during a rally for voting rights. They were charged with trespassing and other minor offenses.
Four days later, Barber delivered a powerful sermon about the killings at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he's served as a pastor since 1993. Barber asked, "What are the messages we must hear in the midst of our mourning?"
The first message Barber identified is that the nine people killed — state Sen. Pinckney, 41; DePayne Doctor, 49; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Tywanza Sanders, 26; the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59 — were targeted because their church was fighting against racism and poverty and for voting rights, public schools and economic justice. Said Barber:
Rev. Pinckney, in the tradition of one of Emanuel AME's founders, Denmark Vesey — Denmark Vesey challenged slavery — and like him, Rev. Pinckney challenged the overt and covert voices and acts of racism that are still too much a part of our Southern society, I would even say our national society. Rev. Pinckney challenged as a pastor. He was doing what pastors are supposed to do, being priestly and pastoral and prophetic. And his church was priestly, pastoral and prophetic. They challenged the polices and practices that have a racially disparate impact on African Americans and other minorities. They were challenging in South Carolina the denial of Medicaid expansion that's causing God's children to literally die when they could live. They were challenging the suppression of black and minority votes. They were challenging the slashing of funds for public schools. They were challenging the refusal of labor rights, the refusal of that state and other states to pay a living wage. They were challenging the continual flying of the Confederate flag — not the flag of an army but the flag of a terrorist group, a flag like ISIS', a flag like the other terrorists that we would not let fly over any capitol in this state. They were challenging the policies that uphold institutional racism and classism. That's what Rev. Pinckney and his members were doing. And here is where America, too much of America, has missed the message — especially now when you see some politicians crying and saying how sad it is but refusing to own their own part in helping to create the climate that will kill.
Another message Barber identified from the Charleston tragedy is that racism is not just when someone uses "N word," as he put it. Instead, it often involves the use of coded racist language — what Barber referred to as "lethal language" — to promote policies that hurt people of color. He explained:
What we're seeing now in America is the transformation of the so-called Southern strategy, where in 1968 Richard Nixon and Kevin Phillips devised a system to say: Look, don't say the N word. Don't even talk about black. Let's come up with code words like states' rights, entitlement, tax cuts, law and order, we're against forced busing. So you never say the N word. You talk about policy. But the policy is coded language. It promotes systemic racism.
Barber continued, addressing calls for "closure" and "healing" in the shooting's wake:
But this is not a scalp wound. This is not a wound that can be healed or closed with a few stitches, a Band-Aid and a little salve. The unequal distribution of freedom and money and land and dignity in the South has to be addressed with radical surgery. And the church cannot back up from this call. We need change, not closure. We need to reinvigorate the autoimmune dynamic of a new society based on respect and human dignity. We need to remember that the perpetrator has been arrested, but the killer is still at large.
A third message Barber identified in the Charleston atrocity was the one delivered by the victims' relatives at the first court hearing of the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, when they said they forgive him. Barber preached about what he called their "prophetic forgiveness":
We must understand what happened when the family members said they forgive him. Don't, don't misinterpret that, particularly white America. Don't misinterpret that, black America. Don't misinterpret that. You know, Dr. King said don't misinterpret our nonviolence for non-action. No, don't do that. The Scripture says, and this is one that black people know if you've been to Bible study, "We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers, principalities, rulers of the darkness in high places." Paul was talking about government. He wasn't talking about no little guy with a pitchfork. He was talking about the government. He was talking about the systems of Rome and injustice. He recognized that the system — we used to call it The Man — can do a job on you. And that's what was going on when they were in the courtroom saying, "We forgive you."
You see, within the nonviolent faith tradition it has always been clear that hate cannot drive out hate. Evil cannot drive out evil. That's how Christians in the nonviolent justice tradition are able to forgive the murderer 48 hours after losing their loved one. It's consistent with Jesus. When he was being murdered by the state, when Jesus was being executed for standing up for the poor and standing up for what's right, he looked at those soldiers that didn't even know what was inside of them — they were pawns. They were captured by the spirit of the empire. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Jesus didn't say, "All right, disciples, go get a gun!" He didn't say, "All right, stay away from church, stay away from the movement." And you and I better hear what these folk are saying, because I know some of you are hot. I know some of you are afraid. But you've got to take your cue from the people whose loved ones are dead. It's no time to arm the church! What you want me to do, put a shotgun under the pulpit? You want everybody packing? You think that's going to save you, when the Word says clearly, "If you live by the sword you're going to die by the sword"? You got one, they'll get one bigger. So how you going to be saved from a bomb if you got a gun? … You think that's what Jesus said? No!
And understand, these folk are not weak. It takes power, Holy Ghost power, born-again power, to look at somebody that just killed your loved one and say, "I forgive you." But you better understand, and you better hope that you and I get some of that same Jesus, because you're going to need it. You're not going to be able to fight every battle in this life with physical force. … It's not going to work. If you let the devil trick you into that, and the devil can trick us into being just the world, then the church will lose its witness. You see, they are not dismissing the evil by forgiving. Their forgiveness is a sign of resistance. God help me to make this clear. Y'all got to understand, when Jesus said, "Turn the other cheek," he was saying, "Don't let a system make you act out. Don't let any system determine how you act. When the system thinks you're going to cuss, praise! When the system thinks you're going to hate, forgive! When the system thinks you're going to be angry, love!" Let the system know, "I serve God!"
So when they forgive, it's what I call "prophetic forgiveness." See, what they're saying to America, "We're not going to let you blame all of this on this boy." Y'all better hear what they're doing. Those old South Carolina folk, they got something down there. That's some spiritual folk. They're saying, "Unh-unh, get away, governor, talking about you're going to give him the death penalty. We don't even want the death penalty, 'cause that's just killing the perpetrator, that ain't killing the killer." What they're saying is if America is serious about this moment we cannot just cry ceremonial tears while at the same time refusing to support the martyred reverend and his parishioners' fight against racism.
…What these old South Carolina saved Holy Ghost folk are saying is, "No, America. We going to show you. You got to be Christian even when you're hurting." And they're saying to these folk by their act of forgiveness, they're saying, "Now wait a minute, what you going to do as a politician? Are you going to be Christian, come to the funeral and be Christian and then go right back to the Congress and keep hurting folk? Are you going to come and decry the killing and then steadfastly support giving people more guns? Are you going to come to the man's funeral and say you hate the killer but then you pass health care programs and policies that are killing folk? Are you going to come and try to wave the Christian flag at the funeral but then keep up the Confederate flag? No? What are you going to do, because we're going to be Christian in our hearts! We're going to forgive. We're going to raise the moral standard. If we can forgive those who killed our loved ones, why can't you change, America? Why can't you change? Why can't you change? Why can't you change?"
These brave family members are telling America you cannot just focus on one man. And they are asking us to forgive the sinner but to hate the sin. And by doing that they are issuing a clarion call out of their pain — 'cause what you do when you're in pain tells you who your God is — they are saying out of their pain and loss to this society, "If you really want to deal with this you got to embrace justice, equality and love." … Remember Dr. King once said it's either nonviolence or non-existence. These brave folk operating in their faith are saying, "We've got to forgive him. We have no choice. Because until we deal with the issue of race and poverty and violence we just put all of our hate on this one boy and we don't deal with the issues our nation will be torn asunder. Not just the soul of the nation, but the nation itself."
Watch the full sermon here. Video by Fusion Films.