Death as a Text:  Charleston

King preparing to speak at the AME church in Charleston in 1962

 He walked into a Christian church in  Charleston, South Carolina.  He listened for an hour to prayer and study  of the Bible.  Then he took out his gun and began arguing:  Death as  text.  He killed not because he knew these people or that he had even  begun to understand them.  He took their lives to make a statement:  to  Kill.  Upon one of several occasions that he reloaded he explained the  basis of his hatred:  “I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go.”   He made a point of telling one woman that she would survive so she  could tell others exactly what happened.  The symbolism was clear.  It  was death as a text:  killing to make an argument of racial hatred.  It  was terror and hatred as humanity has long known and continues to  know—even in America.  The gunman killed:  Sharonda Coleman-Singleton,  Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra  Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne  Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson.  But why had these people been  chosen?  Tragedies beg such unanswerable questions.  But some measure of  an answer can be found and must be. 

Christianity remains the  heart of a most incredible critique of human injustice.  Therefore, the  gunman came into a Christian church to kill.  He knew the Church was his  greatest adversary and that if his hateful kindling of racism was to  ever burn down the entire society that he hated, he would need to  overcome the church.  He made a point of indulging the church’s space  and time.  For an hour he heard prayers and readings of the Bible.  He  wanted the world to know he was unmoved by such things and that his  death as text would overcome it. 

Jesus summarized that matter effectively in chapter ten of the book of John by the disciple Jesus loved:

“The thief’s purpose is to steal, kill and destroy. My purpose is to give life in all its fullness.

I am  the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A  hired man will run when he sees a wolf coming and will leave the sheep,  for they aren’t his and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf leaps  on them and scatters the flock. The hired man runs because he is hired  and has no real concern for the sheep.I am the Good Shepherd and know my  own sheep, and they know me.”

This statement of Jesus is  the cornerstone of the church at Charleston.  It is the animating flame  that made it a bulwark in the aftermath of slavery and a moral  lighthouse during the civil rights era.  It forms the pulpit upon which  Martin Luther King spoke from in 1962 and the larger cause for which  King was willing to give his own life as another good shepherd. 

We live in a world that  both historically and at present summarizes the most profound ethic of  politics as:  join or die.  The disciple Peter was himself dismayed when  Jesus told him his kingdom would not come by a  sword when Peter struck  and cut off a servant’s ear during Jesus’ arrest.  Peter thought Jesus  was playing politics and the time had come for killing and the sword,  but he was wrong.  When Jesus was resurrected from the dead, politics  was forever changed, because the capacity to keep the dead in the tomb  as a signifier for injustice, was ended.  This manner of death was  always the formative basis for communicative silence resulting from  death as a text like that performed Wednesday night against some of  Jesus’ followers.  It was no accident that they were targeted so  specifically.  But death has lost its sting.  And for Charleston’s  victims, the community of the beloved mourns, but the victims are with  the ultimate Lord of their lives:  Jesus. 

Such piety is no longer intellectually fashionable but it remains hauntingly true in moments like this. 

Where can we go from here? 

Shall we respond with more  killing?  He killed.  Why can we not also kill in response?  They have  been killing us.  We should kill them.  And so the circle grows ever  wider and genocide feeds more fully as it has throughout human history.   We all know and intuit this cycle.  Secularism has little to offer but  poor imitations of the ethics Jesus not only taught, but lived. 

We can forgive.  We can  show grace.  We can love our enemies.  We can turn the other cheek.  We  can hope the secular mind will not notice how theologically derived  these suggestions are.  Can we “coexist”?  Where do we go in politics  when human difference can be made to matter politically to the point of  brutal murders like these? 

Its a burning and heavy  question and leads us back to why these people were chosen.  They were  chosen, because they were in a church.  The church was founded on the  ethics, teaching and redemption of Jesus.  The Killer knew this was his  enemy.  But Jesus said that these would not prevail against his  Kingdom. 

Let us take the time to  mourn—especially for the community most affected.  Jesus wept.  It was  not because he could not defeat death.  He wept because he mourned the  brokenness of community that death brings.  That is real hurt, and it  ought be felt and acknowledged for the deep pain that it is.  The  friends and families of the nine who had their lives stolen by the thief  deserve this time of mourning.  I am personally so sad and hurt by what  has happened.

But there will come a time  like that expressed by Dave Dennis in his eulogy for the Chaney,  Schwerner, and Goodman slaughtered 50 years ago in the summer of 1964,  that those who want justice grow “tired of going to funerals.”  We must  find the ethical resolve and the sturdy spirit that both mourns the  deaths of the innocent and pursues justice.  That resolve was in that  church Wednesday among the victims.  That spirit remains and is ready to  move us toward right actions in response to this hateful death as a  text.  May the community of the beloved prevail. 

Ben Voth

June 18, 2015


The following text is the conclusion of the gunman’s recently discovered manifesto:

“I have no choice. I am not  in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose  Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time  had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no  skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the  internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real  world, and I guess that has to be me.”



Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of The Civil Rights Movement, James Farmer Jr. 1985 pp.127-12

[from 1937 when Farmer was a student at Wiley College in Marshall Texas]

To what use would I put all  of my newfound knowledge?  Thoreau and Tolstoi and Tolson?  In short,  what would I do with my life?  Coasting through a premed course, I’d  thought of being a doctor, but a minor explosion in the chemistry lab  had scuttled those plans.  A classmate’s arm had been gashed; and I’d  panicked and become ill at the sight of the blood.  Clearly, I would  have to explore a different occupation. But what?

My ambition was to wage war  on racism, but how would I earn a living in a manner consistent with the  fighting of that war?  (It did not occur to me that in the civil rights  struggle I would see more blood than I ever would have seen in a  doctor’s office or a hospital operating room.)

The answers that I found led me toward the social gospel ministry.  In that volatile environment I would feel at home. 

The youth organization of the  black Methodist Episcopal churches in the area sent me as a delegate to  the National Conference of Methodist Youth at Miami University in  Oxford, Ohio.  In that setting, my eyes, ears and brain were stretched  wide.  Rather than a big fish in the Wiley pond, I was a small black  fish in an ocean of larger, more secure white fish.  The only thing  about which I knew more than they was how it felt to be black in a white  world.  That knowledge gave me a distinction that though rare, was not  unique in Oxford.   There were a handful of other black youths there,  and among them were two whose names were legendary in Methodist  circles:  Karl Downs, a frail, charismatic man just out of theological  seminary; and Jaunita Jackson, a brilliant gifted woman from a prominent  Baltimore civil rights family.  Both Karl and Juanita were  extraordinary personalities, spoke of with awe by all at Oxford who knew  them.

Those idealistic white youths  were all friendly, even going out of there way to be so, for did  Scripture not say that God hath made all races of one blood?  Yet, I was  uncomfortable; being in a white world, even though an idealized one,  was wholly beyond any experience I had known.  They tried to be color  blind, to view me as simply another human being; and I tried also, but I  was constantly aware of my color and knew that they, coming from a  color conscious society were too.

I found to my satisfaction,  that I could hold my own in discussion, even argument with them and that  discovery deepened my own self confidence.  If some of the plenary  session debates bewildered me, when an issue arose in which I was keenly  interested the juices began to flow and I rose to the occasion.  One  such occasion was the fierce controversy sparked by a motion to call on  Congress to pass a federal antilynching bill.

I was astonished and shocked  to see those dedicated Christian youths split along sectional lines.   The speakers from southern states did not wave Confederate flags or or  shout rebel yells, but they passionately argued the states’ right  doctrine.  No one liked, but it was up to the southern states punish the  crime and bring it to an end.  The federal government must not invade  the prerogatives of the states.  Washington must stop abusing the South  and tarring southerners with the same brush.  They didn’t need help,  they said; they could deal with their own problems.  The arguments  sounded confused, but after all, every southern speaker revealed an  amalgam of feelings— conscience, guilt, idealism, and a depth of  patriotism for his region that only the defeated can know.

Nevertheless, indignation  rose in me and I had to speak— or explode.  Opportunities to enter the  fray came and went.  Verbal bombs were bursting all over the place.  My  hand was up, tentatively, several times, and I must confess to a certain  relief when another was given the floor; and the next speaker always  seemed to say what I had thought of saying.  But I had to say  something.  How could I endure a battle like this without getting into  it?  How could I explain to Tolson that in a floor fight on lynching, I  had said nothing?

My hand began to wave in the  air, not tentatively, but like a cowboy lassoing a running bull.  The  chairman recognized somoen else, who stood quickly and said, “Mr.  Chairman, I yield the floor to Jim Farmer of East Texas.”

Those words hit me like a  thunderbolt.  I’d been asking frantically for the floor, and now that I  had it I didn’t know what I was going to say.  Heads swiveled and eyes  were riveted upon me as I rose.  Maybe I had thought that if I opened my  mouth, the Lord would fill it.  Apparently, He did.

I do not remember all that I  said, but I do recall having slight tremor in my voice as I spoke.  And I  recall the peroration:  “everyone here wants to stop lynching.  The  only question is how long do we have to wait?  How long, oh, Lord, how  long?  The purpose of this motion is not to damn the South and the many  decent people who live there.  It is not to open up old wounds but the  heal those that have scabbed over while still festering underneath.  The  motion seeks not to ship the South or hurt its people.  The purpose of  this motion is to stop lynching now!

Applause broke out and the  audience rose to its feet.  When quiet resumed, a blond with a thick  southern drawl moved the previous question.  The voice vote was  overwhelming.

This  was my first taste of the heady wine of public acclaim, one that i was  destined to savor many times in the reliving of it.  My star ascended in  young Methodism to join those of Karl Downs and Juanita Jackson.  The  national Conference of Methodist Youth elected me a vice chairman of its  select governance group, the National Council of Methodist Youth.  That  body sent me as a delegate to the Christian Youth Council of North  America, which also elected me its vice chairman.





I attended a  conference on Freedom Summer 1964 at Miami University in October.  This  honored activism of 1964-- Freedom Summer-- an event largely  orchestrated by CORE.

Freedom Summer represents one  of the most significant political movements in the United States.   Miami University is hosting a 50 year anniversary of Freedom Summer  1964.  I will be presenting on Tuesday morning at Oxford, Ohio where  these activists trained and where Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman left to  go to Mississippi 50 years ago. 

This is a link to the presentation I will make Tuesday here in Oxford.

This link Freedom Summer farmer  is the audio and actual slide presentation I made at the conference.   The movie of slides and audio is about 15 minutes in length.

I also attended a conference in Chicago at NCA explaining more about James Farmer.

NCA James Farmer NCA version.docx 2014 in Chicago by Ben Voth