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.
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.”
[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 presentation.mov 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