Just about every Friday night, and often on Saturday mornings, we gather as a congregation to pray, to sing, to study, to share stories, and support one another both in celebration and in loss. We join our voices in prayer, hoping that God will hear the power of our unified voice. We discuss how we can make sense of the ancient narratives and mitzvot of Torah. And often we discuss how Torah can help us make sense of our world today.
But tonight, we seem to be at a loss. How do make sense of something that seems so insane? How do we comprehend what we would have considered unthinkable – if it hadn’t actually taken place?
Wednesday night, a 21-year-old white man sporting racist patches on his t-shirt walked into the historic Emanuel AME African-American Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For nearly an hour, Dylann Roof sat in the Bible study group led by the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a revered and respected leader of his church and his community. Then he stood up, took out a gun, and started shooting. He reloaded time and again while his intended victims begged him to stop. You don’t have to do this, they pleaded with him. I have to do this, he reportedly told them. You rape our women. You took away our country. You must go. By the time he fled into the night, eight people were dead, and a ninth died later at the hospital.
“There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture,” said NAACP president Cornell William Brooks. He is right about that.
Roof, if everything is true that we have heard, is a coward and a criminal and a terrorist. His friends describe him as a loner with a serious drug problem and a very serious anger problem. In recent weeks, he had taken to ranting to his friends about the need for racial segregation, about black people taking over the world, about having to do something for the sake of the white race. I don’t know where he got these ideas – whether at home or at school or from friends or from the internet. But this notion of defending White America clearly had taken over his every thought and action. And into this already-toxic mix, his father – in a grand gesture of fine parenting – reportedly decided to gift him a gun for his 21st birthday. A 45-caliber Glock that he reportedly reloaded five times while the people in that Bible study group pleaded for their lives.
Just about every Friday night, and often on Saturday mornings, we gather as a congregation in this beautiful historic building. Only on the High Holy Days, when there are many of us, do we think to arrange for police and security. But this past Wednesday night was like any other Wednesday night at the church lovingly called Mother Emanuel, a bible-study night for just a handful of the faithful. Asked one woman, “If you’re not safe in a house of worship, where are you safe?” And we have to the wonder the same thing.
We keep our doors open because, in the words of the prophet Isaiah that adorn the front of our building: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” But that makes us too easy a target. There have now been 13 mass murders at a house of worship since the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing in 1963 – including a Buddhist Temple near Phoenix in 1991 and, most recently, a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee in 2012.
“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history,” President Obama said. “This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know the hatred across races and faiths poses a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”
He’s right. The massacre in Charleston is not just attack on a black church. It is an attack on America – on its loftiest ideals and greatest strengths. The unique power of our diversity is obviously pretty scary to some people who have been taught to hate others for having a different skin color, or a different language, or a different religion. It is a threat to those who believe that, in their “real” America, everybody should look like them, talk like them, dress like them, and pray like them.
This troubled young man, seething with hatred for people he didn’t even know, walked into the Mother AME Church with a gun and a plan. And the saddest thing about all this is – he almost didn’t do it. He told the arresting officers that the people in that Bible study circle were just so nice, and so welcoming. But when his indoctrination into white supremacy – that blacks are evil, that blacks are subhuman, that blacks do not deserve to live – when all that came up against reality, reality lost.
With all the media attention earlier this week on Rachel Dolezal, the Seattle head of the NAACP who is white and lied about being black, let’s remember that we cannot – none of us – know the vicious hatred with which blacks continue to be treated in this country.
Her spouting off about how she’s so immersed in the black experience because she’s got black adopted siblings or black children – just proves how clueless and delusional she really is. She can stop the tanning and take the braids out of her hair, and slip easily back into the white world whenever she wants to. Blacks do not have that option.
I suppose that we Jews are the closest thing to American blacks, as an oppressed and threatened minority. The recent rise in hate crimes against Jews in America – some of it violent and even deadly – reminds us that we are not as safe as we’d like to think we are. But even at that, many of the Jews who have been targeted over the years are those who had aligned themselves with Black America and the civil rights movement. The Freedom Riders murdered. The Temple in Atlanta bombed. The rabbis and their families throughout the south threatened, crosses burned on their lawns, for speaking the truth about Jim Crow and segregation. All because we as Jews saw equality, in law and in life, as a moral imperative established in our scripture and founded in our own historic experience of slavery and oppression, pogroms and lynchings.
Just as white supremacists do not live in reality, neither do those who advocate for easy availability of guns. And the fact that it is still way too easy for people like this — who are angry, or feel ignore, or carry a grudge — to obtain a gun, is not something we can ignore. President Obama did not, as he spoke to the nation after yet another mass murder:
“I don’t need to be constrained about the emotions tragedies like this raise,” the president said. “I’ve had to make comments like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
We know there is almost no political will in Washington to pass federal laws for public safety – even for something as simple and widely supported as closing loopholes on criminal background checks for gun purchases. If it didn’t happen after Sandy Hook, I don’t see it happening now. Fortunately, some states are taking action – but not enough of them, and not soon enough.
So what do we do?
Within our congregation, we have to be vigilant about the people who approach our building and our people. I don’t like to say that, but that’s the way it is. Follow the old adage: If you see, you say. If you think someone’s hanging around who’s suspicious, we can let the police find out who they are.
Within our community, we have to unite. Yesterday, we were at our regular, monthly women’s clergy lunch – about a dozen of us from across the religious spectrum. Being clergy, we said, “We have to do something.” Being women, we collaborated on what to do and got it organized in about ten minutes.
On Friday night, July 3rd, at 7:00, we will hold a community-wide interfaith prayer service on the grounds of Simpson Temple United Parish on 6th Avenue.
We will share prayers and music from all of our faith traditions. It’s a night when we don’t have a scheduled Shabbat service here, so please go there. It’s important that we physically be together, pray together, hold hands, and support one another. We will show that, in our community, the religious imperative to love one’s neighbor as we love ourselves trumps all differences and distinctions in race or religion. The truth is that what happened in Charleston can happen anywhere. But we can do our part to make it less likely to happen here.
And on a bigger scale – we MUST unite to demand changes in our gun laws that will make our communities safer. Universal background checks. Waiting periods. A ban on large magazines and assault weapons, which have no use and no place in civilian life. As individuals, as congregations, we need to demand it. Only when we are as big and powerful and noisy as the gun lobby will politicians finally listen.
It is simply not true that more guns make us more safe. What IS true is that gun violence, and gun deaths, grow in proportion with the proliferation of guns. Approximately 88 people die every day in America from gun violence – accidents, murders, irresponsibility, in addition to suicides. The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population – but we own anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of the civilian guns. Our obsession with guns sets us apart from every other developed nation. And it is not a distinction to be proud of.
I understand and appreciate the hunting culture of our area. But it’s time to separate the hunting culture from the gun culture. The right to own a gun must not over-ride the other rights that we should enjoy as Americans. And that includes the right to be safe at home, at work, and in our houses of worship.
There are a lot of groups to join. Everytown for Gun Safety. Moms Demand Action. Ceasefire Pa. Say something. Do something. We are commanded not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. This is a way each of us can take responsibility to fulfill God’s mitzvah.
In this week’s Haftarah, the prophet Samuel says to the people: Do not turn to “no-things” that cannot help or save you, because they are nothing. He’s referring to idolatry, the worship of manmade figures of wood or gold. In our own day, in our own nation, there are those who worship at the altar of racial hatred, and those who cling to idols that kill. We must stand together, as a community of faith, and with our brothers and sisters in faith, and reject both of these idolatrous evils.
It is simply unthinkable for us to do otherwise.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin