For the Charleston Nine

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Originally delivered at Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia (June 19-20, 2015)

As most of you have recognized by now, I typically do not write out my sermons or deliver them from prepared notes. I do that for many reasons, chief among them is that I like to speak directly to you, from the heart, as friends, in casual, everyday language. I don’t want a script to serve as a barrier between us, and I don’t want to be chained to a text that I cannot adjust on the fly if something doesn’t feel like it’s connecting or landing properly.

The downside of that style, however, is that it doesn’t really lend itself to addressing particularly complex or challenging subjects, the ones that require a lot of sensitivity, nuance, and precision of language.

And what I want to talk about tonight is just that type of subject, a topic that is so important, so vital to the question of what it means to be a Jew, what it means to be a Jewish congregation in 21st Century America, and yet so fraught with political and emotional landmines, that I felt I could not treat it respectfully without writing it out fully and delivering it from that prepared text. So, I apologize in advance for being a bit more formal than usual, but, to me, today’s topic was too important to leave to chance. That topic, of course, is the brutal attack that took place on Wednesday at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, where a white American terrorist killed nine blameless people, including the church’s pastor, as they gathered for Bible study.

With my intended topic in mind, and with the memories of those nine unoffending, innocent, and beautiful souls in my heart, I offer one other disclaimer: some of you might experience this sermon as “political,” which is to say, “partisan.” Please know that it is not my intention to be partisan. I do not wish here to actively endorse the views or policy proposals of one side or another in our country’s great political divide. Rather, my intention is simply to advance the central themes – theological, legal, and moral – of our people’s Torah. And, as always, I offer my thoughts in a spirit of humility, love, and respect, and with the hope of opening a conversation. That having been said, I will acknowledge that today’s message is, while not partisan, most certainly political.

By political, I mean, following Aristotle, that which relates to the structure, organization, and administration of state or society. And, by that definition, I intend to be political because I believe the Torah is, among other things, a political document. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs teaches, “The Torah is political because it lays out a vision for a just civil society…It is political because a liberation struggle stands at its core. It is political because it demands that those with more wealth take responsibility for those with less. It is political because it forbids those with more power from taking advantage of those with less. And it is political because it is…meant to be lived.”

The Torah’s values, and the values of our tradition more broadly, are meant to guide us as we discuss how, in the words of that other great political document to which each of us in this room is heir, the U.S. Constitution, “to form a more perfect Union,” to advance a just and peaceful society that is blessed with the gifts of freedom, equality, and the common good.

One of the great political innovations of the Torah is the concept of the Ir Miklat, the City of Refuge. In a few weeks, while I’m away on vacation, we will read about this concept in the Torah portion known as Mas’ei (Numbers 35:9-34, cf. Deuteronomy 19:1-14). In ancient Israel, a person who accidentally killed another was commanded to flee to one of six Cities of Refuge. Ostensibly (and perhaps surprisingly), this protocol was intended to help protect the accidental killer from anyone seeking to avenge the death of his relative or friend. After arriving at the City of Refuge, he would be tried for his crime. If the court determined that he bore responsibility for the death, he would incur the death penalty. But if the court ruled that the death was truly inadvertent, he would stay in the City of Refuge until the death of the High Priest.

According to Rabbi Bahye ben Asher, also known as Rabbenu Bahaye, the fate of the accidental killer is connected to the death of the High Priest because the High Priest “atones for all the people Israel, and it was incumbent upon him to seek compassion for his entire generation, and he did not seek it. As a result, the sin of murder occurred during his time” (Commentary to Numbers 35:25).

In other words, the High Priest bears responsibility for the death. True, he is not guilty of the murder. He was likely nowhere near the crime. Despite this, the Torah presumes that, as the community’s leader and representative, he could have done something to prevent the violence. He is responsible for presiding over a community in which such violence was possible. The rest of the community, beginning with its leader, shares responsibility for the crime.

The High Priest’s death, then, is a symbolic gesture, like a purification offering. It atones not only for him, but also for his entire community. Inherent in implicating the priest is an assertion that the entire community bears responsibility, too. There is no such thing, the Torah maintains, as a purely accidental killing, and no unnecessary death occurs in a vacuum. The community is assumed to be able to create or inhibit the conditions for “the sin of murder” to occur in its midst. Morally speaking, the whole community, along with the High Priest, is responsible for the sin, for they at least passively made a violent death possible.

The lesson of the City of Refuge echoes the powerful words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that in a free society, “some are guilty, while all are responsible.”

The bloods of the Charleston Nine cry this message out to us from the ground (Genesis 4:10). None of us murdered the Charleston Nine, of course, just like none of us assaulted Dajerria Becton the other week, and just like none of us killed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, or any of the dozens of other unarmed black men and women who are killed in America every year.

But while we may not be guilty of these crimes, in our free society we are all responsible for enabling a context in which these kinds of tragedies are possible, perhaps even inevitable. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King noted in his eulogy for the four little girls murdered in their Birmingham church in 1963 by white supremacist terrorists, the martyred children “have something to say to each of us in their death… They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

The murder of the Charleston Nine, like the murder of those four little girls in Birmingham, was not an isolated incident but rather, in the words of author Charles Pierce, “another link in a bloody chain of events that reaches all the way back to African wharves and Southern docks,” a manifestation of a system that, in our free society, we all share responsibility for perpetuating. And unless we engage in some serious communal heshbon ha-nefesh, self-examination, and teshuvah, repentance and change, these tragedies will continue to happen.

We share responsibility for patronizing a media environment that too often equates blackness with criminality, perpetuating a dangerous and wrongheaded stereotype that a man of color is more prone to engage in crime than a similar fair-skinned individual, a stereotype that, in ways both conscious and unconscious, influences everything from corporate hiring to housing policies to law-enforcement and our legal system.

We share responsibility for abiding a society that reaps the harvest of those deeply ingrained, albeit often unconscious, prejudices: a society in which millions of African-Americans, more even than were enslaved in 1850, are caught in the machinery of the penal system — in prison or jail, on probation or parole; in which more than half of working-age African-American men are “either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives”; in which the reality of disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans tears families apart, perpetuates cycles of poverty, and increasingly exacerbates economic inequality, making escape from crime and the prospect of imprisonment increasingly difficult for each subsequent generation.

We share responsibility for tolerating a society that venerates the symbols of the violent defense of human slavery under the banner of “heritage,” in which we permit the Confederacy’s battle flag to fly over state Capitols and the likenesses of its leaders and generals to adorn our city streets, explicitly and implicitly honoring a time when black people were property while white men exclusively owned and operated the county. And we share responsibility for allowing a society in which the tools, the weapons of war, are easily and legally available for anyone so inclined to try to “take back” the country so it might return to that celebrated era.

If Dylann Roof was not emboldened by a state that flies the Confederate flag or by politicians who cynically mask, in King’s words, “the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism” in the language of “taking back our country,” the Charleston Nine might still be alive. If he did not have a gun, it is virtually certain.  Roof may have fired the weapon, but we put it in his hand and gave him license, on numerous levels, to use it.

In a free society, Heschel taught, “some are guilty, while all are responsible.” But our responsibility ought to be as empowering as it is damning. For it is also true that in a free society, we have the power to challenge our own – and our society’s – stereotypes. We have the power to smash the idols of bigotry and to tear down the old symbols of hatred. We have the power to protest unjust, immoral, or unwise laws, to advocate for better ones, and to vote for the leaders who make and sign those laws.

Forming a more perfect Union in these ways is not only our prerogative as American citizens, but also our obligation as Jews and a fundamental imperative for Jewish communities. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, God’s primary demand of us is to uphold the cause of the orphan and the widow; to love the stranger, providing him with food and clothing, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Our people has a sacred obligation to empathize with the experience and the needs of the plundered poor and to champion the marginalized and disadvantaged. After all, if we truly believe that our God is One, then we are brothers and sisters, all of us, and we must ensure the common dignity and worth of all God’s children.

And so, to paraphrase Dr. King, let us pray that the tragic deaths in Charleston might inspire us to transform this nation from an aristocracy of color to an aristocracy of character, that the spilled blood of those nine innocents may cause us to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future, that this tragic event may cause us to come to terms with our conscience. In spite of the darkness of this hour, let us not despair, but rather commit ourselves to the holy work of building the society the Torah envisions and God demands. Shabbat shalom.

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