The Martyrs of Emanuel | Sojourners

The Martyrs of Emanuel

A Sermon on Race, Poverty, and Violence
Emanuel AME
Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, S.C. on June 20. Photo by jalexartis /

Father forgive them for they no not what they do. —Luke 23

A deeper meaning of forgiveness in the Christian nonviolent tradition reveals a critique that knows: The perpetrator has been caught, but the killer is still at large.

There is a scripture that says we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers and rulers of the darkness. Within the nonviolent faith tradition, it has always been clear that hate cannot drive out hate and evil cannot drive out evil, and so the Christians that were able to forgive the murder 48 hours after losing their loved ones is consistent with their faith in Jesus said as he was being murdered by the state, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." But this forgiveness should not be misinterpreted as a dismissing of the greater evil.

Their forgiveness is also an act of resistance to the attempts to lay the blame for this horror at the feet of one man. 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’ stalwart fight against the racism that gave birth to the crime.

Watch the full sermon.

The perpetrator has been caught, but the killers are still at large: the deep well of American racism and white supremacy that Dylann Roof drank from. These families are challenging the schizophrenia of American morality that allows political leaders to condemn the crime but embrace the policies that are its genesis. Many of the South Carolina politicians and others in the nation are example among many – of decrying the killings but steadfastly refusing to support efforts to quell their divisive race implying rhetoric and cease their push for policies that promote race-based voter suppresion, adversity toward fixing the Voting Rights Act, cutting public education in ways that foster resegregation, denying workers living wages, refusing medicaid expansion, the proliferation of guns, and supporting the Confederate flag flying at the state capitol — a symbol of slavery, racism, and terrorism against African Americans — and even using racial code words to critize the president all in the name of taking their country back and preventing it's destruction. And they refuse to own that there is a histroy of racialized political rhetoric and policies spawning the pathology of terriostic murder and violent resistentance.

When they were murdered, Rev. Pinckney and his parishioners were advocating for a better life for people of all races. They were standing with fast food workers demanding a living wage. They were calling for the Confederate flag to come down. They were fighting against voter suppression and for funding public education, expanding Medicaid to allow the poor and near poor – of all races – to have health care. They were mobilizing for police accountability and marching for justice in the police killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American man shot in the back by a police officer.

These brave family members are telling America that you cannot focus only on this one man and absolve America of its historic sickness. In a profound way they are saying giving the killer the death peanalty is not going to fix what ailes us.

Arresting one disturbed young man, and dumpting the sins of slavery, Jim Crow, and the new racialized extremism that has captured almost every southern legislature and county courthouse, will not bring “closure” or “healing” to a society that is still sick with the sin of racism and inequality and where too many perpetuate in word and deed the slow violence of underming the promise of equal protection under the law that preachers from Denmark Vessey to Martin King to Rev Pickney fought for.

They are asking us to forgive the sinner but hate the sin. They are issuing a clarion call borne of their pain and loss to create a society that truly embraces justice and equality, that ends the policies of racism and poverty that only guarantee there will be more Dylann Roofs and more acts of terror. Because only then will we apprehend the real killers.

I believe in light of this, real healing would be writing and omnibus bill in the name of the nine Emanuel Martyrs that implemented medicaid expansion, raised public education funding, passed living wage requirement, passed new gun control laws, and removed the Confederate flag from the state house. And this omnibus bill would be supported and passed by Republicans and Democrats. Further, the very seat Rev. Pickney held is in jeopardy as long as Section 5 of the VRA has been gutted. The current bill in the U.S. House, even if passed, would leave out Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee from coverage. If we want closure, name a VRA restoration bill after the Emanuel Nine.

We have no choice. Until we deal with the issues of race, poverty, and violence that threaten to tear our nation asunder, it is not just America’s soul that is at stake, but America itself.

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