Humility and Grace in a Profound Visit to Charleston
by Irwin Kula
About ten days ago, I traveled to Charleston to hold hands and hearts, to listen and learn, to comfort and console. I am still trying to metabolize the profound sacred mixture of anger, sadness, forgiveness, wisdom and grace I experienced. My tradition teaches that immediately after a loved one dies there is no work to be done and no meaning to be made. Rather, with exquisite attention and intention, we honor the dead by exclusively focusing on every last detail of the funeral and burial.
Now, in Charleston, S.C., almost two weeks after the hatred-driven massacre at AME Emanuel church, the last of the Emanuel 9 has been buried.
We are still at the beginning of getting to know each other across so many boundaries.
I went to Charleston a day and a half after the massacre because, as I watched the news of the horrifying murder of nine innocent Black people studying Bible in their historic house of worship, I was tired of being a religious/spiritual pundit on how Black lives matter from the comfort of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
As my anger rose at “others”- that racist murderer, that white supremacist culture in which he was embedded, those politicians who since the inception of the “Southern strategy” have exploited racial fears, the right-wing media who have demonized our Black president as “not one of us” – I heard a still, small voice that made me ashamed.
I realized that my “knowing” that I am not a “racist” somehow conveniently blocked some undeniable disturbing facts about my life, and about the vast majority of people in the communities of which I am a part.
- Fact: I don’t have one Black friend.
- Fact: The spiritually liberal, and intellectually evolved, community in which I worship every Shabbat morning does not have one Black member.
- Fact: The vast majority of places in which I speak and teach – unless they’re in the business community or Christian community – are all White.
- Fact: I have never had dinner in the home of a Black person, and I have never had a Black person for dinner in my home.
- Fact: The times I engage with Black people (besides when being served in some fashion) are predominately highly stylized occasions with iconic backgrounds, e.g., a MLK Day joint service, an interfaith program on poverty, and the like.
- Fact: I live, learn, grow, work, play, love and most likely will die primarily in social racial segregation.
The truth: I am “not a racist” – but racism is my problem. And while my sadness and even my words may matter, standing with people matters more, if I am to be part of the solution. So I traveled to South Carolina, all the while sensing that something profound was unfolding in Charleston, a ground zero of racial relations.
As it turned out, I went with media personality Glenn Beck who had independently also decided to visit Charleston. I’d been a guest on his radio show, after which we went three blocks from Mother Emanuel church to a beautiful park, Marion Square (named for the Revolutionary War hero and plantation manager Frances Marion), to meet and talk with whomever happened to be there.
When we got to the park, there were already a few hundred people gathered, young and old, Black and White, grandparents and parents and children. Glenn stood up on a small ledge of a wall, talked for maybe a minute and then introduced me along with Bishop Jim Lowe of Guiding Light Church in Birmingham, Ala., a spiritually anointed, powerful speaker. As a youngster in 1963, Lowe was inside Birmingham’s 16th street Baptist Church when a bomb went off, killing four girls.
Standing next to Bishop Lowe, the complexity of race in America was palpable: While the explosion of violence in Mother Emanuel evoked comparisons to the Birmingham church bombing by white supremacists, it also illustrated how much has changed. In 1963, Black people struggled to secure basic civil rights, many were barred from voting, much less holding office. Alabama’s governor at the time, George C. Wallace, was a racist segregationist and no one was even charged with the crime until 12 years later.
The hundreds of people I saw gathered were understandably shocked – grieving, weeping and speaking in hushed voices – somber and yet exalted in a pulsing faith and vibrating love. Speaking to this sacred congregating group less than 48 hours after the murder of their fellow citizens, and just a couple hours after the victims’ families’ stunning forgiveness of the murderer of their loved ones, was one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
Never have I experienced people so open-hearted and embracing, never have I felt so much the power of religious wisdom and faith to comfort, console and inspire, and never have I experienced such gratitude for merely “showing up.” Handshakes were two-handed, and people didn’t want to let go; heart-to-heart hugs were the norm. It was overwhelming how many people said they’d never met a rabbi, or heard one speak. We are still at the beginning of getting to know each other across so many boundaries.
Here is some of what I learned.
1. The gap between the Americans with a living, powerful, vital faith (one that enables hope to overcome despair, forgiveness triumph over revenge, grace melt away hate, and love swallow up death) and the postmodern, skeptical, often cynical Americans who reduce faith to some psychological immaturity was shocking and unnerving. I needed a spiritual seatbelt in Charleston. “I forgive you,” Nadine Collier had said, “and may God have mercy on your soul.” The daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, Collier said this to her mother’s murderer, and I saw what is possible at the heart of Christian faith: to love your enemies and forgive the unspeakable. This is no wimpy love, nor weak-kneed forgiveness. This is FIERCE GRACE – love that turns over the tables and is evidence of tremendous power, institutional strength, and spiritual maturity. Listening to this type of unimaginable love and feeling such unfathomable grace shakes us out of our habitual ways. If these family members could look into a killer’s eyes and speak forgiveness what can I/we do? How do we love differently than before? How do we fill the space of sadness and mourning, hate and terror with acts of kindness?
And yes, the fact that this is not the prevalent Jewish take on love and forgiveness rocked me. At least on the collective level, Jews make forgiving and forgetting equivalent to the command “to remember” what “they did to us” – which tragically makes forgiving impossible and thus transmitting trauma inevitable. But at Mother Emanuel, there’s no confusion between forgiveness and forgetting. Forgiveness does not justify violence and racism, but is rooted in faith that is about healing oneself so that anger does not become blind, hurt does not metathesize and seeking justice does not become toxic. I have a lot to learn about the powerful way faith works for millions of traditional believing Christians, especially the Black Southern tradition.
2. Laws are necessary, but not sufficient to get us to the next stage of healing America’s original sin. Laws are the bandages that cover the wounds caused by deep-seated racism and hatred. Only our personal and individual commitment to soften our hearts and the hearts of our neighbors will transform society. Policy doesn’t change people. People change people who change policy, and as important as policy is, there is another realm we need to take seriously. The spiritual-religious realm where we answer to a God (or to some higher/deeper Reality or Aspiration) who demands forgiveness and love; these concepts seem to defy the understanding of the national media, political parties, think tanks and government.
3. Hate is always incubated. Yes, a lone shooter pulled the trigger, but White supremacy gave him the deadly vision that Black people had to die because they rape “our” women and and take away “our” country. Family, friends, and neighbors (real and virtual) helped him become a racist, heard him say racist things and condoned the symbols of racism he wore in public. His documented hatred of Blacks, Latinos, Jews and others may be considered fringe and extremist views by many, but they’re political understandings that still exist – and are allowed to be voiced – within mainstream conservatism.
Racism clearly jumps from one generation to the next, and as difficult as it may be, we need to ask about the system, the way of life, the philosophy, which produced this murderer. And it’s specifically those in our own tribe (our creedal and political communities) that we need to hold accountable, as we are most responsible and have the best chance of affecting the people closest to us. White racists who have changed their minds, and White people in communities where this racism is present, need to hold their own accountable. Even within a group of racists, there are always people who know a little better. We need early moral adopters in every community!
To put it another way: The families of those murdered forgave because of whom they hung out with. The young man – so filled with hate that he murdered in hopes of starting a race war – was who he was because of whom he hung out with.
4. We have to be careful not to jump to reconciliation. Despite all the advances (from the march on Selma more than 50 years ago and subsequent civil rights legislation, to the first Black U.S. president), the massacre at AME Church said: If you are Black, it is not safe in this country to study Bible on a Wednesday evening in your church. If you are Black, it is still possible that a young person infected with racialized hatred will be easily armed and come after you. It’s too easy to wash ourselves in the blood of these nine martyrs to feel better. It’s too easy to stand these past two weeks in the moment of tragedy. After the eulogies and TV cameras, do we go back to normal, skirt uncomfortable truths, be satisfied with symbolic gestures and slip back into old habits? Reconciliation is so easily confused with avoidance. Just since the tragedy at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, six churches with predominately black congregations in five Southern states have burned – only some are being investigated as arson. Can we stand with the Black lives that matter in their life – for justice on a daily basis – not only in their death?
5. If we are to “overcome someday,” we need more robust conversations. I think plenty of us White people need to engage in some uncomfortable, stressful listening. We need to listen to Black people talking about their own racial perspectives, and racial realities. (Just like Jews continue to want non-Jews to hear Jewish perspectives on their legacy of oppression and hate.) We need to hear how our behavior – unintentional as it may be – has a racist impact. We need to honestly acknowledge that America is less of a meritocracy than we’d like to believe and that the information, stories and images we get of Black people are far from neutral. We need to realize that just because we’re not aware of having negative thoughts about Black people, or we don’t tell racist jokes and we are good and decent people, does not mean we do not have racial bias. There’s a complexity about race – a space between being/not being a racist – that, while in Charleston, I realized I fall into; as a White person, I just don’t go through life ever thinking of myself as a racial being. And we need to believe we lose something of value by having no cross-racial relationships. As with all psychological and ethical development, we need to be more humble, engaged and educated.
6. As we walked from the park to the AME Church, everyone took the hand of some stranger – a small gesture that perhaps, however painfully, hinted at the Biblical dream “you shall love the stranger.” I stepped down from the ledge of the wall I was standing on and took the hand of a young child standing right in front of me who was also holding the hand of her mother. She looked up at me with the biggest, bluest eyes, for a moment reminding me of my daughter Gabriella. She smiled widely. I asked her name. Sapphire. How old she was? Nine. What grade she had just finished? Third.
We made some small talk and then, feeling I should say something comforting, I stopped, looked right at her and said, “Sapphire, I know this is a very, very sad day but everything is going to be alright, everything is really going to be alright.” Without missing a beat, she looked right into my eyes and calmly, genuinely said: “I know. God told me that already.”
We need to take off our cynical armor and choose to believe that we play a role in letting good things happen due to our virtue – and in letting bad things happen because of our sin. When those things happen that push us to believe the universe is random and uncaring, we have to have faith (if only 51-49) that everything is going to be okay.
This faith is neither literal, nor post-literal, but simply real – a faith that, with all its assurance about Promised Lands and afterlife, simply generates doing good: forgiving here and loving now, because that way, things might just get a little bit better in the here-and-now. This isn’t a fragile opiate of the masses, an infantile faith setting us up for a fall. It leaves ultimate justice and final answers – how The Story really ends – to some other dimension. It is (as an eighth-generation rabbi, I quote now from Matthew) faith as tiny as a mustard seed. The kind of faith that says everyday kindness and love may not guarantee a happy ending to OUR story, but it can help us survive betrayal, suffering, hypocrisy and eruptions of evil. When we’ve done all we can do by mundane means, it’s the kind of faith that makes us kinder than necessary, that generates some little extra act of hope, that paves the way for an unexpected moment of grace. A faith that can even move mountains.
I don’t know what the future holds for this country, but after being in Charleston, I know who holds the future. Those of us who can still praise and who can feel the responsibility implicit in grace. Those of us who know there have been too many victories in the human adventure to let defeat have the last word. Those of us who realize there’s no shortcut to the promised land, but who are ready to join hands and wander together through the night until the morning dew.
The people of Charleston remind me that as we cry together, there’s nothing as whole as a broken heart. They teach us that explosions of hatred from wounded hearts and misguided minds never resolve the issues this world faces, and are never as powerful as explosions of love. They’ve taught the country how to impose meaning on suffering, embody the courage of forgiveness and witness the ferocity of love. The people of the AME Church in the city known as the “holy city” have authored contemporary Scripture. May we be worthy of studying these Scriptures and may the memories of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Myra Thompson, 57; Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74; Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Cynthia Hurd, 54 be for a blessing. And may those who sow in tears reap with joy.
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