Sunday, June 21, 2015

For Charleston and our Nation: Greater Love Hath No Man

In the wake of a hateful lunatic’s horrific attack on innocent, loving people practicing and studying their faith during a midweek Bible study in Columbia, South Carolina, a great deal of attention has turned to the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag that still flies over the Palmetto State.

There is something to the question of what message is conveyed by flying a banner that many associate with the South’s long and violent history of slavery, segregation and racial bigotry. It’s easy to sit here from my home in New England and look with condescending judgment below the Mason-Dixon Line and congratulate myself for having been born on the right side of that cultural boundary. But if we are to give credence to the idea that such symbols play a role in sustaining animosity in the hearts and minds of cretins who remain convinced the color of their skin imbues them with any measure of value beyond the content of their character, should we not look for and root out all such symbols not just from above Columbia, but from our national landscape?

America is in its fifteenth year of war and armed conflict in the Middle East. However that period of conflict began, the lust with which we have continued the armed campaign and justified broadening the scope of violent intervention from its start in Afghanistan into Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria and Somalia—and threatening military action against Iran—sends a message to the world that our differences are best resolved at the end of a gun.

The United States currently has 2.2 million people behind bars. Our prison population is the highest of any country in the world and accounts for nearly ¼ of all the world’s prisoners. Our per capita rate of incarceration is second only to tiny Seychelles. The rapid growth of our prison population is not because of an increase in violent crime, but because of an increase of drug offences, the defunding of mental illness treatment programs and the closing of mental hospitals, and our politically-fueled desire to “get tough” on crime by passing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. Our criminal code sends the message that our differences are best resolved behind high walls.

The United States and Belarus are the only remaining countries in Europe and the Americas that exercise the death penalty. Thirty five people in 2014 and thus far in 2015 (as of June 18) seventeen have been put to death here. In Asia the death penalty is still law in 38 nations (most of which are either Islamic or autocratic) and actively used in 15. Only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and North Korea killed more prisoners than the U.S. In Africa the death penalty is legal in 35 countries but last year only four used it. The death penalty sends a message that our differences are best resolved at the end of a needle.

The ubiquity of video on social media has resulted in a steady stream disturbing images that seem to show police resorting to the use of force—sometimes deadly—as their first resort, even under questionable circumstances. Recent high profile cases such as the deaths of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio and Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as the overreaction of an officer responding to a pool party in McKinney, Texas have added to the growing perception of institutional racism within the ranks of law enforcement. The message seems to be that, when differences arise, violence is the first, best response.

Divisive political brinksmanship, played out each day on our televisions, newspapers and web sites, suggests that there is no more appetite in this country for civil dialog or respectful cooperation among people with differences of opinion. Instead we have mean-spirited, all-or-nothing negotiations stoked with heated rhetoric by politicians who seek to gain political leverage by fomenting an “us-versus-them” mentality among those who identify closely with one partisan ideology over another. The message is clear: when it comes to ideology, winning—at whatever cost—is how we determine right from wrong.

War, prison, execution, institutional brutality and the practice of partisan politics are indelible symbols that pervade our culture today. For those with weak, desperate and malleable minds who feel they are out of options for resolving their differences with others, what have they seen from Washington, D.C. or any of fifty state capitals that would cause them to temper their baser impulses? Why are we surprised to learn of more deaths?

Even if the Stars and Bars come down in South Carolina, what will we have accomplished if we fail to address these larger symbols of the way we do things around here? And if there are symbols that can encourage violence, what about those that do the opposite?

Even as one hurtful symbol yet flies above the city of Charleston, another is emerging from the sorrow of a congregation in mourning. I wept when I heard daughters and mothers and family members of the nine victims repeating the phrase “I forgive you” to the individual responsible for their grief.

"I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.”

“You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you."

“I forgive you and my family forgives you.”

Reverend Clementa Pinckney, murdered by a man he and his flock had welcomed into their spiritual home, had so clearly taught his congregation the message of the power of love and forgiveness that it would be a national embarrassment if the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, its nine martyrs and their strong, magnificent families did not become the enduring symbol that shows us the way forward. They, against all human instinct and impulse, have chosen a better way. Let us all determine to choose that way as well.

“Greater love hath no man…”

Reverend Clementa Pinckney
Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Cynthia Hurd
Susie Jackson
Ethel Lee Lance
Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Tywanza Sanders
Reverend Daniel Simmons
Myra Thompson


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