The Voices of Birmingham call Out to Charleston

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I know that not everything the Boxing Rabbi writes is met with universal acclaim.  Many of you who I respect greatly take differing views.  Such is the nature of taking any position on a difficult subject.  But i feel that racism is the defining issue of our time.  Here is my sermon from Friday night.

The Voices of Birmingham call Out to Charleston

In September of 1963, white racist terrorists placed a bomb underneath the stairs of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an African-American congregation. It was a Sunday morning and little girls and little boys were in Sunday School, learning their lessons when the bomb went off. The resulting explosion killed four little girls and wounded 22 more people. Just two weeks before, Martin Luther King had given his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the Mall in Washington, and Dr. King was invited to come to Birmingham to offer the eulogy for the children.

He said, in part –

“And yet they died nobly. These children are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon, in a real sense, they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every clergyman who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of the South, and the blatant hypocrisy of those in the North. They have something to say to every black person who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation, and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”

I wonder, fifty years later, if these four slain girls could speak, what they might say to us tonight in the wake of the horrific murders of nine Christian worshippers who had gathered to study the Holy Bible; the same Bible that is in your pews tonight, murdered by a white racist terrorist no different than the white racist terrorists who killed them on that Sunday morning.

If these four little girls could speak, they might say to us – why have you allowed white supremacist terror groups to go unchecked to the point that in the last ten years, more acts of violence have been committed in this country by American racists than by Muslins; and yet we fear and demonize Muslims and minimize the violence of white terrorists. These four girls might say to us, why have you allowed state governments, mostly in the South, to erode the voting rights of people of color; to make it more difficult to vote, to make it more difficult to participate in the democratic process? And why have you allowed the Supreme Court to repeal parts of the Voting Rights Act? A document signed not with your blood but with ours.

They might say to us:

Why have you found it acceptable for the first black President and his family – his little girls, to be compared over and over to animals and apes, to be the recipients of more death threats than any President in modern times?

Why have you allowed this? Why have you allowed black lives to be extinguished so easily by out-of-control law enforcements officers with a 12 year-old boy shot in Cleveland; a fifty year-old man shot in the back in North Charleston.

Why have you allowed this? Why have you permitted the airwaves and radio stations to be filled with racist and bigoted rants from pundits who have millions of listeners hanging on every vile word? In the fifty years since our death, why have you allowed this?

They would pose these questions, and I’m afraid that I would have no answer.

Tomorrow morning, three young people will be reading from the Torah portion called Korach. It’s a difficult portion, a challenging portion. There is little joy in it; there is no burning bush, no crossing of the Red Sea. It concerns a rebellion against Moses, led by his own cousin, Korach. Korach challenges the authority of Moses, declaring that any Israelite could lead. Who was Moses to raise himself over the people? And Moses is soon confronted by an angry, howling mob. It’s a difficult portion – but the ancient Rabbis felt it was one of the most important portions in the Torah. Because, they said, it teaches us how easy it is to find people who are willing to destroy and divide. How easy it is to find people who are willing to be accomplices to their division and destruction – and how hard it is to work for reconciliation and justice.

I think in the end, that is what I would have to say to these four little girls. I allowed these things because it was easy. It was easy to watch as increasingly openly racist politicians ascended to positions of power and influence both on the State and National level – I had other things to do. It was easy as voting rights for minorities were curtailed – I lead a busy life. It was easy. It was easy to sit idly by as the Voting Rights Act was gutted. It happened during the summer after all, and I was on vacation. And I don’t live in Cleveland or North Charleston or Ferguson, Missouri, so what happens there, doesn’t really concern my life.

Reading the portion of Korach, the Rabbis warned us that it was easy to divide and destroy, and hard to reconcile and bring together. And yet, I can no longer think of any task more sacred, more urgent, more holy, than this to address once and for all the scourge of racism in the country; to heal the divide, to eradicate the evil that poisons us.

In the Jewish tradition, when hearing of a death, it is customary to tear one’s clothing or to wear a ribbon that is torn. Thursday morning, as I awoke to the news of the killings in Charleston, I felt as if the very soul of this nation was being torn. It is up to us to suture the wound.

In the name of the four girls killed fifty years ago, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and in the name of those slain while studying Holy Scripture in Charleston: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor and Susie Jackson, in their names we pledge to pursue justice and reconciliation, peace and righteousness and the name of the church in Charleston was Emanuel

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