Our thoughts turn to the tragic event which took place in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine innocent human beings were savagely murdered for no reason save that they were black. Yet if this expression of savagery were not enough these innocent people were murdered in their church while studying sacred text.
A racist murdering innocent people is not a new phenomenon in our society. On September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama as church members prepared for Sunday services. The racially motivated attack killed four young girls and shocked the nation. “They died between the sacred walls of the church of God,” Reverend Martin Luther King said. “And they were discussing the eternal meaning of love.”
Black churches suffered at the hands of thugs and terrorists throughout the Civil Rights era, as they had for a century before, but such attacks aren’t a matter of remote history. As recently as the 1990s, a wave of fire-bombings hit black churches.
Congressional hearings were held in 1996 at the end of a two-year period when such arson spiked across the southeast. In South Carolina alone, black churches that suffered probable arson attacks included Mt. Zion AME Church in Williamsburg, Macedonia Baptist Church in Manning, Saint Paul Baptist Church in Lexington, Rosemary Baptist Church in Barnwell, St. John Baptist Church in Diana, Effington Baptist Church, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, and Allen’s Chapel. One member of Congress likened fire-bombings in those years to “the return of a biblical plague.” The most recent burning of a black church to make national headlines occurred in Massachusetts the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first black president. A white man was later convicted in what prosecutors called a racially motivated arson attack.
We Jews well-schooled in suffering and hatred must not be silent in the face of this growing hate. Not in our life-time and not in our nation can this evil abide.
Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, writes “We mourn the deaths of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, beloved church pastor and respected state senator, and of each of the other eight committed leaders of the Emanuel AME community whose lives were taken so tragically. All they wanted to do was learn and share the beauty of their sacred texts together in study. No one should ever have to face this fate simply because they wanted to learn more about their tradition. As Jews, so many times in the past, we have shared such pain, and it is our responsibility to speak out and work tirelessly to ensure that we fashion a world in which every religious tradition is respected and granted the basic human right of freedom to engage in religious study in peace.” Amen.